Conservatives in the CofE can learn from 'Save the Parish'

The Save the Parish (StP) movement is challenging bureaucratic centralism in the Church of England with style and intellectual panache.

At November's General Synod meeting, two StP leaders in particular, Rev Marcus Walker, who combines a Trollopean manner with a fierce intelligence, and Prudence Dailey, who is as sharp as tack in debate, ran intellectual rings around CofE managers.

During the Synod's budget session they deftly raised the question of why the investment surplus of over £500m which the Church Commissioners earned during the pandemic could not be ploughed into frontline parishes. They are now working to get a full debate on that issue.

The Archbishops are feeling they have to tug their forelocks to StP after the success of its candidates in September's General Synod elections.

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, who is leading the Vision and Strategy process that has been ruffling feathers in CofE parishes, flattered the movement in his Synod address.

"If you are elected on a Save the Parish ticket, you are not a loyal opposition. I am with you," he told newly-elected members.

In denying that StP is an opposition party, Archbishop Cottrell may have been trying to reassure himself but StP's stated objectives would seem to contradict his consensual soundbite.

StP organiser Marcus Walker in his recent interview for Christian Today revealed his plan for "a formal structure" within the CofE.

StP is "working out ways to funnel money back upstream to the parishes and allowing people on the ground to have the resources they need to thrive," he said.

"For all of these we are going to need to create, and are well on the way to creating, a formal structure and a means of receiving and spending money on these projects, while harnessing the amazing experience of our supporters across the land."

How can there be any doubt about StP's strategic intentionality? 

Yet in ignoring the spiritual and moral elephant in the CofE's room, StP could end up being an entertaining sideshow.

In fudging the hotly disputed question of what the CofE's sexual ethic should be, the question arises whether StP is contributing to the confusion on a primary theological issue in order to build a broad political coalition.

The movement is unashamed about wanting to unite Anglicans concerned to preserve the parish system but who disagree on whether the CofE should change its teaching on marriage and sexuality. Though the Book of Common Prayer, which Walker treasures, is clear that sex is only for heterosexual marriage, he refuses to reveal his view on the sexuality issue.

So, how should conservative Anglicans respond to StP?

For conservative and charismatic evangelicals in large, well-resourced CofE churches, StP is an irrelevance. Their numerical and financial success means they do not need it. If anything, should StP succeed in preventing new church plants from cutting across traditional parish churches, it may become a nuisance to the larger evangelical flagship churches in their aim to plant new congregations.

But StP clearly resonates with conservative Anglicans in small, struggling parish churches. They are dismayed at the proliferation of roving "pioneer ministers", "diversity officers" or "associate archdeacon - mission and transition enablers".

The treasurer at their church has sleepless nights worrying about where the money will come from for the 'parish share' - the quota that parishes pay to their dioceses to cover the cost of their vicar's housing and salary. But the diocese seems to have money for central posts with fancy titles. For a beleaguered parish church, what is there not to like about StP?

But it is worth asking whether the coalition's embracing of opposing views on a primary biblical issue might come at too great a cost.

Surely conservative churches in the CofE, large and small, should already be building escape tunnels into a new orthodox Anglican Province in the UK? They may not have to use them yet, but should the CofE choose to ditch the biblical sexual ethic and turn itself into a socially Marxist pressure group with a smattering of religion, the exit routes would surely be needed.

Why have the larger conservative churches in the CofE not created their own central fund in order to help smaller churches get off the sinking ship into a new sea-worthy Anglican vessel? Were such a fund in place with duly appointed trustees, small churches could be given grants to help house and support their minister and rent a place to meet outside the CofE.

If the central trust were properly run and grants given on a fair and accountable basis, financial support would not be restricted to the cronies of the large church ministers.

Surely conservatives in the CofE need to be as intentional and smart as StP if there is to be a future for orthodox Anglicans and their Gospel witness in the UK?