Monday, October 18, 2010

C of E has churches it can spare

The first Anglo-catholic clergy are breaking ranks and declaring that they will take up the Pope's offer of a free transfer, otherwise known as the Ordinariate. Last week the Bishop of Fulham picked up his ball and walked off the pitch, with a departing blast of extraordinary bile against the Church of England, drawing predictably rude responses from others, all of which is rather dispiriting.

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.

5 comments:

The Church Mouse said...

I'm sure you're right on much here. Interestingly the decision of St. Peter's, Folkestone, was not put to the congregation. As such, I think it would be wrong to say that the parish is moving en masse. They average 35-40 at their main service, so it is not exactly thriving at the moment, and since they weren't consulted by their PCC it strikes me as unlikely that they will all want to become Roman Catholics.

On the issue of church buildings, I can't see how handing the buildings over to the RC Church helps the issue of there being too many of them. The RC Church also has too many churches for their congregations. Would they really want another one in Folkestone to accomodate the 30ish people from St. Peters?

I agree on one level that these buildings are held in trust for the people, but they are not supported out of the public purse. If that were the case, then I think it would be a very different situation (and a preferable one to my mind).

Revd John P Richardson said...

Many folks here in England have looked askance at TEC suing for the retention of buildings. Here is a genuine opportunity to do something different - even it simply means following the Apostolic injunction that we should rather be defrauded ourselves than take another Christian to court to sue them. (Sort of reminds me of something Jesus said as well.)

Charlie said...

Thanks Mouse. I take the point but I am looking at it specifically from the C of E point of view. If there are too many Anglican churches in Folkestone (for example), this could just be a convenient and easy way of shedding one. It would also be the least painful way for the existing congregation, who in the short term probably wouldn't experience a huge difference to their church experience.

The Church Mouse said...

John - would be dreadful if we ended up going down the route that the TEC and ACNA have. Of course the TEC perspective would be that ACNA have stolen the churches, so they're perfectly entitled to try to get them back. There has been hurt on both sides.

Charlie - I do take the point about what to do when there are too many churches in an area. I can walk to 5 other CofE churches in 10 minutes from my church, and none of them are full. Some are virtually empty. It is sheer madness. However handing these churches over to tiny congregations with little hope of growth cannot be a sensible answer for the mission of the church.

Alan Crawley said...

Good idea, although I don't think that the church could legally give the church away - as a charity we have to get the best deal we can, so as long as the Catholics can pay a better price than anyone else... If of course the RC hierarchy want to do that.