Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The perils of top down thinking

In the nineteen seventies the regional church leaders in Buckinghamshire agreed to a master plan for Milton Keynes which involved providing local churches in the local settlements of Milton Keynes - dotted around alongside schools, shops and play parks. This plan became part of the development corporations master plan for the new city and was part of an attempt to design a new community with small local centres. The church would provide a form of "spiritual social services" and would do so ecumenically - on an Anglican model. Each area would have it's church building, and it's minister - of one denomination or another. Utopia was just around the corner!

In the eighties the plan began to take shape. Parish boundaries were amended and team rectors were hand picked to create new team ministries. Buildings were provided - through the sale of old rectories and clergy numbers were increased to meet the expected demand.

In some cases there was great initial growth as charismatic leaders gathered congregations around themselves. There were also a few local groups who became churches - with the help of some denominational cash and some cheap ministry. The late eighties and early nineties were the golden age of ecumenism in Milton Keynes....

...except they weren't. The teams were often brought together against their will and were often imposed rather than grown. Some local traditions were crushed, while unsustainable new communities were encouraged. Dysfunctional relationships and cultures were created that have continued (in many cases) to this day!

Perhaps the biggest issues that we were left to deal with were about expectations - around money, ecumenism, ministry or mission. While the rest of the world was moving on, the churches in Milton Keynes were led to believe that the denominations would subsidise them indefinitely, that denominations would cease to be relevant, that one minister for ever 20 to 40 people was a reasonable ratio and that mission was someone else's problem - a sector team or other professionals...

In the nineteen nineties a number of churches began to experience problems. Many clergy had breakdowns, illness or marital difficulty. There were "disagreements" between new ministers and the congregations which had often been gathered around the "founding fathers". In many of our ecumenical congregations the initial period of hope was replaced by conflict, suspicion or worse...

The new millennium marked a time of change for Milton Keynes with a range of forces acting against each other. Challenging analysis, like the Rossdale report, were met with renewed ecumenical enthusiasm - which resulted in the creation of the converged body known as the Mission Partnership. Changes in the deployment of clergy resulted in renewed enthusiasm for team work - particularly in Watling Valley and Woughton where real challenges forced people to work together in a way that they simply hadn't needed to before. The early twenty-first century was a time of renewed vigour for the original ecumenical vision - was this a late spring for the master plan?

Of course there are new forces at work which are driving us into further change. Structural eccumenism has run its course and the Mission Partnership is deconverging after a few brief years. The talk is now about relational ecumenism and the need to work together with an ever-expanding group of partners. Ecumenism is very much alive in Milton Keynes but it's increasingly bubbling up from local relationships rather than a product of the master plan. The denominations are not supporting Milton Keynes with the financial resources that they used to pump in. We are increaingly expected to pay our own way - this means a shift to local responsibility and a radical change in culture. The nature of mission is changing as we increasingly need to relate to a world which doesn't speak our language - the social provision model is no longer appropriate and we need to be more flexible, entreprenureal and innovative...

One of our ministers recently said to me that the ecumenical structures in Milton Keynes were a mistake we couldn't help making. They were an inevitable result of the ecclesiastical agenda in the nineteen sixties and they were imposed on the people of Milton Keynes by church leaders who had a meta narrative of structural unity and the confidence that their master plan was right! In a sense there was nothing else that they could do... but they created an unsustainable and dysfunctional system that has held back the church in this city for many years.

Now you may not agree with his analysis - or mine for that matter - which is slightly more positive - but I think there is a need to recognise that the top-down central-control approach that the denominations took in Milton Keynes may have had some weaknesses. It's certainly been difficult to be flexible and we have been a bit arrogant about our ecumenical achievements while our churches have been in decline.

I support the concept of shared resources because I don't think churches can do everything by themselves. I also believe in the need to work in partnership with others - but... I also believe in collective decision-making, local responsibility and appropriate supervision - which is focussed on growth and development rather than control. I've said these things many times in this blog... As the movers and shakers in Milton Keynes and beyond think about the future I would hope that we don't slide back into the habits of central planning - but find ways of using our shared resources to benefit each local mission unit in this wonderful city.

4 comments:

Steven Carr said...

Just think how bad things would have been if these people had not been praying each day to God for guidance!

Tim Norwood (A Vicar) said...

Good point...

PeterM said...

We forget how "advanced" we are in MK.

I went back to my old URC church in Kent recently. They were closing their building due to structural problems, finances and dwindling numbers.

They were moving to the local Anglican church. They weren't merging; they have their services at a different time of the morning with their own minister. They thought this was a really radical and progressive thing to do. They were horrified at my suggestion that they just worshipped together with the anglicans!

Tim Norwood (A Vicar) said...

As Peter says, there have been some remarkable stories of ecumenical unity in Milton Keynes. The LEPs on the whole have often been our best kept secret. People outside the city sometimes know about Cornerstone and we often tell them about our integrated structures, but down at the grass roots level we have had some incredible success stories where Christians have found ways to live and work together in creative and meaningful ways.
On the whole I think that the achievements of the LEPs need to be assessed against their long term issues with growth and sustainability. I also wonder how much better it would have been if ecumenical unity had developed from the bottom up, rather than the top down - or maybe that is what's happening at the moment...