A Letter From The Front Line

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.

Come and join my teaching morning on Zoom on 28th October 2023 on the The End of the World and the ‘end times’ here.

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.

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89 thoughts on “A Letter From The Front Line”

  1. In answer to Oliver’s point about diocesan overheads, the Lichfield DBF accounts reveal that one employee (presumably the diocesan secretary) was on a total package of between £130k and £140k in 2021.

  2. As a lay-person hanging onto the C of E (in the same diocese) if by the skin of my teeth, I agree with much of this. But a key issue is not addressed. It’s not only the outdated structural barriers that have to be addressed. The doctrinal pre-scientific claims of an interventionist supernatural God, atonement for my ‘sins’ etc etc are increasingly unbelievable in the modern world. The Bible needs to be contextualised – interpreted not just endlessly repeated. Jesus needs to be rescued from the Church. We need new wine and new wineskins. There has to be more honest talk of what we believe – and what we don’t – or only a marginal self-authenticating sect will be left. Otherwise it’s just re-arranging the deckchairs.

    • So do you think the New Testament is mistaken in its depiction of a supernaturalist God?

      In the UK, which churches are growing—those who do believe in a supernaturalist God, or those who don’t?

      • Well here is the elephant i room behind our decline. ‘We have all the answers and everyone else is wrong’ just doesn’t work now. That’s why so many people find it difficult to engage in conversation with us. Evangelicalism is only popular among a very small percentage of the population. It’s a sect, not a Church for all. Most people cannot accept a world-view conceived 2000 years ago. We have learned a lot since and unless we find new ways of expressing the Christian story it will become just a club for those willing to go along with it, alongside JWs, Mormons (also growing) and all the rest. We certainly don’t need all our current buildings, clergy, bishops and structures just for what is now such a tiny organisation. I would like the C of E to keep a much wider more inclusive vision that looks for truths all around us and re-imagines the old ideas in our much more diverse C21st context. A Church that works for about 2% isn’t enough for me.

        • Perhaps you need to get out a little more…?!

          Church attendance in the UK is around 10%. Only 2% attend C of E churches. The rest attend churches which are more evangelical, and within the C of E most of the churches which are growing are evangelical.

          In Nottingham, the only churches which are growing and which attract young people are evangelical, and most of them are not Anglican.

          So I think you have a problem with the empirical evidence, and not just with Scripture.

          • Attendance at Roman Catholic and Liberal Catholic Anglican churches combined in the UK is still more than attendance at evangelical churches

      • Obviously if you don’t believe God interacts with the world you are Deist not Christian. The question is how. On this I found Keith Ward’s book Divine Action helpful.

    • The Virgin birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ are unavoidably supernatural and utterly central. What needs to go is the view that started with Gregory ‘the Great’ that believers are tossed about haplessly by angels and demons (and that safety lies only in the church’s sacraments). Gregory was brought up in the city of Rome at the time when its population collapsed and its great buildings of state ceased to be maintained. You can see where he got his gloomy view from, and it still casts a shadow today. Believers have spiritual victory. We are not ‘miserable sinners’ in our core identity. We are redeemed persons who sin – which is not the same thing.

      A presentation of the gospel for a secular society is included here:


        • The sermons in Acts addressed to Jews, who knew the Old Testament intimately, are unsuitable for gentiles. And Acts 17 to gentiles, at least, was a disaster for Paul, who soon quit for Corinth where he repudiated his former preaching satrategy to both Jew and gentile and instead started by “knowing nothing while among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”. A flourishing church with the gifts of the Spirit sprang up there, whereas there is no record of the same in Athens.

          We must preach differently to pagans, to Muslims, to Jews and to atheists, just as Paul preached differently to Jew and Greek. There is no one-size-fits-all evangelistic sermon in the New Testament. Be not dismayed, for the (true) church has the Holy Spirit and knows how to go about it everywhere.

      • “We are not ‘miserable sinners’ … we are redeemed persons who sin”

        Another problem is the change in the language and its effect on our understanding of what it originally expressed in our formularies. You’re obviously referencing, at least in part, the General Confession of BCP Morning (and Evening) Prayer: “O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.”

        What Cranmer intended by those words in context was something like, “O Lord, do not treat us as we, in all honesty, deserve, for we have comprehensively offended against you and have no defence but your mercy.”

        Again, in context, that is predicated on confident faith in God’s mercy and grace (freely and lovingly giving us what we don’t deserve). This has to be profoundly understood before it can be practised and preached. And too many clergy and laity simply balk at the words, ignore their context and meaning, and throw the lot out, and in the process impoverish themselves and the church and nation.

        • If the language is so out of date as to be widely misunderstood then the liturgy needs updating. But my main point is not about the adjective miserable but about the noun sinners. We are holy ones (saints), who sin – a very different idea.

    • You seem to be saying the church should change its core beliefs to suit wider society. Given that societies change that means those beliefs should continually change. But what about reality?

      Many Christians, including myself, have scientific backgrounds and see no contradiction between a God who intervenes in his own creation and scientific findings. It’s his creation! Im not even sure what a non-supernatural God is – one who set the ball rolling aeons ago, and then sat back?

      And if you dont think you need your own sins dealt with, then one wonders why youre a Christian. Perhaps you should read Tom Holland’s book to see how Christianity has changed the world over the last 2000 years.

  3. Indeed. Worse still is the level of diocesan unlawfulness, dishonesty and corruption. If you ask questions they turn the tables on you, accuse and threaten. Whistle-blowing policies apply only to employees, not parish clergy. And CDM process is abused. So clergy are fearful. Blatant unlawfulness is condoned. And huge energy is put into gaslighting and cover up.

      • Anthony, given how high up you operate or have operated institutionally, how can you speak at such a level of generality and dismissiveness? If people lower down are more nuanced and precise, oughtn’t they to be the ones higher up?
        Andrew Goddard is one of the most precise, careful and detailed writers one can find. That is the reverse of being an emotion-driven person who rants.

  4. Reading…Oh yes, I used to do that once upon a time, when I was a curate. I do read what Ian Paul blogs because, mercifully, he does the reading for me and summarises it all up in something I can grab 10 minutes time for.

    Thanks to the Lord my prayer life and sense of humour are still intact!

  5. The writer refers to his post as a “job”. Someone doing a job is answerable. If self-employed, you must provide a service others want at a price they are prepared to pay. If employed, you must do what your employer tells you, you can be made redundant and you can be sacked. It seems to me as a layman that some clergy want the protection of employment but not its duties.
    The value of the free vicarage is considerable. In my diocese, the value of the stipend, pension and parsonage can total three times the average salary.
    There is an objection to “management”. But all management means is doing things properly. The church cannot run everything as if it were a parish jumble sale.
    The writer has some genuine grievances, but the picture is not as one-sided as he represents.

    • “The writer refers to his post as a “job”. Someone doing a job is answerable.”

      Non sequitur. But as it happens I am answerable. And my use of “job” throughout the piece is colloquial and shorthand.

      “It seems to me as a layman that some clergy want the protection of employment but not its duties.” At the moment clergy have the opposite: e.g. liable to disciplinary actions but without recourse to employment tribunals.

      “The value of the free vicarage is considerable.” Actually that is very good point. A detached four bedroom house in, say, Oxford or London is worth three, four, five times that of one in, say, Blackpool. It’s funny how vacancies in “nice” places attract more applicants — where the package is worth more (because of the value of the house) and where spouses are likely to find better paid employment, schools are “oustanding”, crime is low, etc

    • So, at the very least, to what do you attribute the loss of confidence in the Church of England that the writer shares? I’m “retired clergy” now but I’m quite aware that he’s not alone. Or are *they* all deluded? Have you not heard the wider cry that pastoral support for parish clergy seems to have fallen through the floor.

      You also seem take the use of “job” captive to your reply rather then in the context of the post… which is “Being a vicar”. I’m not a supporter of “unchecked vicaring”, especially as I served as a Team Rector for 20 years… but the comparison with self employed /or “provide a service at an acceptable cost” is radically unfitting.

      Management isn’t a dirty word in parish ministry but the assumption it’s always well done itself cannot possibly be justified by real life.

      Stipends… You’re analysis isn’t without merit but it’s not that simple. Eg. Vicarages… I’ve frozen in the large Victorian unmodernised, had furniture go mouldy in another because of the (known) damp, moved into one where the downstairs windows would not close… and lived in one (owned by a trust not the diocese) that was a delight. At retirement the vicarage is worth zero.

      Where’s your comment about Bishop’s stipends or even residential canons… or £100k+ plus salaries for diocesan staff? What are these packages worth? Nope, I’m not jealous nor do I think that stipends should match them…neither do I think there should be the vast gap.

    • In reference to his “job” I read it as the author saying he was increasingly answerable. He also adds the added nuance of whom he is answerable to: diocese or parish (as he deals with in his questioning around the funding of his post).

      I wouldn’t argue with you that the value of a free vicarage is considerable. But, I would say that it is also limited. It is limited working life (with both the options of post retirement housing and overall pension value being significantly altered recently). It is also provided with conditions, on both usage and expectation on repairs (eg. most parish clergy are now made responsible for the ageing trees they inherit in their gardens, as they don’t fit within a diocesan parsonage budget).

      I don’t recognise your definition as management meaning doing things properly. Doing things how someone else mandates, yes. I think the author is, rightly in my opinion, asking if a diocese – in it’s current organisation, is the right entity to ‘manage’ this.

  6. “There is an objection to “management” But all management means is doing things properly’.

    The writer is not objecting to management. He is objecting to improper management that is ineffective, unaccountable and puts unnecessary burdens on clergy.

  7. The current focus on safeguarding came about for a reason. It can occasionally seem like over-compensation for past abuses of power but it’s a huge red flag to imply that the focus on safeguarding is a “problem”.

    Priests no longer have any real “authority”. They can build-up a following and be well-liked but the position itself is no longer respected. Ours is an atheist/agnostic nation. Perhaps that’s why the only growing churches are the more cult-like churches – a system which only gives bad actors (if they exist within a particular church) further opportunities to abuse systems of trust.

    • “it’s a huge red flag to imply that the focus on safeguarding is a “problem”.”

      I am not implying that at all. Interesting that you infer it though.

      • Maybe this paragraph gave me the idea…

        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.”

        This kind of talk provides cover for manipulative and abusive individuals.

          • Do you have a better solution? I have enhanced DBS and regular safeguarding training so (on paper) I’m safe and trustworthy but no system is perfect. If I did what the diocese says then on several occasions vulnerable people would have slept on the streets or (at best) stayed with people who don’t have a DBS because there wasn’t time to arrange a risk assessment etc etc. Do you honestly think that would have been better? I don’t. And that’s quite apart from the fact that I own the house.

          • Do you have a better solution?

            Go along with what is asked of you regarding safeguarding. Don’t challenge the process.

            Safeguarding in the CofE is incredibly weak as it is. Don’t try to undermine it further.

  8. Well that was depressing! Sadly so because it is a pretty balanced diagnosis of the current state of the CofE. So I agree with the diagnosis but can’t countenance the proposed treatment. More centralisation is not the answer, because it will not lead to the sunlit uplands of less managerialism but to more layers of management, more bureaucracy, even less trust in the ability of the trained (professional?) clergy on the ground, and decision making taken even further away from parishes. I admit I don’t have a better solution, but the one proposed fills me with horror!

    • I caught a fascinating programme – The Best Medicine – on Radio 4 yesterday in the 6.30 comedy slot, which was funny but also contained some genuinely moving contributions, and it concluded with a significant truth that pertains to Oliver’s post: The Best Medicine is trust. Reflecting on this during the day leads me to think that is what is at the heart of many of the issues that Oliver identifies. NCIs don’t trust dioceses, the HoB don’t trust GS to come up with the right answers, bishops don’t trust parish clergy to do a good job, parish clergy don’t trust bishops to have their back when things go wrong. The unpalatable catch is that trust takes a long time to earn, and can be destroyed in an instant. I am reminded of this ancient wisdom, that might just be applicable to the present discussion: Proverbs 3.5-6, Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight.

  9. It’s not apparent to the population what the message is. But there is a lot of money available that can be used to make it apparent. Those who have most confidence in the message (and clarity about what the message is) are the same ones who have the capital to broadcast it. I think there was a good size base that agreed on the message and could go places – a national Christian movement that would moreover be recognised as such internationally – from around 1954-5 (Billy Graham) through 1971 (Festival of Light) to late 1980s till early 1990s (Marches for Jesus). Since that time, individual churches and church groups have more done their own thing, and often been very effective in so doing, though the sense of a national Christian movement is less, in fact very low now. It does strike me though that in the 3 examples cited there was both (a) a burning drive, (b) a righteous drive, (c) a clear and compelling message.

    • The ‘compelling message’ has to ideally, be relatively ‘doctrinally minimalist’ – just as in the preaching accounts in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’.

      • The preaching accounts are summaries, otherwise the whole thing would have been over in a few seconds.
        First the author summarises,
        second the summary is naturally much shorter than the reality,
        third people read it and wrongly conclude that the whole talk was very short.

  10. Though the national hierarchy scandalously abandoned the field of battle during covid i’m afraid the PCCs were little better.

    I was elected to our PCC in late 2020. Before my first meeting the government indicated that although another lockdown was coming, churches could remain open for worship. We received an email from the vicar before the meeting to the effect that keeping the church open was much too dangerous and that the PCC should vote to close it.

    So my first action as a PCC member was to lose a vote for the church to remain open by, I think, 24 votes to 1. It takes a special kind of awkwardness to remain a PCC member after a drubbing like that first up!

    A few weeks later when reopening was discussed again we received representation from the elderly members from the earlier service about how they too wanted church to reopen as they missed it, and STILL a majority voted with the vicar to remain closed.

  11. Just spotted an error though. I said “Many dioceses—including my own—insist that the archdeacon must grant permission before an incumbent waives fees.”


    The Diocese actually say: “The practice of waiving statutory fees has been relaxed under the new Fees Measure from 2013. A PCC has more power to waive fees if they so wish both local and statutory. In order to do this the Minister in Charge plus the Wardens must document the reasons for a fee being waived and present this to the PCC where the reason and date is required to be recorded. The DBF fee can only be waived with written consent from the Diocesan Office [that last sentence is in bold type]”

    (Source: https://d3hgrlq6yacptf.cloudfront.net/…/1610361268.pdf )

    The law says: “The incumbent or priest in charge of the benefice or, where there is no such person, the rural dean of the deanery, in which the relevant parish or the place where the service or other event takes place is situated, may waive any fee payable to the Diocesan Board of Finance, in a particular case.”

  12. Re having vulnerable people to stay, here’s what my diocese says:

    “Clergy should not utilise vicarages for residency or shelter of vulnerable persons without informing the rural dean, archdeacon, or a Bishop. The diocese safeguarding team should be aware if this occurs. An appropriate risk assessments must be undertaken before using a vicarage building in this way. This does not apply to visiting friends and family for personal stay’s and specifically applies only to the provision of accommodation in the context of a place of safety.”

    Source: https://d3hgrlq6yacptf.cloudfront.net/5f3ffdd147bb3/content/pages/documents/diocese-safeguarding-policy-and-guidance-2021-v22.pdf

    I have a house that I rent out. I wouldn’t dream of imposing conditions on who my tenants could have staying with them. And clergy are not tenants; they own their parsonages. I’m not sure that it is lawful for a third party (the Diocese) to apply those conditions on someone else’s property.

    • So Oliver, do you not have a sub-letting clause in your tenancy agreement that prevents your tenant from further letting the property? In the house I own and rent out I do. That is a kind of restriction placed on who can be in the house.
      My own thoughts on your diocesan views on vulnerable people is that it is a fairly obvious response to the numerous historic safeguarding cases where vicarages have been inappropriately used. Surely we need to protect vulnerable people first and foremost. Your diocese does allow family and friends to stay, and they do not define who is a friend. So clergy in your diocese have a fair amount of flexibility about who can stay with them. If you were the vulnerable persons family, wouldn’t you want to know that they were allowed to stay in the vicarage only after some assessment of risk?

      • “Your diocese does allow family and friends to stay, and they do not define who is a friend.”

        How generous of them! But it is not their place to have any say in who can stay in my house.

        • It’s not your house.

          You also mentioned re pensions. I thought clergy got around 2/3 of their yearly income as their pension. That is even more than civil servants who get (or used to get) 1/2 maximum. And of course if youve lived rent free for a few decades, are clergy unable to save a considerable amount of money, at least compared to most other people who are required to pay rent or a mortgage for a large part of their lives?

          • 2/3rds of £27k = £18k. I’m not sure what the civil service equivalent post would be to a Vicar but I would bet that the pension is more than that. Civil Servants also generally retire MUCH earlier (often at 60 or even before).

            “And of course if youve lived rent free for a few decades, are clergy unable to save a considerable amount of money, at least compared to most other people who are required to pay rent or a mortgage for a large part of their lives?”

            I’m guessing you’re not a stipendiary c-of-e clergy person?

            The pay is “only” £27k *because* we get free housing for the duration of our service. Many clergy only have their stipend with no other income or capital to support themselves and their dependents. As such they cannot afford to save much and cannot afford to buy a property (finding the 20% deposit would be hard, buy-to-let mortgages are priced higher than normal ones and many of the tax breaks for landlords have gone.)

            Out of interest what’s your income and do you own property?

          • @PC1 Oh, and one more thing: your average civil servant will own a house outright, bought and paid for in full, by the time they retire. That’s a lot of capital. Your average vicar, on the other hand, will likely have to rent somewhere out of her £18k pension . . . .

            Apart from that, your comparison stands up very well!

    • Clergy do not own personages. They do not buy them. They cannot sell them. Clergy are in tied accommodation. The property is owned by the diocese.

      • “Clergy do not own personages.”


        “They do not buy them.”


        “They cannot sell them.”


        “Clergy are in tied accommodation.”


        “The property is owned by the diocese.”


          • Thanks Oliver. That is how I had always understood it.

            That is why dioceses can only do things with parsonages during vacancy—though I don’t know the legal situation vis-a-vis the parish.

          • Hi Oliver.
            A faithfully evangelical approach!
            A disputed question. We return to the Word.
            “What is written in the Law?… how do you read it?” Luke 10.26
            And the meaning of the text seems totally clear. Vicars own their vicarages.
            But in your exposition of that text you made five assertions. All five are true.
            But two of them completely contradict the other three by any normally understood meaning of ‘ownership’. Privilege one assertion to the exclusion of the others as a basis for action and we would be seriously misled.
            If the literal text is to be a reliable guide it needs to become an interpreted text. It always does. The truth of what ‘ownership’ means in the Church of England at this point is altogether more complex. So we are both right – and both wrong.
            Grace and peace

          • David, the point of Oliver’s claim was that the diocese has no right to act as landlord and assume the incumbent is a tenant. That is entirely unrelated to whether the incumbent has the right to sell the property.

            Evangelicals do read the word, but interpret it carefully…

  13. As a resident of Leicestershire, I am inclined to ask about the effect a suggested plan to abolish the diocese would have on ‘Minister Communities’, and/or whether there is anything we can learn from the MC about how effectively devolution works in practice when it has been tried?

  14. Oliver,
    Thank you so much for writing this, disheartening as it is to read. Much of what you say rings bells, but to see it laid out so clearly is striking. As someone who has spent 20 years in chaplaincy, and is now weighing up thoughts about a return to parish ministry, I’ve been given plenty of food for thought.
    I shall pray for you and your ministry.
    Best wishes,

  15. Thank you for your article, depressing but so much of it rings true! One thing I don’t think you mentioned, perhaps it’s not a problem in Lichfield, but here in London we have the constant and insidious drip of the overarching influence of ‘groups’ such as HTB who seem to get all the money they want.

    • HTB projects often apply for and receive SDF money because they have gone through the process that anyone can access.

      Otherwise, they have money because they actively teach about giving, which many Anglican churches fail to do.

      • You say that “anyone can access” the process, but one of the problems with the SDF is that the process for applying for funding makes is so complex that it effectively excludes any church, body or network that doesn’t have the expertise required. That has meant that most of the money has been hoovered up by HTB and diocesan projects that have partnered with that network. That only serves to leave parishes feeling left out in the cold. That may or may not have been intentional, but it certainly feeds the sense of ‘us and them’ that divides ordinary parishes from the favoured projects.

        • Well, the complexity comes down to the need to pay due regard to process.

          If you need help, you should ask for that from your diocese. The ‘centre’ cannot be responsible for diocesan practice…

        • Well New Town Parish in Swindon (A Parish in the Diocese of Bristol Under the Episcopal Care of the Bishop of Oswestry – I believe you were previously the Incumbent) – recently obtained a grant through SDF on a similar model (Associate Priest, Curate, plus lay worker) to the HTB staffing. So it is not exclusively HTB.

          • Yes, I am well aware of the project in my former parish, and very pleased that that is happening. But it doesn’t change the fact that a huge proportion of the SDF budget is going into the HTB empire. And nobody seems to be asking why the C of E is pouring money into a network of churches which is functioning as a competitor to its parish churches.

  16. Well written Ollie. The struggle against centralisation takes money forms. Save The Parish is a helpful tool but many of its people are too hung up in fighting ‘happy clappy’ and as you know, very loud Rock is Gods music Meantime other useful tools would be making a Data Access Request of your Bishop and find out what they’ve got on you. If I had the money I would consider a Judicial Review of Episcope’s habit of suspending presentations in the grounds that they ‘might’ want to reorganise the diocese

    • Yes—the practice on suspension is mostly illegal. I was talking only yesterday to a cleric who thought their job was time limited—but has a licence! So I had to tell them that it wasn’t!

      • But Ian, time-limited posts under Common Tenure are allowed as long as the license issued under Canon C8 matches the definition of the post in the Statement of Particulars. So plenty of clergy with licenses have time-limited posts. Just about all curates for a start!

        • Thanks. But curates are not under common tenure are they? Their posts are attached to the incumbent.

          And the person I don’t think the person I was talking to has a time limit specified in the Statement of Particulars…

          • Thanks Ian. I am not Common Tenure expert, but it is my understanding that, since the introduction Common Tenure all licensed clergy who come into post are subject to it or a version of it called Qualified Common Tenure (such as those on time-limited posts and curates). All those on Common Tenure and Qualified Common Tenure must have a Statement of Particulars that will define the qualification if there is one. If they don’t have time-limited mentioned in the SoP, like the person you were referring to, then this should be reflected in their license and they won’t be time-limited.

  17. I have rarely read such self-indulgent hubris as I have from Mr Harrison. It is indicative of the woes of the church. This sort of self-pitying rhetoric shows how disconnected the church and its clergy are from reality. Everyone is feeling the challenges of a changing world. So grow up, pull up your whatever you wear and face those challenges head on. Yours is not the “front line”. The families who are working below the poverty line, doing two jobs to pay for the family, facing up to all the issues which everyone is facing – is the front line. Your job is to provide hope and light in the darkness of the front line. What is more, you have much less accountability than many on the front line…. but at least you have a home, a stipend and a pension.

      • The Romans frowned on anonymous accusations against Christians. You’ve had the courage to be open. Well done to you and prayer for you.

        “Homeless Anglican” has the courage of anonymity and the self indulgence of posting the same on Thinking Anglicans… Best ignored.

    • Being a faithful leader of a congregation means getting shafted by the world, according to the New Testament. You are fully entitled to complain when, instead of getting support from your bishop to help you in this difficult and demanding task, you get knifed in the back by him (or her).

  18. I do hesitate to join in this interesting and important conversation. In the past 35 years I have been curate, parish priest in two dioceses, archdeacon, National Church officer, parish priest and area dean, rural dean and now retired with PTO in that order, across seven dioceses. There is no doubt that the culture around us has changed dramatically in that time and has accelerated in these post Covid times; it is also true that the scandal of abuse by clergy and lay people in the church has understandably done real damage. I think it is clear that our CofE has and is struggling to adapt, not our message, but how we offer and communicate it and we have turned inwards to wranglings about all sorts of issues from governance and administration through doctrine and our place in the culture wars of the world. My experience has been that I have had more freedom and more job security than any employee in the secular world (and I worked in it for 25 years); and that it has been possible, working with PCCs, to bring about the changes that we have set our hand to with minimal ‘interference’ from outside (with the massive exception of the Faculty legislation). I think that the parish system is till viable and desirable against the centralising tendencies of the wider world, but clergy in particular, but also many in congregations have to recognise that they cannot and should not be any longer, ‘vicars’ on the old pastoral model.

  19. As a lay person in Cornwall, my group of churches has just been subjected to swinging cutbacks under Truro Diocese’s ‘On the Way’ project (similar to the Minster schemes). My own church’s Sunday services have just been cut 75% to one a month instead of our usual four services a month. This has been achieved by altering service times to a universal 10.00am, thus ensuring no worship leader, ordained or lay, can take more than one service (at two different churches) on a Sunday morning. Weddings, which until the Covid hiatus averaged over 10 a year at my church, are no longer to be encouraged. Go figure!

    Someone’s obviously complying with a received template from the diocesan management in which there’s clearly no place for pastoral concerns or even taking a look at what goes on at each church before handing down the diktats. Both the diocesan bishop and our local rural dean responsible for pushing ‘On the Way’ have just left the diocese. That’s hardly reassuring.

    So, yes, I very much sympathise with the experience which now faces C of E clergy at the coal face. We lay people are also suffering. And we know a bad atmosphere when we smell one. And many of us know that bad atmospheres are a consequence of poor leadership. There’s more than enough evidence of that in the C of E right now.

  20. Some good points in this article. Certainly we need less centralisation at diocesan level, however concentrating all power nationally would likely make the problem even worse.

    What we need is a revival of the Parish system, not abolition of it, as Marcus Walker and STP are so rightly pushing. Not merging more Parishes but ensuring Parishes are the focus of C of E life, with ideally full time Vicars providing regular services, funerals, baptisms and weddings for local Parishioners and involved in the community. While most of the grand Georgian rectories and vicarages have been sold off, we should still ensure the comfortable, more modern but still relatively large vicarages for the Parish priest are preserved as a perk of the job

  21. I’m amazed by the number of messages and emails I’ve had expressing thanks and support. I’m wondering if the archdeacon/bishop/diocese will be in touch (I posted it on the diocesan facebook page where it’s generated a lot of comments). All in all there’s been a pretty big — and so far largely positive — response. Thanks everyone.

    • Oliver: thanks so much for the article, although I found it depressing (comment above) because it’s shining a light on the current CofE that many of us in the ‘system’ would prefer to leave in the darkness for the sake of our sanity, it’s a helpful reminder that all is not well, and that we need to be alert to the times, and to take action where we can to change things for the better. Every blessing!

  22. Well many things to think about and certainly some truths and other issues to think through deeply. We have far too many bishops (and yes why are they paid more?) and diocese and thus far too much duplication for 2023. I have often pondered if we need to employ some lay people to help manage groups of parishes as in buildings etc as there are no longer the lay people to do much of this work and the clergy should be doing what they are called to do not not care for ancient buildings. I know many clergy who feel stressed feeling they have to fund their stipend and this is just not helpful and some diocese do not help on this.

  23. I empathize with Oliver, however having worked in the NHS for some decades I can affirm that my experience of same was far more arduous. One went to work with the sense of the Sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head; one mistake could mean the end of ones career progress or even sudden ending of one’s livelihood. I feel sure that many correspondents and the flock have similar pressures to relate.

    Such is the judgement and thus the curse which falls on all mankind: “thorns and thistles will you labour produce, and by the sweat of your brow shalt thou eat bread”

    The Good News is that Christ was made a curse for us. An invitation is given to share His yolk in order to find rest for our souls
    . We can become “workers together with God” in a shared life neither one or the other doing all the work [however I do find that our Saviour does the lions share!]
    I concur with HABAKKUK 3: 16 and 17 and Paul various dilemmas 2 COR.1 -8-10. It truly is a most wonderful life with God. No matter what trials that we are now facing, in particular the C of E., we are not alone in the fight. “Stand in the evil day “

    PSALM 113:5 Who is like unto the LORD our God, who dwelleth on high,
    113:6 Who humbles himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth!
    113:7 He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill;
    113:8 That he may set him with princes, even with the princes of his people.

    Watch and pray to see what God will do.Ex. 14 : 14

  24. “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.”

    Perhaps I should have worded that differently. It’s not just about where the bucks stop but where (how, by whom) decisions are taken. That seems to me to be more important. What person or committee or department or office decides this or that? And how? And why them? Who else is (or should be) consulted? Who is affected? What say did they have? What checks and balances are there? Is there a way to challenge or question those in power and the decisions they take? Etc etc. It is all very opaque. And I speak as an incumbent who is part of that structure. I’m often unclear unclear what power(s) I have equally uncertain as to who has what power(s) over me (Matthew 8:9). This allows the weak to be bullied, the lazy to opt out and the strong to assume, appropriate or arrogate to themselves powers that aren’t rightfully theirs.

  25. One more (hopefully final) thing from me: I think I’ve been guilty of a false dichotomy: the admin, paperwork, meetings etc done by Bishops is often an essential part of their leadership and pastoral roles. (Parish clergy have the same, in their own way.) But things like diocesan policies, property, finances etc — organisational / institutional / managerial things — which could (and should) be centralised. As part of that you might also want, say, half a dozen regional “offices” (esp. for e.g. property), maybe even more (20?) to offer something a little more local. What we actually have are 42 unevenly-distributed locations using prime real estate in Cathedral cities. The inefficiencies (and inconsistencies) of duplicating so much at diocesan level are mind boggling. Meanwhile, we’re all asked to pay for it . . . .


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