The Church of England is, however much it has tried not to be, very building-centric. A Decade of Evangelism 1990-2000 charged members to look to move from maintenance to mission. This was laudable but as long as congregations are also charged with the cost of upkeep of many old buildings, often in poor locations compared to the community they were once designed to serve, maintenance will force itself onto centre stage.
Over the same twenty to thirty year period there has been a renewed interest in, and vision for, church planting. I am the minister of a church, planted in 1989, to serve a new community, built in an area that was once farmland.
This church, twenty-five years old this year, seeks independence, control over its own destiny and finances, and the opportunity to be treated as mature. It did once have a dream of owning its own building but the area in which we serve has no suitable buildings for sale and no building land still available. There is a field, not ideally situated geographically, which may one day become available, but increasingly Trendlewood church is happy with meeting in rented premises (currently a local Primary School) and willing to be nomadic should the building ever become unavailable. In fact we moved from one school to another four years ago as a deliberate strategy to bring a Christian influence to bear on a school with no such background. This has been successful. We have grown by almost 50% in the last two years. Many of our new members live in the next door parish of Backwell (not finding appropriate expression for their Christian faith in the existing churches in their town). We would like to plant a new congregation there. Many of our newer members express a dissatisfaction that their giving is routed back to Holy Trinity PCC and used for the maintenance of buildings we rarely use and don't need.
How can we be independent of our parent church, Holy Trinity, Nailsea, without a building and thus no parish boundary?
It seems that the intentions of the mission to maintenance movement (joke, I don't believe it exists) would wish to impose maintenance upon us before we can be treated as mature. I don't accept this.
How would it be if those churches in the diocese which currently have no buildings were grouped together as a separate Deanery? In other words if, alongside Bath and Wells Parish Churches, we ran another Deanery of Bath and Wells Network churches. These churches would probably have more in common with each other than with the parish which planted them.
Each church which wished to belong to such a Network Deanery would need to make its own negotiation with the parish within which it was planted. This might involve a tithe or tax, or an agreed portion of ministry time from the clergy, or even a responsibility for a geographical area, pastorally, using existing buildings for occasional offices. Bishops' Mission Orders, or extended licences, might be utilised initially.
The churches allowed to belong to such a deanery might need to demonstrate that they are:
Happy not to meet in an owned building
Willing to multiply when they grow, because they value being small - 50-75 members. (cf DNA's 'SLIM' churches in Colchester which remain cell-sized)
Lay led and clergy served
I firmly believe that setting a few congregations free from any responsibility to give money towards the upkeep of buildings, save for paying their rent, would enable such to focus their efforts on mission issues and numerical growth.
As many non-viable churches continue to fail over the next ten to twenty years, network churches will grow and thrive. Some may eventually choose to build or buy buildings, possibly using moneys raised by the sale of non-viable church buildings. Wetherspoons have made an excellent pub-chain business by saving old buildings - churches, banks, shops - and turning them into pubs. Maybe we could turn some buildings into viable churches?
To take this one step further it may be missionally vital to consider selling some of our not redundant-but-not-dead-either churches and to stipulate in the sale that we need to lease back some time and space. Not necessarily on a Sunday.
As various poorly-attended churches die out over the next twenty years other places will thrive. Centres of excellence will develop. Indeed it looks as if cathedrals, minsters and abbeys are becoming increasingly popular. This would be our expectation. Brian McLaren is fond of pointing out that buggies were at their most popular when cars had already come along but were unreliable.
If traditional church is the buggy; maybe network church is the car.
I have deliberately left this paper short and devoid of recommendations. I wanted it to be public and to start discussion. Many people will immediately think of legal matters and details which will need fixing before progress can be made. Great. Let those who like such details get stuck in.
There is some urgency for our situation here. I have explained why in a less widely circulated paper. Suffice to say that those members of Trendlewood Church who live in Backwell, and have a passion for meeting in Backwell, could easily choose to do it anyway. If we don't facilitate it they could be lost to the Church of England. I want to belong to a church that does its best to keep its missional people.
If you cut and paste this to A4 and use 12pt Verdana it comes in at two sides.