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Save the Parish: An Interview with Dr. Alison Milbank by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Save the Parish: An Interview with
Dr. Alison Milbank

The parish church cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as Southwell Minster, in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England.

Photo: Southwell Minster on Instagram.

What is Save the Parish?

It’s an informal grouping of laypeople and clergy who come together from all the different parties of the Church of England under the realization that we are in a state of crisis and that our hierarchy, for whatever reason, is not valuing the parish church. We are there to support people. We have Parishes Pacts that tell them what to do if someone wants to close them down. We give as much advice as we can and we fight against the legislation that works against the church. We’re working toward a Royal Commission, which we hope will look at the historic churches and a different way of funding them so that, in Britain, the local people are responsible for keeping a historic church safe and doing all the repairs, which of course is not the case in many other European countries.

What measures are being proposed or implemented with respect to the Anglican Parish system? 

The first thing that’s happening in many dioceses in England, and has already happened in the Anglican Church in Wales, is that many dioceses are grouping parishes into enormous units called mission areas. Ministers and people are losing a sense that they have their own priest, even though in the countryside, for 30 years, they have been grouped in parishes. They were in units that were manageable and where you had a priest you could put a face to.

What we’ve noticed happening already in Wales, which is a year or two ahead, is that they’re beginning to close and merge churches. And the Church of England has plans, contained in a Green Paper to go before its Synod this year, which will make it easier to close churches. They’re already planning to close 359. This document will take away consultation any wider than the immediate congregation, and will not allow independent arbitration and appeal, making it much easier to close churches, apart from the fact that they’re removing resources from them and centralizing.

Breaking down the local and centralizing, which occurs in many contexts: I suppose the logic belongs to a very postmodern idea that territoriality no longer has anything to do with how we associate, networks being divorced from place, and that you can approach the pastoral work of the church through different avenues. 

To some degree you can, in the sense of workplaces or schools, but part of the problem with modern life is its lack of presence. I would have said that the parish is a response to a need. Actually, during lockdown, people have begun to again realize the importance of where they live. 

Remember, networks only mean something to a particular class. This idea of elective networks is a middle-class phenomenon. If you’re working class, you’re far less likely to live in the network. It’s also problematic in relation to the theology of the Church because it’s fine to evangelize like that, but the idea that your full-time experience of being a Christian would be being among other people who do surfboarding (who share your network-specific hobby) is not the theology of the Church as I understand it.

You’re supposed to meet people doing different things. To come to see your whole life together in worship. It shouldn’t just be one elective hobby—even though that might be a place to start, it’s not a place to end. 

What you mentioned about class is interesting, because often these liberational projects are very class-specific. That’s the case with the sexual revolution, which hurt the working class far more than the well-to-do

Yes, if you can afford it, you can have a divorce and a quite civilized arrangement where you can be very close to the ex-spouse and the children, but if you’re poor it’s catastrophic.

I wonder if you could speak to the theological or pastoral importance of parishes

We believe in an incarnational God who commits himself to time and space and blesses them. And we all need coordinates, which are placed. If you’re an immigrant, the first thing you want to do is to find yourself within a place. So I feel that place is a gift that is given to us. By that I mean place rather than space. The idea of somewhere from which you start, from which you orient yourself. Somewhere where you can have relationships. And committing to place means that it matters and has value. Through relationship, it receives an identity and a purpose—a church in a place. It commits to values beyond those of the instrumental or the transactional or even the market. It’s a vision of the common good. And this is particularly important in places that are very rundown where there isn’t a post office and there is no pub. There is just the church left to tell you that you matter. 

Besides, we are physical beings and we operate in place, and in fact modern nature writing is particularly interested in the concept of parish. You’ll find it in secular journals of the new ‘nature writing.’ They all own the idea of parish. In dealing with the climate crisis, we won’t do it by making people feel guilty, you know. We will do it through people’s love of particular flowers, particular places. And I tend to think of the parish as quite an ecological concept with a kind of pastoral remit towards nature as well as towards the human. 

When we act on behalf of universal principles without keeping the particular in mind, it goes wrong very quickly. You’ve described the parish as a spiritual NHS that also has a very concrete function. It associates with charities, food banks, etc. How are current changes to the parish system going to impede this function?

The Anglican Church commits to the idea that everybody who lives in that parish, regardless of beliefs, or whether they ever darken its doors, has rights to it (to be baptized, to be married, to be buried). You provide the cure of souls for all of them, you’re available to everybody, and it’s in that sense that I speak of it as the NHS. Or perhaps the NHS as it should be, with a more local sense of subsidiarity and decision making at the local level. So in that sense, it’s important. I think the amount of social service that comes out of parishes was calculated at about £5 billion. Researchers have now raised that to over £12 billion. Parish churches often contain food banks and provide distribution. They work with older people, refugee centers, etc. It’s pastoral work but of a neighborly sort. 

It’s very difficult to quantify. But the National Churches Trust has done just that this year with a very interesting report about the importance of the actual physical building of the church. There was an example on the BBC during the lockdown of Burnley, which is very poor, where a street pastor who was quite anarchic—but also very gifted and loving, reaching out to people in need—worked with the vicar of a local church who could offer organization, the holding-on to all the stuff they were distributing, enabling it all to happen. We need buildings. 

But I think buildings also do convert people. I’m a priest at a cathedral. My cathedral does more work for making people aware of the mystery, beauty, and goodness of God than the people do half the time.

We know the Russians converted because of the beauty of Saint Sophia. When I was living in Maastricht, we would visit a church that had been converted into a book shop and café. It was beautiful, and a shame it no longer served its original purpose, which it could do without giving up books and coffee.

In the 18th century the earliest public libraries in Britain were parish churches. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t multi-purpose, so long as we keep its peace somewhere, and its availability for people to say their prayers. 

Who owns a local church? I was wondering whether there might be a perverse financial incentive to liquify the physical assets of the church, and if that’s even possible. Does the Anglican hierarchy own a church, or is it owned by the local community? 

The parsonage belongs to the priest, the church belongs to the diocese insofar as the diocese has taken away what was called Freehold, where it used to be vested in the priest. Even though local people may have built the church and provided all the money for it, in about 1976 they passed legislation which placed all the rights of the parish and its assets in diocesan hands. The diocese, I think, has the control to decide. I think the Parochial Church Council has to agree, but pressure can be put on them of course too to do this, and I think that in the end the diocese could probably override them, but I’m not an expert.

But, of course, it’s difficult to liquify a church because most of our churches are grade-listed, which means that they can’t be knocked down. The uses that they can be put to are also quite limited. If you’ve got a church that’s not, as they would see, paying its own way, you probably don’t have local people with a need for a Community Center. You know, you’re not going to find it easy—and they don’t find it easy—to reuse churches. 

There’s something off about taking something that belongs to everybody and turning it into a single house for a person. You either have to clear the graveyard of all the bodies, or you have to leave the graveyard. Sometimes this leads to very unfortunate circumstances in which graves are, for instance, underneath a kitchen window. There’s a case at the moment where planning permits are trying to be obtained for turning a church in Hereford into a house. But then the parents of a young boy, who’d recently been buried, needed access to the cemetery. They were going to be granted access through what would then be the garden of the home owners to the tomb, which would have been right under the kitchen window. The family were horrified at the thought that their son’s tomb would end up being privatized. 

For a country like Britain that has a rich, often forgotten tradition of not necessarily statist socialism, or non-statist socialism, thinkers that have emphasized the Commons, it’s a shame the Anglican Church isn’t sensitive to it.

I’m sure they like the idea of the parish, but they long ago decided that the parish belongs in the past, whereas we see this as the last time to be making these short-term decisions about closing churches. Given the lockdown when people are working more from home (and I think that will continue), and given the climate crisis where we are going to be made to live more locally, people are moving away from cities. 

Now that we’ve shown that we can work from home and there’s been all this investment in Internet connectivity for rural areas, there’s no reason to move to London or to move to the nearest city. Although, of course, Britain has a denser population and so the countryside has never emptied out the way it has elsewhere.

That’s right. And 40% of Anglicans still live in the countryside. So, if they’re going to down-grade any kind of representation in the country, they will lose their financial base. That’s a practical reason why centralisation is not the most sensible policy.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

Alison Milbank is Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Nottingham and writes on many aspects of religion and culture from Dante and Tolkien to vampires and the Gothic. She is an Anglican priest, who serves the parish church cathedral of Southwell Minster as priest vicar and Canon Theologian.


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