In Parochial Vision: The Future of the English Parish System (2004), Nick Spenser offers a very intriguing argument for the reimplementation of the ‘minster’ church model of England’s early medieval period. His main argument is that parish system of the Church of England is in major decline due to demographic shifts, the disappearing of traditional communities, and especially the spiritual declension of the British people. Spenser doesn’t reject the parish system, yet he contends that it needs recasting into a more flexible, regional, and collegial (cooperative) pattern. This pattern is the old ‘minster’ model.
Regrettably, this valuable book won’t find a wide readership this side of the pond, since the entirety of the book pertains to the U.K. situation and to the Anglican Church in particular. This is too bad, since Spenser gives a very compelling example of strategic, ecclesiastical proactivity within the tumult of social change. And he does this without giving up on the age-old principles of territorialism and locality. Like Thomas Chalmers, he analyses the human and brick-and-mortar realities, harvests strategic principles from the Church’s past that are relevant, and suggests the how an old model can successfully be redeployed.
My own criticisms of the book are from an evangelical perspective. Spenser is too theologically inclusive. He advocates this model for both ends of the doctrinal spectrum, conservative and liberal. Certainly, he reflects the via media ethos of the Church of England. Yet there can be no middle way when the alternates today are light and darkness (2 Cor. 6:14). I am stimulated by his overall suggestion, but add a strong qualifier that unity must be in truth.
Second – and in light of the first, this should come as no surprise – there is little if any place dedicated to preaching as the means of renewing the Church in Britain. The whole book suggests a fix by changing administrative models. Now, I’m all for improving efficiency and open to strategy changes consistent with the Word of God and common sense. But if rigorous, expository and applicatory preaching is not central, changing forms will yield a formal change at best.
These reservations notwithstanding, Spenser’s book is a fascinating read.