Oliver Harrison writes: I’m a vicar. I’ve been ordained more than 25 years and in my current post for over 15 years; I am, by some margin, the longest serving member of my deanery clergy chapter. In that time I have changed, the Church of England has changed, and the culture has changed; none, in my opinion, for the better. Nationally, the C-of-E is in a mess, declining and divided, our message mixed and muddled; an anxious institution, unsure of its place and purpose. Locally, on the coal face and at the grass roots, ministry is increasingly hard; the climate indifferent at best and toxic at worst. Being a vicar has changed for the worse, too. Clergy have been stripped of many ancient rights and privileges while new obligations and liabilities have increased. The burdens on us can be onerous. We could (and do) lie awake at night wondering and worrying about everything from safeguarding to sexuality. And when we finally leave full-time stipendiary ministry we find that the pension and retirement housing are no longer what we were promised. Quite simply the job ain’t what it was.
Speaking of pensions, there’s the small matter of parish share (or whatever your diocese calls it; “Common Fund” in my case, or at least I think it was, the last time I looked.) Part of the problem is practical: congregations haven’t returned in the same strength and numbers as before the pandemic and there’s a cost of living crisis that makes both asking and giving harder. The other part of the problem is one of principle. Dioceses want the best of both worlds. On the one hand they want clergy to be fully locally funded, like congregationalist ministers in independent churches. But more than just paying our own way they also want us to cover their costs, too. (Someone told me the CEO of my diocese is on a six figure salary. Personally I don’t believe it. Or rather, I don’t want to believe it.) Dioceses want clergy to support ourselves *and them* but at the same time the increasing managerialism and centralisation of the C-of-E means we are more and more de facto employees, ordered to obey and expected to comply. So it looks increasingly like the worst of both worlds: clergy are expected to be self-funding *and* subject to a high- and/or heavy-handed hierarchy.
This is part and parcel of the whole culture of the church, which has changed dramatically in the last ten or fifteen years. For a golden period that ended about a decade ago the message from the top was: “experiment, be creative, try a fresh expression: it’s better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.” Now the Church is more centralised, more top-down, more managerial. Common Tenure and the fear of disciplinary action (or worse: litigation) have robbed many clergy of their joy and spontaneity. “Don’t pick up the child!” (it might lead to allegations). “Don’t reach out and put your hand on that person’s arm to comfort them!” (it might be misinterpreted by them or someone else). “Always assume the least charitable interpretation of anything you post on social media, and then prepare to be quoted out of context” (expect to be accused, trolled, cancelled and doxxed). “Remember: the internet never forgets!” (so you can’t change your mind or retract.) Clergy didn’t join trade unions in the past; now they feel they have to, to protect themselves from both bishops and parishioners. Oh, and everything needs a risk assessment or faculty. Or both.
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New clergy don’t realise this. The way things are is all they’ve ever known. So they conform and comply with all sorts of things that they don’t need to because they think they have to. Two examples of this. First, fees. Many dioceses—including my own—insist that the archdeacon must grant permission before an incumbent waives fees. But that’s not what the law says. Incumbents have the sole right to waive fees at their own discretion (although this should not be the norm and is for cases of genuine hardship). So the diocesan policy is clearly ultra vires, but if you don’t know any better and you see it in writing then you do as you’re told.
Second, my diocese says I can’t have a vulnerable person staying at the vicarage unless a risk assessment is done first. First problem: these situations usually happen at very short notice (or none at all). Second problem: I, in common with all other incumbents, actually own the house. Third problem: define “vulnerable”. Fourth and final problem: suppose the person in question is my wife’s guest—what then? No: the whole thing is all an ass-covering exercise to stop the diocese being blamed (or even sued) if things go wrong, or at least to be able to distance themselves from any problems that might arise. These myriad, small and subtle power-grabs—a sort of death by a thousand cuts—should be challenged and resisted at every opportunity.
The Church of England also has very obtuse structures, especially regarding power, authority, and responsibility. I’m never quite sure what the chain of command is or where the demarcation of duties lies: who is responsible for what? And why? And how? This is a governance issue. Look at the ill-defined and overlapping layers—Incumbents, Wardens, PCCs, Rural Deans, Archdeacons, Bishops (Area or Suffragan and Diocesan), Diocesan Secretaries and Boards of Finance, Synods (Deanery, Diocesan and General), NCIs, Archbishops, etc etc—the bucks stop in several places, or nowhere at all. What usually happens then is one of two things. Either people or institutions think they have powers that they don’t have (and we end up with overreach) or the buck gets passed and never stops anywhere.
Perhaps we need more devolution? Return power to parishes (incumbents, Wardens and PCCs) and trust them to do the right thing by their communities in their local contexts according to their lights. Bishops, archdeacons et al. could then be on hand to support and advise when asked. But no: local leadership either gets completely ignored or they’re ordered around in ways that are patronising and infringe on such rights and responsibilities as they still have. Either way, expect it to be done without any of the statutory duty of care that an actual employer would have to provide. Again, the worst of all possible worlds for clergy.
Another problem is that the whole structure of the C-of-E is predicated on Christendom; parishes are outposts or local branches that serve a more or less Christian population (even if only latently or nominally so—the Christenings, weddings and funerals plus the annual festivals, now largely reduced to Christmas and Easter, although even they’re not what they were). Our whole model, the entire parish system, is no longer fit for purpose. But we cling on to the old order of things, so a priest ends up with a dozen or more parishes. Our plant is a huge hindrance, too: Grade 1 listed buildings with, among other things, patrons, legacies, and human remains—not to mention architecture, archeology and arcane legalities (but no toilets). Our building are often expensive to run and maintain; sometimes they are also miles away from where the people actually live. But how to reform? Change parish boundaries is hard; closing and disposing of a parish church is even harder. But we need to find a way to do it because some of these buildings are bleeding us of time, money and energy. These are resources we can ill-afford to squander and which if spent propping up the unviable are not available to be used in better places.
Then there’s dioceses. In an ideal world I’d pool all the DBFs’ funds into one pot. We used to have rich and poor parishes. Then the DBFs sequestrated parishes’ glebe and fees, a mini-nationalisation that equalised the differences. In reality all that happened is that the dioceses became meta-parishes, just as unevenly rich or poor and just as fire-walled against sharing with their neighbours as parishes used to be. The problem has simply gone up one level. Dioceses are now what parishes used to: unequal and unassailable. Let’s centralise all income, assets and liabilities so we can think and plan nationally, not as dioceses in silos. Parishes’ wealth has been centralised and their powers reduced. It’s now time to do the same to dioceses. Except: who can? The DBF is almighty and none of them wants to either share their wealth or take on another’s poverty.
But let’s consider dioceses themselves: what are they for? Are they even necessary? We have a crazy situation where some dioceses are tiny and some huge; some rich and some poor; some with expertise in this area, and others in that area; some do this well, others do that well. Kent, a small county, is home to two dioceses; other dioceses contain two large counties. It’s uneven, it’s unfair and it’s un-Christian. Why not replace them all with a single national body? Think of all the savings: the huge economies of scale; no more duplication of offices and plant taking up prime real estate in Cathedral cities; a single policy on all kinds of issues where there are currently confusing and contradictory differences; the ability to team up across diocesan borders where the human and physical geography dictates something other than an ancient and often arbitrary line on the map etc etc.
For years now parishes have been combined, abolished and occasionally created. This has often been done to make savings or to reflect the changing reality on the ground (motorways and new housing estates and so on). Sometimes it is to even-out the size of an area that a vicar looks after or to redistribute resources more equitably. All very commendable. My own parish, while still huge, has ceded territory to two of its neighbours in the last 30 years. It was good and right to do so; it made sense, on the ground. And yet these reforms still haven’t gone far or fast enough. More parishes need to be combined, formally or informally, or even abolished.
However, perhaps the single biggest stumbling block to this is the diocese. I am in Tamworth, right on the edge of one of the largest dioceses (Lichfield). My parish is down in the far south east corner; it sticks out like a peninsular: if the diocese was the UK then my parish is Kent. (And just as Kent is not far from London, so I am only about 8 miles away from the Cathedral. Because, like the UK, the capital of the diocese is itself nowhere near the centre but is also right down in the south east.) So in my otherwise town-wide deanery there are two parishes from Birmingham diocese. But they are not part of the deanery because they are not part of the diocese. This breaks up what could and should be a coherent urban unit and prevents all sorts of opportunities for sharing staff and resources or making new benefices and teams. Because while parishes boundaries are increasing written in pencil and prone to be merged or altered, the diocese border is still sacrosanct.
So my proposal: abolish dioceses. Or at the very least combine all their finances and administrative functions. A single Church of England HQ based in, say, Coventry. (A slightly arbitrary choice, but as good a place as any. It has the advantages of being a central and accessible location, combined with cheap property prices and a good ecclesiastical history). Cathedrals might still need to be separate, independent entities but all parishes and schools and chaplains and everything else could be be run centrally—efficiently and equitably. This requires a spirit of true Christian cooperation and generosity. A pooling and redistribution of resources. It would be ironic if dioceses behaved in a “parochial” manner by rejecting and refusing this. We are the national church, the church in and for and of the nation: let’s nationalise and act as one body. And, yes, I am aware of the irony and seeming contradiction here: having complained about increasing centralisation I am now calling for it.
But if we’re going to do it then let’s do it right. We’re never going back to the good old days (the incumbent’s freehold; one or more clergy in every single parish, however small; the church as a focal point in the life of the nation at every level; etc etc) so let’s modernise properly, with clear structures that are as simple and streamlined as possible. It might be necessary, desirable even, to keep dioceses as legal entities (somewhere for the bishop to hang his or her mitre) but all the pen-pushing and paperwork would be done in a single, central office.
Which reminds me: I’d keep bishops, obviously. (But not Archbishops. Or, rather, not both of them. Why do we need two provinces? Sorry York, your time is up.) My proposals would allow bishops to be the teachers, overseers and spiritual leaders they should be. (I don’t know, but I suspect bishops spend a lot of time and energy on things like CDMs, safeguarding, HR etc etc—which must be pretty depressing to be honest. It’s not a job I’d want; I pray for our bishops and I hope you do too). The episcopacy is a blessing to the church. But it could be even more of one. It is wrong of the synodical House of Bishops to meet in private through an abuse of process (invoking a standing order). As the only unelected House it behoves them to be open, transparent and accountable. I’d also pay bishops the same as their clergy: pay differentials give the lie to the claim that it’s a stipend rather than wages or salary (which are related to performance, hours, and/or responsibility) and create a very worldly sort of hierarchy. Freed from managerial admin—and, crucially, disciplinary proceedings against clergy—bishops would be able to be the priests’ priests, ecclesiastical father or mother figures to their clergy, and to play their part in the strategic leadership of the church.
So in an ideal world I’d abolish dioceses (de facto if not de jure). I’d also unlock some of the billions that the Church Commissioners have (did Lambeth Palace really need a £40 million library?) to return clergy pensions to their previous levels. I might—might—even abolish parishes. We’re hobbled by an arcane and archaic structure that is no longer fit for purpose and is certainly unaffordable. It is also unagile and almost impossible to change fast and/or fundamentally. The ship is sinking; do we have the will and the wherewithal to save it? The other day I saw a nice quote: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the person I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.” That “person” is the Church of England. We need to change. But do we have the wisdom and courage to do so?
Permit me one final point: the pandemic. As has previously been noted on this blog, the hierarchy of the church could not have handled it worse if they’d tried. Really, really disappointing to say the least. The panic and overreach—never marks of good leadership at the best of times—were appalling. The subsequent gaslighting was disgusting, if I’m being honest. Gaslighting? Yes. The infamous ad clerum of 24th March which locked clergy out of our churches was later claimed, mendaciously and unconvincingly, to be “guidance, not instruction”. But there is simply no way in the world that anyone could have read it as as such (it used the word “must” seven times). Claiming it was anything other than a three-line whip was an insult to the intelligence of the clergy and a self-inflicted injury to the integrity of the bishops. Well, we all make mistakes. And when you mess up, fess up. But “sorry” seems to be the hardest word.
The result is that a lot of respect, trust and goodwill was unnecessarily forfeited by the bishops in 2020. And locally? On the whole clergy rose to the challenge and did a superb job. But since the pandemic my church has lost about a third of the congregation, and most of those missing are the young adults, families and children. We’ve lost perhaps two thirds or three quarters of that crucial demographic. They simply haven’t come back, despite repeated (exhaustive and exhausting) efforts. My church has long covid: we are weaker, smaller and older—much, much older—than we were in 2018/19. We’re demoralised and discouraged but “having done all, we stand”, holding out the offer of faith, hope and love in a dark and disordered world.
I feel like I’m pedalling a bicycle up a hill. The hill (context) has become steeper and the weather (culture, climate) worse. The bike (church) is heavy and rusty; the tyres are leaking air and the gears slip. It’s hard work. And the rider (me) is older, aching, and tired. Few people are cheering me on; the cars and lorries pass too close; I’m cold and wet and it’s getting dark. Ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago it felt different: easier in every way; still a lot of effort but with results to show for it. Now, not so much. Meanwhile, we carry on as best as we can—offering the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, to as many as will hear and receive it.
Well, God bless the Church of England. And if any of this resonates with you then God bless you too. “We have this treasure in jars of clay”, we are vexed and “perplexed, but not in despair” (2 Cor 4.7–8)—well, maybe sometimes. But we offer it up. We also offer ourselves and our church—no, not OUR church, HIS church—to his service. Amen.
Revd Oliver Harrison is Vicar of Holy Trinity Wilnecote. He is currently reading Ronald Knox’s “The Three Taps” and Kyril Bonfiglioli’s “The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery” while listening to Sufjan Stevens’ new album or Gideon Coe on 6Music. He loves his 100 year old tortoise and vintage motorbikes.