Sam Norton on the Future of the Church of England

Controversial, but powerful stuff.

The general problem remains, however. The nature of the ministry than a priest is called to, in the way that Rowan articulates, is – to generalise hugely – a ministry that will become rarer and rarer in the Church of England today, and that means that there is something profoundly wrong somewhere. So what is to be done? How are we to cultivate an ordained ministry that enables a witness to the full humanity that is the inheritance of every member of the Kingdom? I’m starting to wonder if it’s possible, or whether there needs to be a massively more traumatic shift in the Church of England in order to enable it. As I said to one group the other day, the church on Mersea – understood as a community – has been gathered together for a good 1400 years, only the last 450 or so of which have been under the auspices of the Church of England. It may well be that the present institutional arrangements have to break down comprehensively before something new can be released.

What might that look like? Well how about these proposals as food for thought: the abolition of the parish system and parish boundaries, the abolition of parish share, leaving each congregation to pay for its own minister(s), the abolition of Church House and all the financial arrangements there, and the abolition (or, realistically, the massive simplification) of the faculty process. Most of the disagreements I’ve come across to such proposals take the form of saying ‘the Church of England has to be in every place’ (which is a good ideal that I support, although we ought to be realistic and say a) we don’t achieve that now and b) why can’t we be ecumenical about it and say, eg, ‘here the Methodists are the Body of Christ’ in this place?) or, what would happen to the poor churches that can’t afford their own minister? Well that latter assumes that Christians don’t wish to exercise Christian charity – a very telling assumption – and ignores the pre-20th century history of, for example, all the work done in the East End by the slum priests. This is not congregationalism – after all, the financial and faculty elements to be removed haven’t been in place for very long – a hundred years, if that. What I’m advocating is a radical shift in power away from twentieth century centralisation and back towards the local autonomy that has, for most of our history, characterised the English church.

I just have a suspicion that, in the environment into which we are moving, with more and more incumbents having to stretch across large multi-parish benefices (see eg here – it is highly likely that the Mersea patch will be expanded by yet more parishes in the next few years), the institutional side needs to become much more streamlined and simplified. I think that would make for happier incumbents.

FWIW, I think he’s on the right track.

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