Last weekend, Nicholas Hellen, journalist at the Sunday Times, published a short piece in which he leaked an internal discussion document and used it to suggest that there is a central plot afoot to undermine the parish system of the Church by cutting the numbers of clergy. Hellen put a number of things together, which added up to a dramatic headline:
Church to cut paid clergy as a fifth of flock wanders off
(The article is behind a paywall, but you can read it all in this tweet:)
Well there we are. pic.twitter.com/vehJiNSiKF
— Marcus Walker (@WalkerMarcus) January 31, 2021
The report was sent to diocesan secretaries and bishops, but not to members of Archbishops’ Council (which was slightly odd), so when I was approached about it, all I could say is ‘I haven’t seen it’. The report has now been published in full at the Church Times (as well as now circulated), and it reads to me like a reasonable reporting of what is going on, based on discussions with the dioceses themselves. Here, the C of E is suffering in the same way as other semi-public bodies, in being given no space to have sensible, private consultations before being rushed into public scrutiny.
There are some rather important things to note about the Sunday Times article. First, the language of worshippers ‘wandering off’ is provocative and untrue; as with all other areas of national life that involve physical gatherings of groups, church attendance for worship in physical proximity to others is likely to be affected for some time by the pandemic experience. The headline suggests casual abandonment. In fact, there is some evidence that the shift to ‘online worship’ has allowed new people to engage and connect; as the report itself notes:
We estimate that CAH [Church at home ie online provision] attracted 200k-300k people who were new to church or had attended irregularly; 100k-200k intend to continue with either CAH or in-person. However, the same number of people in the pre-COVID-19 worshipping community are not planning to return in any form. The post-lockdown worshipping community could be between 1m to 1.2m people, with 160k-200k attending CAH only. This means that online worship will have become a significant part of the mainstream.
Given the benefits of having an online presence that many congregations have not had previously, it is hard to imagine any local church abandoning online provision any time soon. Conversely, many who are older or vulnerable are going to be hesitant about joining large physical gatherings.
Secondly, there is a subtle laying of the blame at the door of one particular individual, when it mentions Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, as heading up the group overseeing responses to the post-pandemic future, and then immediately commenting: ‘Traditionalists worry that he is “cashing in on the coronavirus” to abandon a network of 16,000 churches…’ I think that an earlier version of this article might well have made that more explicit, talking about Stephen Cottrell’s ‘central plan’ to reduce clergy numbers. But as Stephen points out in the CT reporting, the Archbishops simply don’t have the power to do such a thing; dioceses are autonomous, and changes in clergy numbers come down to the vision and decision of diocesan bishops as they take their dioceses with them. The reason why the finger of suspicion points at Stephen is that Chelmsford Diocese, where he was bishop until moving to York, have agreed to bring forward plans to cut the number of stipendiary posts by 22% within the next 18 months—plans which were only agreed after he left, but which must surely have been in the pipeline whilst he was there. I have previously commented on this situation, and its possibly implications for Church of England strategy. But this is once more where I reach for my ever-useful apophthegm about the C of E: never attribute to conspiracy that which can be explained by cock-up. Reducing the number of clergy overall will inevitably lead to lower attendance and less giving, not the opposite, and so would be a foolish policy to follow nationally.
Thirdly, the article fails to note that the pandemic has had the same effect on the Church of England as an institution as it has had on all other institutions: it has highlighted existing weaknesses, and so accelerated changes that already needed to be faced. Something like a quarter of the dioceses in the C of E were already anticipating substantial (and unsustainable) deficits for the next few years prior to the pandemic if radical action was not taken; that action is now completely unavoidable.
Two particular responses to this article gained significant traction. The first was from traditionalist Marcus Walker, who had tweeted the story above.
Most parishes are staring at deficits of tens of thousands of pounds, so they listened intently when, in November, the new Archbishop of York unveiled ‘A vision for the Church of England in the 2020s’. ‘Simpler, humbler, bolder’, what did that mean?
Well, now we know. A leak to the Sunday Times has just revealed that it means the closing down of churches and the redundancy of clergy. ‘A number of dioceses are assessing… whether subsidised parishes should continue to receive such support.’
Subsidised parishes is code for ‘poor’. And rather than this being a matter of great distress to the episcopacy, it appears that the horrors of Covid-19 have presented them with an opportunity: ‘Many diocesan leaders believe that the financial challenges being exposed by the pandemic mean this is the moment to embark on radical changes to reshape existing resource patterns and ministry structures.’
I think Marcus is conflating two quite distinct issues here: whether a parish church is unsustainable because it is in a poor area, or whether it is unsustainable because there is little commitment in the leadership to actually see the church grow—or just stop declining. (The only way to stop decline is either to find a magic cure for death, so that our congregations become immortal, or to see new people come to faith.) The major reform that many traditionalists have taken issue with is the change in the way that Church Commissioners’ money has been distributed to the dioceses. (The Commissioners are legally distinct from the Church of England and not, contrary to popular views, part of it.) Under the Darlow Formula, money was distributed to dioceses without any questions being asked about its use, and it is clear that this system was in many cases cushioning dioceses from asking the right questions about sustainability of ministry. Now, half the money is distributed in a similar way, under the Lower Income Communities (LInC) funding—so providing the possibility of support for poor areas that Marcus is arguing for—but the other half is distributed as Strategic Development Funding (SDF) to invest in projects which have the explicit intention of seeing people come to faith and grow as disciples.
Those who argue that the Church should not be worrying about ‘bums on seats’ but should simply be serving the poor appear to me to be operating under a strange combination of illusion, clericalism and institutionalism. Phrases beginning ‘the Church should…’ mask the assumption about what ‘the Church’ is. If ‘the Church’ means a vicar plus a building plus funding from some central source, then, yes, I guess we could have all sorts of ideas about what ‘the Church’ should do. But that understanding has simply no foundation either in Scripture, or in the doctrine of the C of E (as found in its formularies) or really in any accepted ecclesiology. The church, the ekklesia, is always and everywhere understood to be ‘the whole people of God’, which is why I continue to insist (on social media and elsewhere) to protest at ambiguous uses of the term. People talk about ‘closing churches’ in the same breath as ‘the church ought to be…’ when in the first they mean ‘buildings’ and in the second they mean ‘people’. Jules Middleton demonstrates the importance of this disambiguation in a great Twitter thread yesterday:
This thread is for the benefit of some journalists who can’t seem to do proper research
The church is NOT CLOSED/door shut/clergy sat in the safety of their own homes etc
This is what the church has been, and is doing throughout the pandemic>>
(ministers pls add your own too)
— Jules Middleton (@redjules) February 7, 2021
The idea that ‘the Church’ should be doing X or Y or Z without recognising that, unless we see new people coming to faith, growing as disciples, and thus constituting ‘the Church’, then the Church won’t be doing anything at all in 30 years’ time, since it won’t be there because we have all died!
The second response, also in the Spectator, is by a member of a local church (though I know nothing more about her). It is full of emotive power—but it is also based on factual errors.
In pre-Covid times, parish-giving totalled £1.1 billion, the vast majority of the church’s revenue. Lockdown dealt a hammer blow to the finances. After a service on Zoom, there is no collection plate to pass around.
Parish giving only actually dropped by 8% in 2020, which is hardly a ‘hammer blow’—but more importantly, dioceses who have heeded the repeated calls to move from plate giving to planned giving (including ours) have mostly avoided these losses.
In November cuts were announced in Chelmsford diocese, making 61 parish clergy posts redundant. The plan is to apply similar cuts nationally. As the country faces recession, the Church of England should be rallying to help sad legions of newly unemployed, not adding its own vicars to the dole queue. Cuts will be devastating for both the clergy and the communities they serve. A leaked paper from the Archbishop of York envisages that, out of every five Anglicans who attended church pre-lockdown, only four can be expected to return. This is the ratio Chelmsford is working to: donations are expected to be down by 20 per cent this year.
Again, there is no ‘national plan’ to do this—simply because there is no national plan! This is both the great strength and the great weakness of the C of E, which commentators appear to miss repeatedly. Whilst some central activities are shared and jointly funded, this is strictly voluntary, and dioceses are independent in terms of their planning and strategy. Donations are expected to be down 10% in the coming year, not 20% as the writer imagines, in order to make her conspiracy work.
The inaccuracies in this piece were sufficient to prompt the unusual response of a letter of reply from William Nye, Secretary General to the General Synod and Archbishops’ Council.
I was amazed to read the ludicrous claim that the parish system is being dissolved like the monasteries, repeated without even a cursory check on whether this could possibly be true. We read of a supposed central take-over of independent dioceses and an imaginary national plan to roll out cuts and sell assets to fund more managers. The old canard that the Archbishops decided to suspend public worship last year at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, rather than the Government, did not even get a rudimentary qualification.
This in turn raises the question of what, exactly, is the ‘parish system’. In the past it has functioned as a strange kind of territorial absolute, where the incumbent of the parish is the king over all he (as it was) surveys—so no other Anglican was permitted to minister in that defined territory. Because this prevented the kind of church planting initiatives which are now largely bearing significant fruit, David Pytches famously described it as the ‘prophylactic of the Church of England’! [The first edition of this article said it was the ‘phylactery of the C of E’, which raises the curious idea of a drugs cupboard with a spire…] Even if half our buildings are closed, that will not be the end of the ‘parish system’; it will just be that parishes become larger, as with the Roman Catholic Church.
There is one issue on which I would take a different line from William Nye, and two vital issues that we need to tackle.
The first relates to confidence in national leadership. I do think that the Archbishops and House of Bishops were premature in (first) demanding the closure of church buildings for gathered worship, even if that was later qualified as ‘advice’. Right or wrong (and it was probably wrong, in the sense of being unnecessary) it has done immense harm in the sense of communication and mutual respect between parish clergy and the bishops. Rather than deny that, it should be admitted and addressed.
Related to that, there has been widespread disappointment with the lack of clear voices engaging with the big theological and pastoral issues of life and death that many (lay and clergy) wanted to hear on the national stage. I am aware of how sensitive this issue is when I have raised it at Archbishops’ Council. Graham Tomlin’s excellent piece in The Times on Saturday was a rare exception to this.
The two issues we must address are around diocesan structures, and local buildings. On structure, Giles Fraser observes:
But do these central structures really need to be so big? Church house for the Oxford diocese now employs more than 100 people. These are jobs that are replicated in many of our 42 dioceses. The Roman Catholic church, for example, seems to be able to manage (just as successfully) with a few office staff and an old filing cabinet. The problem within the Church of England appears to be the employment of a whole middle management class of communication officers and compliance professionals generating reams of forms and paperwork. In normal times there may be a case for such work. But when the church is busy cutting frontline staff — the parish clergy — the existence of this bloated middle has to be seriously challenged.
And a friend on Facebook made this calculation:
We have all heard in recent days that the church of England has a £40 million pound hole in its budget and that the clergy face cuts in numbers. A clergyman [sic] costs an average of £67,000 a year to have in post and there are about 7,500 of us. However there are also 113 bishops in 42 diocese making 2.5 per diocese and each costs (based on an overall cost of £20 million) £177,000.
If we returned to the number of bishops we had in 1940s which I believe is roughly 40 we could save £13 million before we start cutting the frontline staff. Why am I not reading about diocese merging and bishops being either made redundant or going back to the coalface?
Also why are we so desperate to keep the buildings as people in parishes like me have to spend vast amounts on maintenance (recently £58,000 on three pinnacles) We need to get lean and missional. I for one am not willing to just take on more parishes to keep the edifice standing.
From where I stand it looks like we are to scared to be really radical.
There is a prima facia case to answer here I think—though it might be worthing noting that diocesan reorganisation is one possibility that is currently being discussed. (If you wonder how easy that will be, just think about the last time your PCC discussed changing the chairs or pews in church…)
On buildings, Susie Leafe makes this provocative suggestion (though you will need to substitute ‘church buildings’ for ‘churches’ at the appropriate points0:
Some raw maths- 700,000 or so weekly worshippers (pre-Covid), in churches of an average of 150 people would mean we would need 4,666 churches. Add a few others – cathedrals etc and a total of 5,000 would be more than sufficient to absorb the more occasional worshipper and even the “Christmas rush” .
5,000 churches still offers a Church of England church for every 11,000 people in England. Given that about 3m English people attend church, but only about 20% of those are Church of England churches, that is in fact pro rata, one church for every 2,200 or so potential “Church of Englanders”.
5,000 is also, coincidentally, one church for every other civil parish across the nation.
Even if a third of full-time stipendiary clergy were lost, each of the 5,000 churches would have its own full-time stipendiary vicar with at least some of the almost 3,000 self-supporting clergy and 7,000 clergy with PTO’s spread across the 5,000 churches to assist.
If even half of unpaid licensed/PTO clergy wished to continue to offer their ministry each of the 5,000 churches would have two licensed clergy.
Only about one-third of the present buildings would be required and, less than 40% of present parishes. Obviously, that should lead to savings at the centre and funds for investment.
It might be worth quibbling over the details, but this is surely the kind of calculation that also must be done.
No, the Church of England is not on the brink of collapse But it does need to be on the brink of making some courageous and radical decisions if it is to have an effective ministry in the future.