Monday, November 29, 2010

English Church Buildings

November 29, 2010

Our friend Giles Fraser has written an article for the Church Times making a utilitarian case fro the maintenance of Church buildings in England rather than their being ‘sold off’ as ‘too expensive. He writes “As the new National Churches Trust survey makes absolutely clear, the 47,000 places of worship in the UK provide the backbone of civil society.”

While this may or may not be a bit grandiose, he addresses neither the problem of who should pay for the upkeep and maintenance of these buildings, nor the opportunity cost in terms of mission for doing so.

My father is treasurer of a small church. A three minute walk across the fields brings you to either the church in Little Thurlow or the church in Great Thurlow depending on which way you walk. These two pretty village church buildings are part of an eight parish cure currently in need of a Rector. In spite of relatively successful “cure services” where everyone is expected to go to a single service once a month or so, the real desire of the villagers is to have ‘their’ church maintained and used. Last Sunday 15 people were reported present for a ‘Service of the Word’ led by a lay reader.

My middle brother is part of a different eight parish cure. His rector announced last Sunday that he was leaving for a single parish cure in another county. There were seven people present that day including the rector and his wife and retired priest.

I don’t know the ins and outs of financing the maintenance of these buildings. I do know that the Diocese continues to take and distribute the lion’s share of any money collected for all the good work that churches do together such as work in schools, prisons, hospitals and other institutions of society within the diocesan boundaries. I also know that the system is ‘top down’ and pretty dispiriting for those charged with raising the money and keeping the buildings open.

Both sets of villages are assured that it will be ‘a while’ before they can expect to have a rector. Not too many people are looking to do ‘rural ministry’, and when they are, they are more likely to be interested in those places where a single congregation can afford to sustain a rector by themselves.

So back to the buildings. There is no doubt that Canon Fraser is right and that these places of worship are integral to the life and history of the localities in which they are found. Many struggling parishes could manage a lot better fi they were able to ‘keep’ more of the money they raised and were granted more autonomy as to how to spend that money. Nonetheless it is really hard to see how a handful of parishioners can afford to maintain a medieval building, let alone support their clergy. In the age of fast cars it is worth noting that both my parents and my brothers can be at a Cathedral for worship within a 20 minute drive on a Sunday.

I’m glad this is not my problem to solve, but I would have to be thinking along the lines of helping congregations develop a plan to grow in their support of the work they carry out, including the maintenance of buildings. If in, say, five years they were not able to make it, then they would have a number of options for ‘Plan B’—mothballing, closing or selling some buildings. Part of the plan could include merging some of the institutional and diocesan responsibilities with parish expectations.

I’m perfectly certain there are hundreds of ‘reasons’ why such an approach is not acceptable to one party or another, but surely something has to give if the Church of England is to be a vital force that can really serve as “the backbone of civil society’.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Proposed Anglican Covenant Limps Along

November 28, 2010
The First Sunday in Advent

The First Sunday in Advent seemed a good time to return to occasional ‘blogging’ in and for our parish. The proposed Anglican Covenant is a necessary, albeit, unfortunate topic.

The Covenant was first proposed in “The Windsor Report” as a response to conflict among Anglicans following the Consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Some Anglicans refused to attend Holy Communion with others as a result.

What has emerged since those days are two key developments. One is that a number of Anglicans have decided to follow a path of ‘purity of doctrine’ which mostly seems to mean in practice a denial of the full humanity of women (at least as far as the Church is concerned) and the condemnation of homosexuality. A not insignificant number of Episcopalians have left The Episcopal Church and joined a new denomination of self-styled Anglicans. Some provinces, notably in Africa, have ‘recognized’ and declared themselves ‘in communion’ with this new effort.

The other key development is that the Archbishop of Canterbury has thrown his weight and authority behind the development of an Anglican Covenant that is now making its way through the provinces of the Communion for ‘response’. The ‘driver’ for this wordy effort is found in the commentary on the controversial section 4.2 which reads “From our recent history it is evident that some developments bring dispute, disruption and tension. The clear majority of responses demonstrated that a section of the Covenant which seeks to provide an ordered way for the Communion to approach disagreement remains a necessary feature of the Covenant.” The effort is to provide some means of resolving disputes without disrupting the Communion. The key principles are ‘inter-dependence and mutual accountability’.

The Archbishop told the General Synod of the Church of England that without the Covenant we could expect the dismantling of the Communion ‘piece by piece’. The commentary on section 4.2 of the document acknowledges, then dismisses, my position. “There remains in some quarters a lingering feeling that being in communion requires only positive affirmation and encouragement.” I would not characterize my position as “a lingering feeling”, nor as the belief that ‘being in communion requires only positive affirmation and encouragement”. I would characterize my position as the belief that “being in Communion requires being in communion or table fellowship irrespective of cultural differences.”

I see no good coming from continued efforts to keep this thing alive, especially in light of a statement made by leaders of the conservative movement known as GAFCON in the middle of the General Synod of the C of E saying that the Covenant is not satisfactory to them as it does not go far enough.

We have learned in this country that there really is no placating the group that wants a church founded on some notion of ‘purity of doctrine’ rather than the infinitely more messy search for ‘right relationship’, itself a gift of grace when made manifest, and in whose service doctrine is developed, put to use, and modified over time. The foundation for any scheme of union has been and should remain the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.For these reasons I have signed on to a group led by an international group of respected ‘bloggers’ called “No Anglican Covenant”.
We may well wind up with a number of provinces ‘signing on’. They, presumably, would be the ones invited to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s every-ten-year-gathering. Those who do not sign on might be accorded some kind of observer status or could possibly free up a great deal of money for mission rather than meetings. I’m not knocking meetings and I’m not knocking costly investment in relationship. I’m pointing out that should Anglicanism be defined by our having some central ‘Standing Committee’ who can help us find our way through the ‘relational consequences of serious disputes’, that our not being invited to the party is not the end of the world.