Opinion: A Word on "Mother Churches"

In an earlier post I (the Ministry Area Leader) mentioned almost in passing that there would be no “mother church” or “named church” in the Beechwood Ministry Area, but promised a few words later on. The reason for this is borne of experience and observation, which I’d like to share.

For several decades, when merging churches into grouped parishes, united benefices, or rectorial benefices, the usual convention was for a new group to take the name of the largest and/or what was perceived to be the most historically significant church or market town. Hence, we ended up with names like the Rectorial Benefice of Caldicot; Caerwent Parish Group; Magor Ministry Area. At the time, the convention seemed the most obvious thing to most people in the hierarchy: we are used to naming churches by town (or ward) and we have a history of mother churches supporting daughter churches.

Unfortunately, the one group of folk who frequently didn’t find this convention the most obvious thing were the ones most deeply affected by it: the smaller churches who were not, in fact, daughter churches — and who now, often having struggled for many years just to survive, suddenly felt colonised and overshadowed by larger and more powerful neighbours. They, however, had little choice but to go along.

This, quite simply, was never a healthy place to be. It wrote into the structure the risk that smaller churches might feel ever on the defensive, fearing (often wrongly, but often rightly) that the mother church was the only one that really counted or got sufficient clergy attention. I can certainly name exceptions, but just as often I’ve observed that these churches felt (whether or not it was justified) unloved, bolted on, and left to their own devices to fight their corner for “what’s ours”. They worried that, at any point, someone might come along forcing them to haemorrhage money and resources to a larger neighbour who was perceived to have plenty already (whether or not that was even true). They saw their worship services cut to, say, bi-weekly or monthly, whilst the mother church got to keep all of theirs. It’s been clear, in my chats with other MALs, that here we have an inherited an historical dynamic that today we still struggle to get past and overcome.

Thus, back in 2014, when I was faced with the task of merging the Caerwent and the Penhow Parish Groups, I flat-out refused to allow a “mother church” or entertain anything that smacked of that language. (This, naturally, had a couple of people in one of the previous named-churches just a little nonplussed!) The reasoning was simple: whichever one got the name, the others would feel bolted on and subsumed. I insisted that this should be a true merger of equals … and thus proposed the name Wentwood Ministry Area. (I could be mistaken, but I believe it was the first time that a non-town-non-parish-specific name had been given in this Diocese. Whatever the case, it certainly felt brave at the time.)

That name turned out to be a success, and whilst I won’t say that everyone immediately played together nicely, it was very clear, very quickly that, whatever other challenges we might face, we were not going to have the problem of any perceived hierarchy in the MA name breeding long-term, bubbling resentment.

The Beechwood Ministry Area, of course, finds itself in a different position from tiny rural churches; but most of the principles still apply. Here we have four large parishes and two small – each with its own distinct corporate personality and gifts to offer. Any might well have a reasonable claim to “mother church”, but I am sure that the cost of naming one would be far too high, and for no reward. Our success as a Ministry Area, our ability to thrive, depends upon our willingness to meet our neighbours as fair partners on a level-pegging. Thus, my intention as MAL is to welcome each church not as a mother or daughter, but as a “bride of Christ”, each with the same privilege of inheriting the Good News of Christ from the generations spanning 2000 years, and with the privilege of proclaiming it afresh in this time, this generation, and this place. Simply, there can be no greater honour – ever.