Episcopal and congregational

John Richardson has written a series of very interesting posts about ministry, see here, here and here.

This is an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about on my sabbatical (including reflections on the conference at Westcott I attended, and finally getting a chance to read Justin’s book) but I’ve held off from writing anything up as it has felt too much like ‘work’, which is something that I have been religiously avoiding. I’ll write something on those aspects in the New Year.

All I wanted to raise here is that, whenever talk about congregational funding of ministers is mooted – it is something which I feel is both inevitable and right – the spectre of ‘congregationalism’ is raised. We are Anglican, therefore we cannot be congregational!

So far as I can tell, this is a nonsense. To be an Episcopal church is to be governed by Bishops – to have ministers licensed by bishops acting under their authority, where the local priest represents the wider church to the parish and vice versa. The funding arrangements by which that minister is paid are irrelevant to whether a church is Episcopal or not.

Nor is it to say that there shouldn’t be a transfer of wealth from those that can afford it to those that can’t. Yet this does not have to be done on the model of state socialism; after all, we are Christians, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect people to give to worthy causes like spreading the gospel. Frankly, I can’t see any fundamental structural reform of the church being possible for as long as a parish share system is in place.

I also find it theologically dubious to see ‘inner city’ parishes as more demanding of resources than suburban or rural parishes. Having worked in both settings my principal reflection is that those in poorer areas rub much more closely against reality and limits, and this makes for a greater openness to the claims of faith. Those in comfortable, insulated, “rich” areas are a much harder field to plough. As John says, once a particular limit is reached – a limit which I would say is between 120 to 150 people in a congregation – then no further growth of ministry is possible, by a particular priest. (Of course, what this means is that the model of ministry needs to change: George Herbert must be killed.)

One last thing: John did a survey of parishes in his Episcopal area (which is the same as mine) and says “…there was actually a correlation between electoral roll size and parish population — but only until the parish population reached about 4,000. Below this number, a smaller parish population correlated with a smaller electoral roll. Once the electoral roll reached (on average) 110, however, an increase in parish population saw no corresponding increase in the electoral roll. Parishes of 7,000 and parishes of 17,000 still tended to have churches with electoral rolls of around 110.” This applies to Colchester Deanery, where the average ratio of full-time stipendiary to congregation is 1:110, but not to Mersea, where the ratio is 1:320 (total population c.9,000)! I had a long chat with my bishop about this, and we agreed that a) my ministry cannot replicate what has gone before (and it is self-destructive to try), and, b) Mersea is something of a pioneer, in that what is happening here is going to happen everywhere else before long.

Some relevant older posts: on workload, killing George Herbert and specifically on the size of this benefice.