But the biggest stir has been created by Stephen Bould, of St Peter's, Folkestone, who has gone one better and announced that his whole parish is going to cross over to "the other side" (that's my quote, not his). Although there has been no official response from his Diocese, or the Church of England nationally, this has sparked a lively debate. The main question is whether it's actually possible for a whole parish to simply leave the Church. Is the Ordinariate just for priests? What would be the legal status of a parish that stepped outside the system? And, most pressingly to a certain kind of churchperson's mind, what happens to the building?
The general assumption seems to be that there can be no question that the people of St Peter's would be allowed to keep their church building if they were to join the Roman Catholic Church. Many comments have been along the lines of "why should they be allowed to pinch our churches for free?". But the question needs to be asked, "Why not?"
The parish churches are not the property of Church of England plc. They are held in trust for the people of the nation, and if some of the people want to do something a bit different with them, then that needs to be taken seriously. The Church of England has many weaknesses at this point in time, but lack of buildings is not one of them. It's well documented that the Victorian enthusiasm for building new churches was never really matched by the number of people who actually wanted to go to them. This over-enthusiasm for bricks and mortar left the Church of England with a physical legacy that has been a millstone ever since, and remains a burden which hampers our mission today. Most Dioceses have few qualms about allowing redundant churches to become museums, craft centres or tasteful housing developments. Is it really so radical to consider allowing them to become churches?
Because of the Victorian over-building of churches, many towns are now saddled with far more parish churches than they really need, leading to duplication of effort when economy would serve the cause of mission far better. There are places not a million miles from where I am sitting that would fit this description perfectly. A quick scan of the Diocese of Canterbury's website shows that there seem to be at least nine church buildings within the urban area of Folkestone, which is an important place in the economy of East Kent, but hardly metropolitan in size. I would have thought the Bishop of Dover should be rushing off to the PCC of St Peter's with the title deeds even as I write.
What would happen if they were allowed to keep their building and leave the Church of England? The Diocese would still have eight churches to play with in Folkestone, and the ninth would continue as a place of Christian worship, which would look to most people exactly the same as it did before. Let the departing few keep their churches. It's not as if they are taking them anywhere.