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24 November 2021

“The parish system is a kind of spiritual NHS”: Anglican priest Alison Milbank on saving our churches

The co-founder of Save The Parish discusses her campaign and why she'll never be a bishop.

By Freddie Hayward

At 3am on Wednesday 14 June 2017 the doors of St Clement’s parish church opened as flames engulfed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, in west London. The church quickly became a centre for emergency crews and a haven for distraught residents, bustling with media crews. A few days later, on Sunday, the church quietened as the congregation held two minutes of silent prayer for those who had died or lost family in the tragedy.

When I met Alison Milbank, a priest at Southwell Minster and professor of theology at Nottingham University, she pointed to St Clement’s response to the Grenfell tragedy as an embodiment of the contribution parish churches make to society. Alongside others, including the journalist Giles Fraser – who is the priest-in-charge at south London’s St Mary’s, Newington, where Milbank and I met – she co-founded the Save the Parish campaign in August to counter proposed Church of England (CofE) reforms that, she says, undermine the parish church system.

The Church is trying to modernise its strategy in the hope of halting its apparent decline (from 2009 to 2019, CofE attendance fell by 15 to 20 per cent), and of becoming more diverse and attractive to young people. The latest proposals promote new forms of church life, such as activity groups, chaplaincies and online services, subtly shifting the focus away from the parish church set-up.

The proposals for reform state that while the parish system is “good for serving more settled geographic communities”, it is “less effective in the networks of contemporary life”. Partly in response to the pandemic, plans were laid out in June to make it easier to close church buildings. The review, “GS 2222”, called for “faster processes which would allow for an increase in closures over time to be managed in a sensible way”.

Save the Parish passionately opposes such plans. “Our parish churches are the most important group of parish churches in the world,” Alison Milbank told me. “They ought to have World Heritage status.” As she talked, we settled into one of the pews and Fraser approached bearing two colourful mugs of herbal tea. “Once they’re sold off, particularly if they’re sold off for housing… they’re gone for local people,” Milbank continued, her voice echoing. “We believe these belong to the locality.”

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Most people in England have a nearby CofE parish church. First established in the Anglo-Saxon period, England’s parish churches are responsible for what is called the “cure of the souls” – the spiritual and pastoral needs of the local population. Milbank explained that, whether Christian or not, everyone has the right to ask their local parish church to provide baptisms, marriages and pastoral care. She paused to glance up as an Asian man with a greying beard and a high-vis jacket entered St Mary’s for a moment’s reflection. Placing his hard hat beside him, he sat in a pew at the back of the nave. “It’s a bit like a kind of spiritual NHS,” she said, turning to me.

Milbank cites a 2020 National Churches Trust report that estimated the social value of UK church buildings at £12.4bn per year, and that the replacement cost of social and community services provided in church buildings would be at least £200m. A recent update to the report increased the estimate to around £55bn of social value. Many food banks are linked to churches, and some provide support for people with alcohol and drug problems. “The parish is a kind of cultural product of people’s labour, skills and art, as well,” she said, gesturing to St Mary’s modern stained glass windows.

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The GS 2222 reforms are likely to be voted upon when the CofE’s legislative body, the General Synod, meets in July. Elections for the body occur every five years, and the latest took place in October. Fifty-seven of the candidates that stood under the Save the Parish flag gained seats, and Milbank claims that as many as 150 other members are sympathetic to its cause, describing the results as “astonishing”. Save the Parish’s electoral success may cause difficulty for those who support the proposed changes.

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When I spoke to Dave Male, the CofE’s director of evangelism and discipleship, he said the reforms were an attempt to make the system to close churches “much more simple”. Most of the pressure for reform has “come from parishes” that are “fed up with how long it takes [to close a church]”, he said, adding that the plans are going through a consultation process.

“We are absolutely committed to the parish system,” he stressed. “We’re absolutely committed to ordained clergy. There isn’t an ideological change.”

Milbank, however, views the reforms as an attempt to run the church as a “form of business”. “As a kind of socialist,” she says, “I’m horrified by the whole thing.”

Alison Milbank grew up in Portsmouth, an area with several Christian socialist priests. Her mother was a civil servant from an Anglo-Irish gentry family and her father was a devout man who worked in his brothers’ betting office. Milbank, who describes herself as a “cradle Anglican”, studied for her undergraduate degree in English and theology at Cambridge and then for her doctorate at Lancaster University. She was ordained as a priest in 2007. Her campaign, however, is unlikely to further her church career. “I’m not looking for preferment, as you may have realised,” she laughed. “They’ll never make me a bishop.”

Milbank’s socialist heritage informs her support for the parish church, which she sees as a communitarian bulwark against the fragmentation of society. “We need things that can stand out against globalisation, against atomisation, that stand for the idea of the common good, the community. And churches at their best do that.”

But parish churches play an ever-smaller role in our lives in England. Since the 1990s they have been closing at a relatively steady rate of 20 to 25 a year. Secularisation, Sunday trading hours and the shift in public attitudes towards individualism have weakened parish churches’ position in society as community centres. Indeed, this phenomenon is not confined to churches. As the former government adviser Jon Yates sets out in his book Fractured, many aspects of our common life – the clubs, associations and workplaces that bind diverse people together – have weakened over recent years. We are stuck in an interregnum: the common life from the industrial age has eroded and the institutions fit for the technological age are yet to arise. Institutions must adapt to suit the times.

 Doesn’t the Church’s attempt to move away from the parish system simply reflect that reality?

Milbank rejects this. She insists that dwindling church attendance is not inevitable. “Who knows what will happen in the future?” she told me. “Churches were all falling down and empty in the 18th century; they were full again in the 19th century… I think it could all change again.”

Alison Milbank sees hope in the numbers of Christian immigrants who are coming to the UK and believes encouraging them into positions of leadership is vital. She thinks the pandemic (and home-working) has created a return to the local, bolstering parish churches in the process. Ultimately, she argues, churches fulfil a function that only they can: the response from St Clement’s to the Grenfell fire was possible only because parish churches are embedded within their local communities.

“It may be that some churches will have to close, but the problem is that the Church of England has made this kind of ideological decision that this model of church belongs to the past,” she said. “And I think we need it more than ever.”

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This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos