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New Year 2024

The start of the New Year often brings us a sense of hope, just like a blank page in an exercise or art book presents a world of possibilities. For individuals, this might mean a new exercise regime or diet, a determination to take up a hobby or spend more time with our families, or perhaps a resolution to devote more time to deepening our relationship with Jesus through Bible study and prayer. This article suggests something else you might like to do with your time in 2024. Grab yourself a coffee and read on…

In our churches, the New Year will undoubtedly mean work for the treasurers and PCCs in the preparation of the annual reports and financial statements for the previous year and may bring the start of new Bible studies or enquirer programmes like Alpha (others are available). For many of us, the first quarter of 2024 will be a time for reviewing Mission Action Plans, or even reflecting again on our churches’ overall vision and values.

Within the deanery, we have our own responsibility for considering and executing a plan which supports both the mission of each parish church and the overarching diocesan vision (in principle, of course, these should be consistent, so this shouldn’t be too hard!). An often overlooked but key role of this plan is to inform future decisions about clergy deployment and any formal relationships between parishes (e.g. those which are united in a benefice with a single priest or those which are in a team or group ministry). It is therefore vital that as a deanery synod we take time to consider the mission of God in our whole deanery and not allow our focus to be only on the ministries of our own parishes. Obviously, we will each want our own parishes to thrive, but we need to have at least half an eye on a wider horizon so that when vacancies occur in the deanery, we are able to offer wise and considered suggestions to the patrons and bishop’s officers who are responsible for overseeing the vacancy and appointment process.

The parish system is, on one level, a wonderful asset, ensuring that there is a parish priest with responsibility for the cure of the soul of every resident in the land, but we are not (nor have we ever been) in a one-parish-one-priest situation. Financial challenges and a lack of people offering themselves for ordained ministry have brought about the current position where the majority of churches share their priest with others. (In our deanery, there are 11 incumbent-level posts for 26 churches.) In addition to this, with new housing developments springing up all over the place, our settlements are growing in number and changing shape but our parish boundaries are rigid. We are also a mobile society – a stark contrast to the settled communities in which the system was originally established; where once (even not that long ago), people were born, married and died within the same neighbourhood (with all life-stages marked by the relevant parish church), today, people routinely travel to other settlements for shops, leisure and churches. Indeed, aided by their mobility and influenced by our consumerist society, people now often choose their churches in the same way that they choose their supermarkets; travelling to a place which suits them rather than joining their local (parish) fellowship which doesn’t tick all their boxes. (I am aware of people from my parishes travelling to churches in Ware, Hertford and even London. I am also aware of people worshipping in my churches from a number of other places including Ware and Harlow.) I mean no criticism of them when I note that inevitably, non-resident worshippers are more likely to be not as invested in parish-based ministry as resident worshippers, thus making parish-based ministry more challenging in “gathered” congregations. It is also harder for non-resident worshippers to persuade their neighbours to join them in church or at a church event if it means travelling. A new model of ministry has to be adopted here, but it will always struggle against people’s geographical allegiances and the parish system itself which, though helpful in some areas, finds itself under strain and puts its own strain on mission and ministry because of its inflexibility.

At the same time, our churches are also under pressure from external influences to ensure that we are compliant with various legislative requirements (e.g. financial regulations, safeguarding obligations and general duties to keep people safe and to preserve historic buildings for the generations to come). These obligations, whilst clearly in harmony with responsible Christian discipleship, can become worrying burdens for church communities which do not have sufficient expertise in the relevant areas. Many churches are now using recorded music to accompany their worship because they have no organist. This may not be ideal, but it is a passable solution to the skillset absence. It is far harder to replace a treasurer or a Parish Safeguarding Officer and it is easy to see how a church will struggle to reach out to its community if it is reliant on its most gifted evangelist being also the churchwarden and treasurer.

There’s no simple solution to all this, of course. Different dioceses are trying out a variety of approaches, and the Church Commissioners have released significant sums of money for various schemes aimed at planting new churches and supporting church growth in particular contexts. Our own diocese has benefited from some of this funding with the Reaching New People project. At present, there are no “grand schemes” being cooked up in our diocese like those that have made the news in Leicester, Birmingham and Wigan, but it is surely only a matter of time before they are. Then the question will need to be answered… How will we as a deanery respond to the next diocesan questions or suggestions about parish amalgamations or the re-shaping of the deanery more generally? We will only be able to answer sensibly and constructively if we have given the matter some serious consideration. We will only be able to promote a long-term plan to bring the gospel of Jesus to the people of this deanery if we have actively discussed it and our own churches’ roles within it.

So here is something for you to consider at the start of 2024. Our task groups relating to the Environment, Social Action, New Developments, Reaching New People and Finances are looking at important aspects of our deanery life. These groups have been established for the researching and sharing of good practice, but they will also contribute to the wider discussion about the shape of deanery life in general. As we begin a New Year, with new possibilities and new challenges, I encourage you, please, to join one of the groups – preferably the one in which you feel you will be able to contribute most. (If you visit their own webpages by using the links above, you can sign up for membership of the group via an online form.) Similarly, if you know someone in your church with particular skills or interest in these areas, please encourage them to join the deanery website community and one of the groups so that we might truly work together for the glory of God in this place.

May the Lord draw you closer to him throughout 2024,

Mark Dunstan
Rural Dean