Milton Keynes is at a turning point. As the “city” celebrates its 50th anniversary there is a lot to celebrate, but there are also new challenges and opportunities to address. In 2017 we will also be electing a new Deanery Synod, so this is a good time to look back – and think ahead…

2005-14: Managing a Crisis

2005 was a big year for Milton Keynes Deanery. It was the year when a number of crises came together and forced us to take a new look at our situation. The original phase of church planting in the city had been fruitful in some ways, but not everything had gone as planned. Some of the churches which had been pioneered with great enthusiasm were struggling in their second or third generation. Fewer churches had been built than expected. Church attendance in the city was among the lowest in the country. Ecumenical hopes were being dashed in the reality of twenty-first century church life…

The key problem for us was that we were highly dependent on the Diocese for funding; raising only 41% of our costs locally. Many of our churches were quite small, but had a full-time minister. We were unsustainable, clergy-dependent, ecumenically bureaucratic and maintenance-focused.

Turning this situation around required team-work, sacrifice and a lot of creativity. By 2014 our share contributions were more appropriate, our deployment of clergy more sensible, and our ecumenical conversations increasingly focused on mission.

2014-17: Setting Priorities

By 2014 we were well on the way to cracking the big problems that had required so much effort. The focus of this Synod was therefore on how we could function effectively as the Anglican Church in Milton Keynes. What could our Deanery add to the bigger picture? How were we going to use our resources? What work were we going to prioritise at deanery level? We consciously chose not to tell parishes what to do, but to think about how the Deanery could add value…

These thoughts produced five key priorities:

1. Keeping God at the Heart
2. Building Relationships
3. Building Capacity
4. Working Together
5. Being Good Stewards

(See the Deanery Plan for more – or the DLT Report for the kind of things we did…)

We also worked hard to get our governance running well, so a lot of effort was put into the DMPC and Synod…

2017-20: An Emerging Agenda…

All of this means that we are in a fairly healthy position as a new Synod is elected – at a time when fresh opportunities are beginning to emerge. Milton Keynes is about to grow yet again – taking things well beyond the original boundaries. Poverty is on the increase, and people are struggling. Our community is facing new challenges as austerity continues to dominate local politics. At the same time, our city is maturing and new possibilities are appearing all the time…

I would like to suggest five big issues that will dominate our agenda over the next three years – and beyond…

  1. Church Growth
  2. The Common Good
  3. Developing Leadership
  4. Being a Blessing beyond MK
  5. Resources for Mission

1. Church Growth

  • Pioneer Ministry in New Areas
  • Lay-led Fresh Expressions
  • Re-planting struggling congregations
  • Filling in the Gaps
  • Building up Resource Churches
  • Looking beyond the original borders…
  • Local Training and Vocation

The city has been expanding at an incredible rate and more is planned for the next few years. The Council is working on a plan for new developments that will take us to 2031 and the Government is preparing to launch a new “mini-region” stretching from Oxford to Cambridge, with Milton Keynes right at the middle – and a new Development Corporation to manage it all.

Over the past few years we’ve been deploying “pioneer ministers” into the larger expansion areas. We aimed to have three: one in the East, one in the South and one in the West. Church without Walls was launched four years ago, and Ben Thorpe was licensed in Newton Leys in September 2016. These projects have already made an impact, but we will need more, given the scale of new development.

Pioneer Ministry is only part of the solution though. Given the size of the city we will also need lay-led fresh expressions – and research has shown these are particularly effective in reaching “unchurched” people. Katharine Crowsley is a licensed lay pioneer who started out with a project called Cook@Chapel in Hanslope. She was trained by CMS and has taught in regional Mission Shaped Ministry courses. She is currently leading some Mission Shaped Intro courses in MK and plans to run a Mission Shaped Ministry course here in the Autumn. We need people like Katharine to train and support new lay leaders who will build new Christian community in their local areas.

We have a strong history in Milton Keynes of planting new churches, but many of them struggled after the first generation of leaders had moved on. Some of the churches which were founded with great enthusiasm in the eighties and nineties are now declining into single figures. The reasons for this are often complicated, but we do need to think about how we re-launch or build-up these churches. One good example of a “re-plant” was the congregation at Two Mile Ash which was given a new lease of life thanks to the Nigerian Anglican Chaplaincy. We have recently made arrangements to “transplant” a group from St Mary’s Bletchley to St Frideswides Water Eaton. These “re-launches” should not be seen as a sign of failure but a recognition that church planting is hard – and it takes long term commitment to build a sustainable congregation.

There are also many “gaps” in the city where we didn’t plant churches or engage with local community. Some grid squares have two or three churches in them, while others have no local church – and often no members in the church that officially serves their area. The challenge is not just to think about new areas but also to fill in the gaps and work towards a more comprehensive plan for church in Milton Keynes.

In order to provide resources for mission and long-term support we will need more congregations willing to act as “resource” churches for a larger area. St Mary’s Bletchley has already begun to work in this way with work in Newton Leys and Water Eaton, but we will need more. We need churches that can spearhead and support mission in new areas, and maintain that support over an extended period of time. Given the scale of the challenge, there will be plenty of opportunities, but will many of our churches catch this vision?

The next phase of growth and expansion will take the city beyond the original development borders – in fact we’ve already began to tinker at the edges… One of the most difficult challenges that lies ahead will be the negotiation with other deaneries and dioceses about the shape of Milton Keynes and the work that needs to be done. We’ve got the experience and expertise, but the agenda may well be dominated by new partners. How do we ensure that the deanery develops as a coherent mission unit?

We will also need to think again about training in Milton Keynes. How do we generate the ministry that we need in this city? Do we need more local training? How do we keep experienced clergy in the city?

2. The Common Good

  • Proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom
  • Ecumenical Partnership through Mission
  • Interfaith relationships through shared agenda
  • Action and discipleship go together
  • Partnerships work!

Church growth will only be half of the story. We also need to work with others for the common good of our communities. We need more church members so they can make a bigger impact on Milton Keynes through works of loving service. The more we engage with the agenda of Christian service, the more we will grow as disciples. Church growth and the common good are two sides of the same coin. We need to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom – and use words if necessary…

The community of Milton Keynes needs the churches – whether it is feeding children, helping the homeless or welcoming refugees we have a lot to offer. We can and are making a difference and Anglican churches must make this a top priority.

Milton Keynes has a strong history of ecumenical partnership, but the story has moved on a long way since the early vision. The dream of structural unity has proven a dead end, but we are discovering that effective mission requires partnership. In this new era we’re working closely with a new set of partners, and it is great to see what we can achieve if we work together.

Our relationships with other faith communities is also growing as we work with them for the sake of the common good. CitizensMK has provided us with a powerful methodology, which is helping build relationships, grow leaders and change our city for the better. Many of us have been involved in the Weaving Trust campaign which has helped build bridges between different communities. As we work with our brothers and sisters from other faith groups in this way, we impact our city and break down barriers – without losing our own identity.

As Milton Keynes faces the consequences of Brexit, austerity and deepening poverty we need to get involved. Churches are called to be the body of Christ in the world and we must make this a top priority.

3. Developing Leadership

  • We need more leaders!
  • There will be fewer “vicars” available
  • Leaders need to be nurtured and supported
  • Different models?
  • Training and Vocation
  • Community Organising?

We need more leaders if we are to achieve our goals. Good leaders build vision, empower others and bring people together for action. We need a “leader rich church” if we’re going to tackle the challenges of the future. The leadership we need will be both lay and ordained, voluntary and paid. We will need a diverse and multi-skilled generation of leaders who can play a wide variety of roles in the church of tomorrow.

We need, however, to face the reality that there will be fewer ordained clergy available nationally because of demographic changes and a different economic climate. There are already fewer clergy available when we advertise posts, which means that parishes have less choice – and often have to wait a long time for an appointment. This problem will not easily go away.

We’ve had some success in training and equipping lay leaders here in Milton Keynes and the situation is very different now from the way it was some time ago – but there is a long way to go if we’re going to crack this one. We need more local training, freedom to recruit for different roles and mechanisms for employing people more creatively.

All this has implications for the way our incumbent clergy work. They will need to be “community organisers” rather than doers. This will require skills in mentoring, supervision, and team leadership – and many of them will need training and support for this new role.

4. Being a Blessing Beyond MK

  • Milton Keynes is growing! Tipping point?
  • A Blessing not a Burden
  • New mini-region – “Heart of England”
  • New Development Corporation
  • National Leadership
  • Rural Areas?

5. Resources for Mission

  • From Sustainability to Investment
  • Need for new resources as city grows
  • Need for new resources to fulfil our vision
  • Risk: Return to dependency?
  • Planning: How do we manage our share and budget?
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