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Is the Church Abandoning the Rural?


Last Thursday evening I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the first of the Faith Debates on the Future of the Church of England organised by Linda Woodhead and colleagues at the University Church. This opening debate was on the future of the parish system. Four distinguished speakers offered their thoughts: a representative of Radical Orthodoxy from Cambridge, deeply committed to a vision of both church and theology which felt like a throwback to a different era; an entrepreneur who provided upbeat examples of what churches with extensive capacity could do; a sociologist of religion, himself a non-stipendiary Minister who advocated this pattern of ministry as the way to the future; and then a Canon Missioner from Exeter who actually had some recent parish experience. My role was to throw a spanner in the works and to challenge each of their interpretations of where the parish system is in reality, although the speaker from Exeter was also close to the mark on this.

Had there been more chance to expand my brief contribution I would have pointed out that “parishes” are no longer the correct unit of currency, certainly in the more rural areas, and that it is benefices or clusterings of parishes that make up the majority of charges for rural clergy. As it was I could only mention lack of capacity as the major inhibiting factor, along with a lack of critical mass of people to populate new initiatives and the problem of lack of continuity of contact for most rural clergy who do not even see their regular congregations sometimes for weeks on end, as they dash from church to church and meeting to meeting. I was informed by the entrepreneur that this was a problem of “mind set” not capacity, and I would love to have invited him to my own benefice where we have worked on a raft of new initiatives, but without the people to cooperate on these, success is inevitably limited.

Two other factors are worth a mention. The first is that there is a glut of clergy of my generation coming up to retirement over the next five years, more than will be replaced by new recruits, and that the policy in my Diocese at least, is to redeploy the remaining resources into the urban areas and new towns. This will further reduce the numbers of clergy for rural benefices. Then there is the challenge of recruiting ministers in the first place into the ever expanding rural empires. Who, in their right mind, wants to be running a scattered benefice of 12 small churches struggling to pay their parish share let alone for the upkeep of their buildings? One can generate as many exciting new ideas as possible, such as that of ‘Festival Churches’ which are only used for occasional offices and Harvest, Christmas etc., but none of this is, in itself, going to stem the continued decline of rural churches and congregations. A friend who was with me has the experience of worshipping in a remote rural deanery with 27 churches where, at the moment, there are only two full time stipendiary incumbents and one lone curate. The development of lay ministry which should have been further encouraged 25 years ago when there was still time and energy seems to have been blocked by a hierarchy afraid of losing control, or simply not interested in the smaller benefices out on the margins. So, like the other denominations before it, the CofE is effectively abandoning its rural presence and focusing its resources on the centres of population.

Only four days later, a report was published on the future of church rural primary schools which concluded that “the days of small autonomous rural primary schools are numbered”.  Despite subsequent attempts to row back from what reads as a very negative response to the problem, there is a failure to face up to how and why this pressure on rural schools has come about. In an article in the Daily Telegraph by the Bishop of Oxford, current Chair of the Board of Education, the reason given for the threats of closure and amalgamation are simply those of financial pressures. Those pressures have been there for well over 30 years and led already to the closure of rural schools. I would suggest rather the current pressure is a direct effect of government policy of Academies which results in any school with less than 250 pupils not being financially viable as a stand-alone Academy and thus facing merger or closure. Somehow this stark fact is being lost or quietly buried beneath the “spin” of all the new initiatives which such schools can take such as hosting Post Offices on their premises!

The reality is the Church of England is so worried about losing government funding (which accounts for 90% of its funds for schools) and thus its stake in the formal education system, that it is prepared to collude with Coalition education policy rather than rock the boat by challenging it. The hope is that its own Diocesan Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) which become the umbrella replacement LEAs for some of its church schools, will be effective enough to maintain a church presence in at least some areas. The impact, however, is that those small church schools on the margins of the urban areas and often with challenging financial and teaching scenarios, will not be wanted by such Diocesan MATs as they are desperate to recruit “good schools” rather than problematic ones. Once again then, this is a policy for abandoning the rural. It has been pointed out that for many rural clergy it is their contact with the local schools that is the main channel of outreach. Remove the schools, or absorb them into larger units managed from outside the benefice, and that channel is closed for good.

I am not arguing that abandoning the rural is a deliberate strategy of the Church of England – that would be to assume that the CofE is capable of a deliberate strategy on anything – but that, like it or not, this will be the impact of current trends and decisions. Perhaps it is time for a dose of honesty and realism so that those of us who continue to be committed to some form of rural ministry can at least know where we stand.

Revd. Dr John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

John Reader will be running a workshop at ‘Reclaiming the Public Space’ on 10th November in Manchester. Other speakers including Linda Woodhead, Craig Calhoun, Elaine Graham, Raymond Plant and more. Book Now!  

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‘Paradigm Change in Theology’ Was Published 25 Years Ago, But the Time Is Now!

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In 1989 Hans Kung and David Tracy published Paradigm Change in Theology based on a symposium held at the University of Tubingen. Contributors included such high profile names as Moltmann, Schillebeeckx, Boff, Gilkey and Cobb. The subject areas covered included hermeneutics; scientific theory and theology; political dimensions of a new theological paradigm; feminist and liberation theologies and relationship with other faiths. Were they right to flag-up such fundamental changes, and, if so, where are we now?

Looking at theology within the Church of England twenty five years on, one might be forgiven for concluding that far from signaling a paradigm change, what we have seen is a regression to a pre-Enlightenment understanding that plays into the hands of a hierarchy nervous about its loss of authority, and a communitarianism which extols the virtues of practical action at the cost of any serious theological reflection. Like political culture the emphasis is upon presentation (or “spin”) rather than substance or critical engagement. Although forms of political engagement were driving forces behind the original book, nothing much has come of these since, and those who look for a more radical approach have been marginalized by both church and theological establishment. So it is time to revisit the notion of a paradigm change for theology in the light of recent philosophical and political developments.

In recent blogs and publications my colleagues at the William Temple Foundation have used and adopted the language of “blurred encounters” in relation to faith engagement with social action and the inevitable crossing of boundaries, cultural, geographical and intellectual, that accompanies such engagement. Whilst this is correct and in the spirit of the original book, Blurred Encounters: A Reasoned Practice of Faith, it does not refer to the subtitle of the book nor what I intended to be the more radical nature of the work. This was not supposed to be simply about pragmatic responses to challenging contexts that required a willingness to compromise and to be “eaten well”, but also an attempt to produce a post-foundational theology by challenging the strict demarcation between faith and reason that has characterized theology since the time of Kant. If that sounds too demanding and theoretical, then it probably explains why even my colleagues have shied away from that dimension of the book, and my aims of providing criteria by which one might assess the validity of the actual blurred encounters.

In engagement with the book, there have been no references to the notion of a post-foundational theology, nor any sense that others understand what this means. Others more critical of the work imagine that this is a matter of having a certain fascination for the writings of particular philosophers and thus not essential to the project. In the light of new publications I want to restate the argument that “Blurred Encounters” was pushing towards a paradigm shift in theology.

Ten years down the line and others have been able to pursue these ideas more effectively. Whitney A. Bauman, in the recently published Religion and Ecology: developing a planetary ethic, has taken further the concept of the crossing of boundaries and argues that religion and science, humanity and nature, sacred and secular, are always already intertwined, and that attempts to separate them have been the result of a particular metaphysics that itself leads to damaging consequences, notably those associated with globalization and its detrimental impact upon humans in less advantaged parts of the world, and indeed the planet as a whole. He also draws upon sources that I have since been able to pursue such as Deleuze and Guattari, Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour, Karen Barad and Catherine Keller. I will attempt a summary of his ideas.

Bauman describes what he calls Agrippa’s trilemma which lays out the three main possibilities for how we claim to justify our knowledge (pp18-21). The first two of these are representative of the domination exercised by globalization and are, foundationalism and circularity. “Foundationalism operates (most often) by digging down to what is perceived to be a base of reality: whether material (as in scientific materialism) or ideal (as in the creation of the world according to divine laws by a good God)”. Circularity is a particular version of the same form of argument. The third option and the one favoured by Bauman is that of infinite regress, where instead of trying to bring the process of truth discovery to an end, instead somewhat in the manner of Latour who sees that truth is a matter of keeping the references circulating, the acknowledgement that we are all contextual, perspectival, embodied and changing creatures, means that our knowledge claims are always on shifting grounds. A post-foundational theology would thus recognise that our knowledge is always provisional and contingent, and that it is when we try to stop the references circulating – which is always an arbitrary decision – that power dominates over truth, and both humans and non-humans find themselves on the wrong end of that power.

Following this alternative approach to its logical conclusion, Bauman suggests that we need to abandon a foundational metaphysics, to acknowledge that agency “goes all the way down” including therefore that which we see as non-human, that human exceptionalism is to be left behind, and that the boundaries between subject and object are always permeable. (p162). This applies also to our own sense of personal identity: “Our internality is nothing without the multiple others with which we are in constant interaction, and our bodies are made up of multiple biological, historical and cultural others. However one draws the boundaries around a concept or identity, that entity is always already multiple” (p163). This will lead to a different approach to environmental ethics and issues of political power. So the question for a new theological paradigm is whether it can cope with a post-foundationalism and acknowledge that its truth claims are subject to challenge and uncertainty.

There are now two main strands in such a developing approach, one associated with what is known as the New Materialism and the other related one we are calling Relational Christian Realism. The latter will be spelt out in detail in the book A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, (Baker, James and Reader, Ashgate: forthcoming). Both yield a theology more modest in its truth claims, and a conceptual discourse more appropriate for engagement with contemporary political and scientific issues and, we will argue, a paradigm change for the discipline as a whole. The difference between this and the global ethics advocated by Kung and colleagues is that: “the not-yet space of emergent newness is just as much a reality for the rest of the natural world as it is for humans” and the task facing us is to discern which particular emergent assemblages will lead to the flourishing of both human and non-human (Bauman, p153).

So whereas the original paradigm shift envisaged by Kung, Tracy and colleagues involved only the human, in this new context as described by Bauman, Crockett and ourselves, it is the whole human non-human nexus which emerges as the site for discussions of the ‘public good’ and for revised religious and political activity.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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