Save the Parish - a view from Peter Bellenes
I think the time has arrived when the Church of England is at a crossroads
On country mornings sharp and clear
The penitent in faith draw near
And kneeling here below
Partake the heavenly banquet spread
Of sacramental Wine and Bread
And Jesus' presence know.
And must that plaintive bell in vain
Plead loud along the dripping lane?
And must the building fall?
Not while we love the church and live
And of our charity will give
Our much, our more, our all.
“Save the Parish”
I think the time has arrived when the Church of England is at a crossroads and the real need has arisen to promote
and protect the vital role of the parish church as part of the glorious inheritance of the
national Church. A time to counteract any notion that clergy, their theological training and our
buildings are “limiting factors” as some would have it. I would invite everyone to watch the video of the inaugural meeting in August:
Save the Parish – YouTube:
At the inaugural meeting Rev’d Professor Alison Millbank of Nottingham University declared
we are at a crossroads in determining the future of the Church of England. Are we to
continue to be a Church for all people or a sect? If the former, then maintaining the parish
structure is vital to that end. However, she highlighted that sustainability of the parish
structure is seriously threatened by plans for widespread church plants. Professor Millbank
alluded to her study which showed such plants gave scant support to the parishes within
whose boundaries they were set and drew on average 35 to 38% of the congregation of the
existing parish. That is a direct hit at the sustainability of most parishes.
In his address at the same meeting Rev’d Stephen Trott, member of General Synod and a
Church Commissioner, reminded us of the transfer of parish endowments and glebe to the
national Church back in 1976 to fund uniform stipends for parish clergy. In view of what is
happening to the central resources and how they are being directed he thought that
experiment could be said to have clearly failed. I would liken it to an insurance company
taking your cash for an annuity and then telling you to be self-supporting in retirement.
I would ask how can we ask the same MMF from a parish that has seen
services reduced from twice on a Sunday to once a month? How with imagination might we
serve such a parish better?
In Truro diocese I have served as honorary curate first at Liskeard and
then later at Menheniot to free up the vicar to lead the Decade of Evangelism efforts in
Cornwall. In 1999 I transferred to Exeter Diocese to take up the role of team vicar of Marldon
& Berry Pomeroy returning to Cornwall in 2009 to be near my grandchildren. At Marldon and
Berry Pomeroy I led the use of Communion by Extension as a diocesan experiment
approved by the bishop. It proved a successful way of releasing the abilities of several in the
Totnes Team congregations to lead worship and at the same time maintaining sacramental
services weekly in all the 7 parishes of the widespread rural team.
I went on Sabbatical 15 years ago to the USA and discovered how RC parishes were kept
alive by lay pastors under the oversight of the ordained clergy. The pastors were a focus for
parish life and events and their existence a response to communities wanting to keep their
local worship centre. I reflected on that experience when one Anglican bishop said to me
pastoral reorganisation was difficult in the Church of England because Catholics went to
Mass and Anglicans went to church – i.e. they don’t travel ! Perhaps the RCs in the USA can
show us different ways of maintaining a “parson” in the parish, sustaining the local link?
In retirement I helped out in the early days during vacancies in the east of the Truro diocese and
later for four years as Honorary Rector of Duloe & Herodsfoot where I served as a governor
and worship leader at the primary school. I continue to hold PTO and regularly lead services
still at Herodsfoot, a country parish. While rector of Herodsfoot we developed the parish church as a festival
church in embryo. The national director of the Festival Churches Association visited us at
Herodsfoot and invited me to give a presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Association.
I was able to show how a small very rural church can survive, remain to serve their locality
and enjoy the support and engagement of the local population.
Throughout my time in parish life I have experienced the importance of the parish church as
the beating heart of rural communities bringing vitality to village life. Parish church
sponsored activities are a powerful way of engaging with the wider community. These
activities also underline that there are many facets to the ministry of all believers. Church life
is like gardening and if I can quote Kipling:
For, except when seeds are planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.....
Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-" Oh, how beautiful," and sitting in the shade
Revd Peter Bellenes