Localism and the Local church
2021 is going to see significant cuts to the numbers of Church of England clergy serving in parishes across England.
In my own diocese, around half of the parishes will be involved in some sort of pastoral reorganisation to facilitate a small but significant reduction in clergy numbers. My own collection of rural parishes on the edge of the New Forest will grow from two to four over the course of this year. This is not a complaint. Many clergy will face a greater degree of change, some will be made redundant, and no one should envy those who bear the burden of making difficult decisions which are likely to harm local mission. With reorganisation and reduction of local paid gospel ministry comes a new virtue of collaboration over a greater geographical area. To some extent, this sharing of resources must be a good thing: excellent preachers of the word of God can have legal authorisation to minister in other local Churches; people with the gift of administration can bless the ministry of more than one local Church, and musical or youth ministry experience can be shared. The assumed antithesis to such sharing is localism: the desire to hold on to local resources, local identity and a local building. Against this, Christians who have hitherto belonged to one local Church are encouraged to identify instead with a less local group, perhaps even attending services elsewhere. Localism is stigmatised as the ecclesiological expression of being a Little Englander, the hideous attitude that led to Brexit! But to what extent is this localism a bad thing?
The Church described in the New Testament is gloriously universal: it is the bride of Christ (Eph 5.25), the desire of the prophets (1 Pet 1.10-12) the place in which the reality of the headship of Christ is already realised (Col 1.18). The Church addressed by the New Testament is the local Church. This is the Church made up of people who live in the same place, who share the same neighbours and face the same local challenges. This is the Church where local people share life together, often with difficulty and conflict. It is the local Church Jesus Christ addresses when he teaches on sin against other Christians in Matt 18.15-17. It is the local Church which Paul exhorts to contend together as though one person for the Gospel in Phil 1.27-28. It is the local Church who must live good lives amongst the pagan neighbours who know them, see them in the marketplace and are suspicious of them in 1 Pet 2.12. The Church Jesus Christ gave his life for, used his ministry to the apostles to establish, poured out the Holy Spirit to build, the Church against which the gates of hades will not prevail is manifested locally.
For as long as there are local communities, there must be local Churches, weak and under-resourced as they may be. The desire of a local Church to be the best local Church possible is not to be despised or seen as selfish. As reorganisation takes place and careful thought is given to how resources are used, the local Church must be prioritised. The feeling of belonging to a local Church which has a focus for one local community must not be undermined. People need to feel that their voices are heard and matter, that they have a say over how ministry takes place locally. Decisions which affect local Churches need to be made as locally as possible. Where possible, services must be as regular and as frequent as resources and, suitably high standards for biblical teaching will allow. Dramatic changes which undermine a sense of belonging, unless they are warranted to take away something harmful, should be avoided. Someone once said that the local Church is the hope of the world. However reorganisation takes place, let’s make sure that local Churches come out of this remaining truly local.