The Parish [Anglican Pioneer Ministry #2]

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Welcome to the second part of our mini-series on Pioneer Ministry and Anglican Identity.

In this post, we’re going to tackle the parish system, how it has formed Anglican ministry, and what this means for pioneering mission and ministry.

The origins of the parish

The parish system lies at the very heart of the structure of the Anglican church, to the extent that it is difficult to license the ministry of a church, unless it has a parish or territory (Rees, 2006). For Martyn Percy, the relationship between an Anglican church and its parish is hugely significant. He traces this relationship back to the Saxon age, writing:

In short, the viability of a church was deeply connected to the viability of a community; church and parish lived in a relation of intra-dependence… The church needed a parish; and the parish needed its church.

However, whilst clearly showing high regard for the vision of the parish, Percy  is also the first to admit that, in contemporary culture, the ideal of the parish church faces some difficult questions:

With the collapse of parochial identity in contemporary English culture, what can a Parish Church (sic) offer to its environment and to its people? And to what extent can a space such as a Parish Church be meaningfully spoken of when many people have lost their conscious sense of belonging to a parochial space?

The Lab and the parish system

The Lab originally emerged out of a group of young adults from across Newport who felt called to explore ways of being church for the wider young adult culture. Whilst a lot of our activities were based within St Paul’s city centre parish, the ‘people group’ we were seeking to engage with was not those living within a particular geographical area, but instead a particular age group or cultural grouping. As the Lab has developed, this spread across the different parish boundaries in Newport has continued. In 2008, a group of us felt called to mission alongside the local community on one of the old council estates on the edge of the city, and turning the parish’s unused vicarage into a community house. This meant that our work now overtly spanned two different parishes. Since then, two more foci of mission have emerged, one on another housing estate, and another which is about using music as a medium for mission in schools and therefore is engaging in ministry in schools right across Newport deanery. This focus on cultural groupings rather than geographical communities is a common tension for many different examples of pioneer ministry across the UK.

Is there a way forward?

What does this mean for The Lab as an Anglican form of ministry? Can The Lab be church in its own right, or does it need to be legitimated through integration into the parish system? Perhaps there is something important about the degree of separation and creative space between The Lab and local parishes, which enables pioneering mission to take place. But does this separation prevent The Lab and our ministry from being fully Anglican? This is a critical issue for Stephen Croft:

We need to connect everything together into one community… The fresh expressions of church need to be connected to the whole of the Christian tradition and the Church worldwide… This ministry of connection is vital if fresh expressions are to remain part of the Church of England and not spin off into their own denomination.

A ‘mixed economy’ of church?

Drawing on the notion of a ‘mixed economy of church’ coined by Rowan Williams, Croft suggests that the concept of ministry ‘in three dimensions’, drawn from Paul’s epistles and the beginning of Acts, can be a resource for understanding how to relate both inherited and fresh expressions of church together. This presents three separate but connected tasks of ministry:

  • Presbyteral ministry – responsible for “sustaining mature congregations”
  • Diaconal ministry – responsible for “establishing fresh expressions of church”
  • Episcopal ministry – responsible for “connecting the whole together”

For Croft, the key to resolving any tension between new and existing are these ‘connectors and enablers’ who fulfill the episcopal ministerial function. It is therefore down to the Bishop to hold together the new emerging and inherited forms of church under their responsibility. Within the Anglican model, a lot depends of the good will and provisional permission of the Bishop towards a fresh expression of church.

Bishop’s Mission Order

Within the mixed economy approach of the Church of England, the first provision made for fresh expressions of church which don’t fit the parish model is the Bishop’s Mission Order. The BMO provides space for a fresh expression to exist and have its own licensed clergy, and is worked out in negotiation with surrounding parishes.

Modal and Sodal

In his article, ‘The two structures for God’s redemptive mission‘, Ralph D. Winter suggests another resolution for this tension. Drawing on church history, he describes the way that the church throughout history has existed in both ‘modal’ and ‘sodal’ forms:

A modality is a structured fellowship in which there is no distinction of sex or age, while a sodality is a structured fellowship in which membership involves an adult second decision beyond modality membership, and is limited by either age or sex or marital status. In this use of these terms, both the denomination and the local congregation are modalities, while a mission agency or a local men’s club are sodalities.

Winter suggests the presence of these two forms of church in the New Testament by describing the difference between Paul, and others, who formed travelling sodal groups with a missionary focus, and the local modal expressions of Christianity, which they planted in the places they visited. He then draws a comparison between this and the difference between local parish churches and the many dispersed monastic missionary communities existing throughout church history. Finally, he suggests that the 19th century emergence of ‘missionary societies’ represents a rediscovery of sodal models of ministry following the reformation. Perhaps the already existing tradition of religious communities and orders within the Anglican Church present a precedent for missional communities like The Lab?

Acknowledged Religious Communities

In the same way as religious (monastic) communities are able to be thoroughly Anglican and provide a supportive role for the wider church, whilst still maintaining their own individual identity and structure, perhaps the same could be true for pioneering communities. The new monastic community Moot, who are based at St Mary Aldermary in Central London, are already exploring this route of being acknowledged as a religious community in the Church of England. And the Church Mission Society, which is really at its heart a very old missional community responsible for supporting pioneers across the world for several centuries, is already an acknowledged part of the Church of England.

In the third part of the series, we’ll look at the key practice of Sacramental Worship, and it’s implications for pioneer mission and ministry.

Check out the other posts in this series:

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About the author: James Henley
James Henley
James has been with The Lab since 2007 and leads our team. He's an ordained pioneer minister in the Church in Wales.
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