The Leicester Challenge to the Parish System? Stephen Parsons

Those of us who were ordained some years ago will sometimes express puzzlement at the terminology used to describe the work of the parish church today.

The Leicester Challenge to the Parish System? Stephen Parsons

Those of us who were ordained some years ago will sometimes express puzzlement at the terminology used to describe the work of the parish church today. We may have a special problem with the word ‘mission’ as it is sprinkled throughout many church documents. I expressed bafflement at the use of the word by the diocese of Winchester. The diocesan slogan, ‘Living the Mission of Jesus’ has no obvious meaning, even though we could hazard a guess at what the author had in mind. I wonder what the next Bishop of Winchester will do with this catchphrase and whether it will be quietly shelved along with other initiatives designed to make the diocese more mission aware. For clergy of my vintage, mission in a parish was what we were trying to do all the time. The work of prayer and worship, good pastoral care, learning and spiritual growth gave to each congregation a spiritual dynamic which, we hoped, would overflow into the wider community. People did not necessarily come to the church, but the faithful living out of the reality of God by those who did, could act like yeast working on the dough. There was mission and growth, though such growth was seldom spectacular. The Church, in short, was an institution which, in many places, dovetailed into the wider society. This was in spite of the fact that only a small minority supported it by their presence and their financial giving. As William Temple put it, the Church is the only organisation set up for the benefit of those who are not its members.

he mission imperative being loudly proposed for congregations everywhere has now become so ubiquitous in church documents that many are wondering if this involves a fundamental change in the old understanding of the role of the parish church in society. Mission seems to mean making new disciples as the number one priority. The implications of this understanding of the word are profound, practically and theologically. The old model saw the presence of God everywhere, even among those who did not attend church or want anything to do with the Church’s teaching. The new use of the word mission seems to regard society beyond the congregation being a mission-field, full of the unsaved. Everyone who does not come to church is deemed to be in need of saving or rescuing. The imperative is for us to go out to rescue these unsaved people and pull them out of the fire as though they were burning sticks which are potentially lost for ever. The older gentle agnosticism about the fate of non-churchgoers that the yeast dough model implied, seems to be out of fashion. The old vision of the parish church being a spiritual hub at the heart of every community also seems to be less in vogue. We believed that when the prayerful and dedicated work of Christian people in a community is being accomplished, there will always be trickle of new people coming in. They will arrive wanting to find what it is that inspires these acts of service and generosity on the part of Christians.

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