The Church of England, it seems, is having a debate with itself about the future of traditional parishes alongside more informal, lay-led worshipping communities: ‘A church without walls’: Anglicanism divided on shift away from tradition | Anglicanism | The Guardian
Although the Church vehemently denies abandoning “old-style” and sometimes (though by no means always) ailing and declining parish congregations, it is inevitable that any resources devoted to “fresh expressions” are seen as a theft from where they “should be devoted”.
This has all happened before, of course. In the 1700s the work of John Wesley fostered scores of lay-led “societies” which sometimes were able to revitalise moribund parishes, but often were spurned by the traditional structures- which made Methodism became a separate denomination, which was never Wesley’s intention.
In the 1960s in Central and South America the Catholic Church was only too well aware that its priests and churches were concentrated in towns inhabited by landowners and middleclass people, leaving vast parishes of rural hamlets virtually without any pastoral ministry, beyond an occasional priestly visit for baptisms and weddings. The 1959 Cuban Revolution struck fear into their hearts that these rural workers, brutally exploited as they were by the landowners, would fall prey to Communism.
Hence many parishes, especially those run by priests from religious orders, Jesuits, Dominicans and the like, went out to the hamlets, and encouraged the community to elect “Delegates of the Word”, who would then be trained by the priests to conduct, not Sunday Masses, but “Celebrations of the Word”, based on the Gospel readings appointed for each Sunday. Over the next decades, these lay-led, local “Base Christian Communities” sprang up in many places.
But then something unexpected began to happen. As the Base communities read and discussed the Gospels Sunday by Sunday, many began to come to the conclusion that the circumstances of their lives, the economic exploitation they lived under, and the way they were regarded by their “betters”, was contrary to the will of God, a defiance of the Gospel Jesus constantly spoke about in his ministry. They began to organise themselves to bring about change.
To some people (including many Church people) this was nothing short of the Communism they had hoped to avoid. They sought to shut down these “rebellious” communities. New congregations, often encouraged by foreign missionaries, were set up, telling people that the Gospel is about “accepting” life now and going to heaven when you die, not about changing the world we live in now. Others, however, could see that the Base communities had begun to understand something about the Gospel that had been neglected and ignored for centuries, and found ways to support them.
If the Church of England is successful in its aim of fostering ten thousand lay-led “fresh expression” congregations, will something similar happen? Of course one major difference is that the overwhelming majority of the rural hamlets in Latin America were desperately poor, and inevitably saw the Gospel they were reading in terms of their own life experience. That will not be the case in Britain’s “Base Communities”- and we know that people’s life experience, especially whether they benefit from or are exploited by the prevailing economic and political structures under which they live, are very powerful influences in the way they understand the Gospel.
So, will these lay-led groups be able to develop a deeper and more realistic understanding of the Gospel than the traditional parishes, led as those are by theologically trained clergy? Unless “Save the Parish” succeeds in squashing these new initiatives (which seems unlikely) we could be in for some interesting times in the life of the Church of England in the coming years and decades