On 9th October, Leicester Diocesan Synod voted to move to what they call a ‘Minster communities framework’ for ministry:
The Diocese of Leicester Synod has voted in favour of a Minster Community framework with an amendment that the stipendiary (paid) leadership team of at least four people (including lay and ordained roles) in each of the 20-25 MCs will be led by an Oversight Minister who is ordained.
One of the team will be a Growing Faith focussed minister (lay or ordained) to increase inclusion of children and young people within the ministry of our churches and fresh expressions. As well as the Oversight Minister, the leadership teams will comprise at least (but not limited, to depending on resources) three other stipendiary posts.
A Minster Community will be a “group of parishes” who work together to collaborate in mission without losing their individual identity, and who work alongside their church schools, fresh expressions of Church, chaplaincies etc.
The framework was overwhelmingly supported (72%) by Synod and it is intended it will gradually be brought into place by 2026, depending on discussions between parishes, schools and fresh expressions working together to decide what their local leadership will be.
It cause quite a stir nationally, and for some good reasons. Angela Tilby immediately criticised the move in the Church Times, principally for its confusion between lay and clergy roles:
[T]he Church of England remains the Church of the English people and understands itself as part of the Church Catholic. Adherence to the threefold order of ordained ministry is part of the deal. Historically, lay influence has been led by the Sovereign and expressed through Parliament and the exercise of patronage. In parishes, the churchwardens embody lay governance at local level. The true work of the laity is to witness to Christ in the world: “Let your light so shine before men. . .”
The distinction between ordained and lay is important not only for the catholicity of the Church, but also for the integrity of the laity. Before ordination, I was a Reader for ten years, and I relished the freedom of that ministry, accepting its limitations. I expected priests to be selected and trained to criteria beyond enthusiasm, Bible knowledge, and faith. The Leicester plan reveals either sheer ignorance of C of E polity or an attempt to overthrow it, because “every-member ministry” boils down to congregationalism under episcopal management.
Angela and I often disagree, but I think she makes some interesting and important points here. Under our previous bishop, this diocese (Southwell and Nottingham) had committed to retain stipendiary posts, but not necessarily clergy posts—so that stipendiary ministry posts might be filled by lay people. But presumably such lay people will have had training, and a sense of vocation to congregational leadership, and will have been commissioned. So, I wondered, in what sense are they not ordained? The ability to ‘do the magic’ at Communion is even less Anglican as an understanding of what ordained ministry is about! As the Church of England report Setting God’s People Free highlights, one of the main challenges we have in church growth is a loss of vision for the discipleship of lay people in the places of their daily occupation, not on a Sunday.
But the more pressing question is what the impact will be of the significant reduction of stipendiary posts. As David Baker points out, the goal is to reduce from the current situation of 98 incumbents and 31 curates in training to a total of 80 posts, only some of which will be ordained—a huge cut of 38%. Every piece of research I know of predicts that cutting stipendiary ministry (note: stipendiary, whether lay or ordained) will lead to decline, not growth. This is specifically highlighted in the report From Anecdote to Evidence, and has been also demonstrated by other research coming from Church House. Mark Ireland, who has written and researched extensively on mission and evangelism, comments:
Far from saving money, cutting the numbers of stipendiary clergy [or posts] usually leads to a reduction in income, as less mission and ministry takes place and fewer people become disciples of Jesus Christ. When clergy are asked to take on more parishes in ever larger benefices, they somehow manage to keep all the services, buildings and occasional offices going, at least after a fashion, but they inevitably have less time and energy for mission and evangelism and planting new congregations. They also spend more time at their desk – and so have less time to spend in being a visible presence in the life of the community and talking to those who are searching for faith.
There is also the question of amalgamation. In his comment on the plans, David Baker has done the sums:
[The plan] runs the risk of turning clergy into something completely different from what they have been. There are 324 churches in the diocese; split them into 25 Minster Communities and that means 13 churches in each one. Even if every church only has communion once a month (and most would have it more often) that is still three per Sunday. Stipendiary clergy will likely end up whizzing round handing out bread and wine – won’t they? Overall, the sort of role envisaged for stipendiary clergy sounds nothing like the role for which I myself (writing as one such clergyperson) was trained, nor which I would wish or feel practically able to exercise. It sounds more like being an Area Dean – on speed!
Another part of the problem here is the historic flourishing, within the C of E, of quite different traditions in neighbouring parishes. What happens when these are joined together at the parochial hip? To take a theoretical possibility: suppose that you have two adjacent parishes, in which one is led by a gay, partnered priest in a Civil Partnership, who takes a non-realist view of Jesus’ resurrection (that is, it was an existential reality rather than a historical or physical event); and in the neighbouring parish you have a conservative evangelical who has a more historical approach to Scripture, and to boot does not yet accept the validity of the ordination of women. Both views exist in the C of E; they might well be in adjacent parishes. I wonder what happens when you put them together in a ‘minster community’ and ask them to collaborate in mission? One thing I think I can guarantee: less rather than more missional activity will take place, because energy is likely to go into addressing differences, if they work together at all.
Responses to reality this might be ‘This shouldn’t be the case’ or ‘They should just get on anyway.’ The first presumes creedal consistency across the Church, and I for one would welcome that—but that has to precede such missional partnership, and it will not arise because of it. The second is simply unrealistic.
And it is unclear that administrative amalgamation has ever really been effective in releasing people for mission and ministry. Martyn Snow, the bishop of Leicester, offered a response on Facebook to the negative comments on the plans, and in the conversation Tiffer Robinson observed:
As you are probably aware there was a project in a diocese (Birmingham? [apparently it was actually Sheffield]) to pay for administrators for a deanery to free the clergy up for mission and ministry, and the results, sad to say, was that the clergy were all much happier, but didn’t really do much more mission and ministry. I suspect because those clergy who want to do mission and ministry will neglect or offload the admin anyway, and those who secretly prefer the admin won’t be spurred to do mission and ministry in its absence!
Everyone I know who works in rural ministry tells me that greater amalgamation, keeping all the buildings open but stretching ministry more and more thinly, is not the way to go. It leads to more stress and less growth.
This all appears to represent a shift from the historical position of the parish being the basic unit of the Church of England, to making the diocese the basic unit. This is a very significant change.
Behind all this are some bigger questions of strategic thinking. Is the Church of England actually thinking coherently about this challenge, across its different silos of the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, the House of Bishops, individual dioceses, and those doing research on questions of ministry, mission and growth? If so, how come different dioceses are adopting such profoundly different approaches to the shared challenges that we all face?
For example, it has been clear for some time that reducing stipendiary posts will not lead to growth—yet now we have Chelmsford, Sheffield and Leicester radically cutting stipendiary numbers with Lincoln coming next, whilst others (at the moment Southwell and Nottingham, and St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and possibly others) committing to retain them as part of a strategy for growth—based on the research evidence. On a smaller scale, Bob Jackson’s research demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that vacancies led to a decline in attendance and a loss of income, so that the best way to make the transition was to prepare ahead of time and appointment immediately, ensuring continuity of ministry within the parish. I have yet to come across even one diocese that does this.
I wonder what conversations the House of Bishops has about these things? Is there really no shared approach to these challenges? Is every bishop king or queen in his or her own diocesan castle? Does that make any sense?
And how does it connect to the notion that stipendiary clergy and a national resource, trained in a nationally coordinated way? As Mark Ireland comments again:
We have been praying and working for a 50% increase in vocations. Just when God seems to be answering our prayers and the number of vocations is increasing, we should be prayerfully trusting God to provide the finance to enable us to deploy these priests. What other organisation would go to the trouble and expense of recruiting and training new staff, only to tell them at the end of their trainee post that there was no job for them?
With growing numbers of people being ordained, and therefore a swelling cohort of curates in training, where will all these people be deployed if dioceses are cutting stipendiary posts? And what thought has been given to this, as joined up thinking, before individual dioceses made their decisions?
Then there is the question of finance. Martyn Snow comments online:
Firstly, this is not all about money. Yes, we’ve been hit hard by the lockdown and like most dioceses we have a big hole in our budget. We are cutting 15% out of our central diocesan costs and we have already said to parishes that there will have to be a much closer link between what they pay and what they receive in stipendiary ministry. But there is much more to this than money.
Perhaps—but the question of money is there, front and centre! My understanding is that the diocese are facing annual deficits of £1.2 million and £1.6 million in the next two years, and many other dioceses are in similar situations; the document above from the Diocese of Lincoln mentions an annual deficit of £3 million per year for the foreseeable future. The pressures of the pandemic have exacerbated existing weaknesses; as I noted in relation to Chelmsford Diocese, the Bishop of Barking highlighted that increased giving of just £1 per week per congregant would solve all their financial problems, yet this was an issue that appeared not to have been addressed in the previous ten years.
Another person commenting on Facebook observed:
The amount the Church Commissioners made on investments last year equated to over £35,000 per parish in the C of E. The money is there, it is just that a certain ideology in the church prevents it from going where it needs to.
There is a ‘certain ideology’ in place, and it was the one which led to replacing the distribution of the proceeds of the Church Commissioners across the dioceses according to the Darlow formula with splitting the money between Lower Income Communities (‘LInC’) funding and Strategic Development Funding (SDF) given to projects and changes that offered some demonstrable evidence that they would lead to growth in discipleship and membership. There are lots of examples of where this has worked well, such as Preston Minster in Blackburn Diocese, but such successes have raised some painful questions.
The first is the paradox of a diocese receiving less general funding, (LInC rather than Darlow, which is often half the amount) but more funding for specific missional projects. That would be fine in better times, but when dioceses are facing mounting deficits, it means they are having to cut some activities (because of lack of funds) whilst, in the eyes of some, lavishing money on shiny new projects. The juxtaposition of these two contrasting realities creates some unsurprising tensions. But what would we rather do? Deprive new initiatives, many of them reaching young people, in order to sustain ministry to the bitter end amongst elderly and declining congregations?
The second issue is the regime for dispersing Church Commissioners funds. I have long been concerned about both the lack of transparency around how decisions are made here, and the (lack of) connections between decisions here and the reality of ministry on the ground. I have asked questions in Synod both about the connection between applications for SDF funding and diocesan plans to cut stipendiary numbers, and the criteria by which the Commissioners decide how much to protect their capital assets, and how much money is dispersed each year. On the latter, I had assumed that there would be some consistent, numerical criteria, but instead that answer was that ‘It is a judgement, made in the light of market conditions.’
In 2020, the Church Commissioners assets ended up at £9.2bn, having had a return of 10.4%, which must amount to around £870m. So why was only £281m dispersed (£162.5 to current ministry plus £118.9m towards pensions) and the remainder added to the assets? Surely this is the time to consider releasing the further £500m or so, which would still leave the assets protected against inflation?
Apart from this kind of radical financial support, is there any alternative? David Baker offers one, and it goes like this:
In my rather idealistic and possibly naïve mindset, I like to imagine another alternative scenario in which Leicester Diocese had said to all churches: “We’re sorry, but in a couple of years we will effectively be bust. So each church must pay its own running costs, including for all the clergy it has, and their pensions etc. We also invite you to voluntarily fund and pool ministry with less well-off churches with whom you feel able to work missionally. Any church which can’t afford to run on this basis, either through its own giving, or through support from others will, inevitably, close. And we invite you to declare how much you are willing to contribute each year for central posts such as safeguarding expertise and Bishops. We will then budget centrally accordingly.” Messy? Yes. But better longer-term? Arguably.
My own suggestion heads in a similar direction, but it is possibly to flesh out more elements to it:
- Do everything we can to retain stipendiary posts. Therefore ask hard questions about the sustainability of keeping smaller church buildings open.
- Address the issue of finance through a focus on giving as discipleship.
- Recruit evangelists.
- Envision lay Christians to be faithful and confident disciples Monday to Saturday.
- Create a culture of invitation and exploration.
- Teach and resource Christian parents in raising their children in faith.
- Look at what is already working well; learn from it, and seek to replicate it.
- Start new things, and allow old things to follow their natural course.
I suspect many of these things are already happening in Leicester Diocese, and would love to hear about them. But one thing I am confident of: reorganisation, of any sort, is not going to deliver growth. Tackling questions of giving, of invitation, and of a focus on mission directly are the only things that will help.
If every diocese follows the direction of Leicester, I cannot see anything happening other than further, and faster, national decline.