Earlier this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the US and Canada, and rather to my surprise found myself learning from a true expert what parish ministry is all about. Churches in N America are all (stereotypically) gathered congregations of the like-minded and often the like-skinned – but amidst that there has been a return to the idea of “the parish” – driven not by the churches you might expect, but by a motley collection of Anabaptists, Presbyterians and – in particular for me – a Baptist minister.
Grandview Calvary Baptist Church doesn’t to UK ears sound like it’s going to be a place of radical hospitality, a rich and disciplined common life of prayer and service, and deep commitment to a local community in all its variety and diversity. I wasn’t expecting to see the Stations of the Cross either. But all of those things were there. I took the Skytrain over to what is now an increasingly trendy part of Vancouver, in the same way that Hackney is a trendy part of London. That is to say, there is an overlay of young professionals, but the majority of the people are poor and there is a great diversity of ethnicities and social groups. After fifteen years in Islington and then Stoke Newington, I felt right at home.
Tim Dickau has been the minister at GCBC since 1989. He describes the question that faced the church at the time he arrived this way:
We were at a crossroads that many churches at the end of Christendom have had to face. Would we continue on as a chaplaincy supporting the present members until their death? Or would we face this death, which after all is so entwined with the story of Jesus, and share in the larger mission of Christ by living out the gospel in our changing neighbourhood?
GCBC did face up to the death of Christendom, and it has found new life. And lest UK readers think “it’s OK for them, there are loads of Christians in N America” – this is an area which recorded 31% ‘no religion’ in the 1981 Census. I wonder what it’s up to now?
Tim took me for a walk around the neighbourhood. He knew pretty well everyone, and they knew him: it was like being with a parish priest in the CofE who really knows, loves and walks their patch. But for him and for his community, discovering a local, neighbourhood, ‘parish’ ministry has been a voyage of deliberate discovery and exploration. It has involved huge change and a commitment to keep going through significant downs as well as ups. It’s been no quick fix. Among other things, it has made me question the now-conventional wisdom that clergy ‘should’ move on after say, seven to ten years. I don’t think any of what I saw at GCBC would have taken root without Tim’s constancy of vision and commitment to that place.
As I left, Tim generously gave me a copy of his book Plunging into the Kingdom Way (from which the quotation above is taken). One of the joys of being on sabbatical is catching up on some of those books which accumulate unread; as I’ve been reading Tim’s book, I’ve been struck once again and even more, how he has a huge amount to teach us in the CofE about renewing our parish life in a post-Christendom setting. (I’ve also been reminded not to judge a book by its cover or title!)
Parishes, and all our structures around them, were constructed for a world in which the services of the church were a natural part of the life of the community. That just doesn’t apply any more in most places. In the parishes under my care, especially the suburban ones, Christendom church is now a living reality only for the older generation (though the part of my patch south of the M25 seems to be an exception). Last year’s Church Times survey found that parish clergy were, perhaps unsurprisingly, deeply committed to the parish system. So am I. But that doesn’t mean it will be the same in another generation as it is now. In fact, if it is to exist in another generation, it will have to be on the path to a radical transformation.
We need to be taught how to renew our parishes, and this word from someone who carries none of our baggage is I think hugely important. But don’t just take my word for it: read, mark, learn, inwardly digest.