By George Sumner
There is quite the row in the Church of England at present over the ambitious proposal called “Myriad” for the launching of 10,000 churches by 2030. One can detect amidst the heated debate pre-existing factors of churchmanship and of the Fresh Expressions movement (which, it should be noted, was warmly endorsed by the catholic Archbishop Rowan Williams). Strained church budgets never bring out the best in us, especially in the wake of a pandemic. But, while the circumstances of the Mother Church are different, there are real questions of ecclesiology and mission here which have implications for us in the Episcopal Church as well.
We do well at the outset to acknowledge some facts. First, the financial underpinnings of the Church of England are already under considerable stress. “Keep calm” is good advice, but just “carry on” won’t be enough. The same could be said of the Episcopal Church, though we have yet to see the extent of our problem. Secondly, the world’s largest Anglican provinces do indeed have a myriad of lay-led small congregations, which do grow. So the idea of rethinking theological education, buildings, stipendiary clergy in light of this is not crazy. To be sure, I am speaking of the churches of sub-Saharan Africa, where stick-and-mud buildings can often be put up or taken down over a week’s time. And on the positive side of the ledger, they have a system of local or bush Bible schools where catechist/evangelists can be readily trained (as well as an evangelical ethos centered on proclamation). Thirdly, we must admit that our world was once closer to what is here proposed than we often remember. Your parish was planted by someone. Your congregation may have had strong chapters of women’s or men’s or missionary groups, which promoted various missional projects. Our prior economy was more mixed than we now recall.
None of this makes the planting of a myriad of congregations easy, not least because of our own congregationalist spirit, episcopacy or no episcopacy. Fourth, though we all imagine our parishes to be friendly, we have to admit that church plants, difficult to sustain to be sure, have certain advantages. Everyone is new, and for many that makes joining and staying easier. These four facts at least show us that the “Myriad” moment raises questions closer to home than we at first suppose.
Buried in the proposal’s briefing document is a key phrase describing one goal: a “revitalized parish system.” We err by supposing that these are competing ecclesiological visions implying a zero-sum game. Instead, think both/and! Actually, vigorous parishes are the condition for the possibility of such an expansion. Like satellites or spokes, those house churches, fresh expression communities, ecclesiolae, prayer/Bible study affinity groups, need to be in relation to parishes where the sacraments are celebrated, buildings provide a place for in-gathering, and theologically trained clergy provide leadership. Here too Africa is a good example, where there are often seminary trained clergy in towns, with a more substantial church building, who do their visitations to the outstation churches as archdeacons, whether or not they have the title. And in the Church of England itself, the leadership for Fresh Expressions came from places like Ridley, Cambridge, and the Alpha movement was born at Holy Trinity, Brompton.
The common thread is traditional ecclesial institutions with an evangelistic vision and solid scriptural theological education, and the clear intention of training leaders to send out. On these conditions — not in opposition to institutions but proceeding from them, but with a renewed clarity and focus — all the parties to the Church of England debate should be able to agree, as should we, though it will in fact require of us more counting of the cost than we at first suppose.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.