I’ve just devoured James Rebanks‘ The Shepherd’s Life, which is a fascinating and brilliantly written account of his life as a shepherd on the Cumbrian fells (with a little international consultancy on the side to help with the bills). As near as I can reckon, it tells us non-farmers what it really means to live with that connection to a place and to a way of life which is almost completely foreign to a market society. Looking at it from the outside, why would anyone work so incredibly hard for such little reward? But that question only makes sense when you’re thinking of ‘work’ and ‘life’ as two different things. You contract for work in order to have enough money to get on with the things you really want to do.

But for farmers – or at least for Rebanks – it’s not like that. The life and the living are one and the same thing. You have to make enough money to survive, so you work as cannily as you can to maximise your return. But that’s not the heart of it. Rebooks begins by talking about the way sheep on the fells are ‘hefted’ to a specific area. Even though there aren’t any fences, they know their territory, and that’s where they stay. It’s their space. As a one-time walker on the Cumbrian fells, I can attest to the indignation of a Hardwick sheep when confronted by a stranger carrying a knapsack. One definitely gets the feeling that they’re thinking ‘if I had proper teeth, I’d be after you …’.

Rebooks leaves the reader to makes the connection with himself and his fellow farmers. But they too are hefted to their places. Not necessarily the individual farm, because people move from time to time. But to the area, the territory, they are inextricably linked. A lot of Church of England clergy feel just the same about their parishes.

Given the centuries of describing Christian ministry as ‘pastoral’ (pastor = shepherd), `i couldn’t help starting to think about the connections. Ito s an important part of our Anglican life that the normal way of ordaining or licensing any priest (or for that matter bishop) is to a specific place. We are not free-floating; our ministry is always to a place or to a community. Sometimes nowadays the community on question may be a non-geographical one, a virtual community, but there is a community nevertheless. And the great strength of the parish model is that it reminds clergy in the Anglican tradition (even those not licensed to geographical parishes) that our ministry is not just to the gathered congregation, but to all.

The parish system was set up for a pattern of ministry in which it was expected that the majority of people – in principle, all the people – would be connected to their parish church for at least the rituals of living and dying, and often much more. We no longer live in that world, and less so as the years go by. The reduction in the number of people identifying as ‘Anglican’ may not make much difference to church attendance (they mostly didn’t come anyway), but it does make a difference to baptisms, weddings and funerals. Parish priests (already in many places; increasingly so in the future) cannot expect to be have a key role in the lives of the families of the parish, just by virtue of their role.

Does that mean then that we give up on the parish as a unit of organisation? Not according to the clergy of the Church of England, for whom it remains a key and valued part of what our church means. That response rejoices my heart, but I’m also all too well aware of how stressful parish ministry is for many clergy. I want to see parish ministry continue and flourish, but parishes and their clergy can only do so if the patterns by which we have worked are transformed. In order to preserve what we have, we need to change it.

Firstly, we need to start thinking of the parish system not as a gift of an existing set of pastoral relationships, but as a specific and special field of mission. Parish clergy can’t expect the parish to come to them, but they know where the focus is for their reaching out with the good news of the gospel. (See my last post for some more of what I mean …). That doesn’t just provide a piece of territory: it sustains a particular view of the church’s mission, which is what maintains the continuity with the earlier model of the parish. There is the same care for the whole community, the same openness to all, the same rootedness in place – now offered to a wider community that does not any longer think of itself as belonging to the church, and which does not speak the language of faith. The worshipping community also is committed to its place and its parish, but also knows that it has something distinctive and different by virtue of being the church, which it offers to the parish of which it is also part.

Secondly – and this is really where I get back to James Rebanks – if the parish system is to thrive, it will only do so by re-thinking the messages that underlie our pastoral model of ministry. My perception of the Anglican ideal, at least as it has been expressed in many traditions within the church, is that the pastor should be continually, intimately involved with the life of his flock. He or she knows the details of their lives, is aware of all the different currents of joy and sorrow in the community, lives the life of the flock day by day and minute by minute. I suspect it’s always been a myth, but it was maybe once a myth with power to inspire and encourage. As the number of clergy decreases through retirement – and the number of worshipping communities remains very much the same – that vision can increasingly only be one which demoralises and defeats the clergy. And when it is also the expectation of the people of God in a local church, it can lead only to frustration and a sense of having been abandoned, when the clergy are no longer able even to aspire to such a form of ministry.

So we want to renew the parish system, with a vision for mission in each local place, and simultaneously to liberate both the lay people of the church and the clergy from an unsustainable ideal of pastoral ministry.

So, what about the sheep on the Cumbrian fells? Herdwicks live for months of the year on their fell – their place, their territory, even their parish – without seeing a shepherd at all. When times are all right, they fend for themselves. Rebanks talks about going onto the fells when the weather is bad, and finding that the older ewes, experienced in storms, have already led much of the flock into the most sheltered places. Does that mean that Rebanks is no longer their shepherd? Of course not – he searches out the sheep who haven’t made it to safety, he ensures that there is feed for the flock. And when the flock need to have closer care, especially at lambing time, he gathers them off the fell and is there night and day to take care of sheep and lambs.

The church’s model of the shepherd always there, always nudging and urging, correcting and caring, is not the only one. Being a shepherd can also mean equipping a flock to organise themselves, being there for the key moments of celebration or crisis. The sheep know who their shepherd is without needing to see him or her every day, and s/he knows the flock likewise.

Could we dare to think about pastoral ministry this way? For worshipping communities to become able to sustain and maintain their lives much more independently, knowing and loving their clergy, and being known and loved in return, but leaving behind the dream of an impossible intimacy? It wouldn’t just mean change for clergy, but for the whole people of God. But it might be what enables the renewal of parish ministry for the next generation of the church’s life.