Is the Church of England on the brink of collapse?


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:)

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:

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.


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53 thoughts on “Is the Church of England on the brink of collapse?”

  1. Good article.

    Re Bishops: Compared with as 100 years ago I think we now have twice as many AND half the number of parish clergy. So the ratio of vicars to bishops has quadrupled. The first thing they could do is take the same pay as the rest of their clergy. (It is, after all, a stipend and not based on productivity, hours or responsibility — so do why DO they get more?). That would be a show of solidarity, even if largely symbolic. (And the ABY is on, iirc, £70k — i.e. two vicars’ worth. There’s a post saved right there.)

    Re buildings: yes we have far too many. But. But what to do with them? And how to do it? Many are listed; parish churches have all sorts of legalities attached (often there are archives or glebe or monuments); many have human remains in or around them. Who would want them? For what purpose? Disposing of a parish church is a massive headache. And in the 1980s and ’90s there was a thing for “church planting” i.e. new buildings. Do we keep the well-used / well-located regardless of their legal status, history and aesthetics?

    Re this: “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. ”

    It was unlawful. Period. Pure ultra vires overreach. (And the infamous ad clerum of March 24th was from “The Archbishops and bishops”. Except it wasn’t. Lots of assistant / suffragans are furious about that.) This mistake — let’s be generous — was compounded by the risible and downright mendacious “clarification” that the lock-out was only “advice” and “guidance”. It wasn’t. That, to be is when a mistake became a matter of culpability. My dad has a saying: “when you mess up, fess up.” (See See Genesis 18:15 & Proverbs 26:18,19.)

    On the plus side I, as a Vicar, now know that even when every purple shirt in England tells me I “must” x 7 do something I can plead this precedent. They have undermined their own authority and it will come back and bite them. I’m certainly keeping that one in the old back pocket 😉

    We used to have rich and poor parishes. Then the DBFs sequestrated glebe and fees, a mini-nationalisation that equalised the differences. But that just took the problem up to the next level: Now we have rich and poor Diocese. The same process (pooling and redistributing resources) now needs to happen between dioceses, just as it did within them: inter, as well as intra. Let’s abolish DBFs, centralise all income and assets; think and plan nationally, not as dioceses in silos. My own parish is on the edge of a relatively wealthy diocese; the neighbouring parish is in a poor one but that arbitrary border is, it seems, non-negotiable. (Surprise, surprise!). Yet within diocese the parish boundaries are increasingly overruled as new teams / benefices are made or BMOs and plants set up. If my parish borders are in pencil why should the diocesan one be in pen? If the Diocese isn’t prepared to put its borders and boundaries on the table then why should I? If the Diocese as a unit is sacrosanct and non-negotiable then why shouldn’t my parish be? We can all play that game (or I can, at any rate.)

    There’s also lot to be said for fewer but bigger parishes: no duplication of posts and roles (Wardens, PCCs etc). I’d have the whole Deanery as one parish, employ a treasurer and possibly a secretary and hold two staff meetings a week with the expectation that all stipendiary clergy attend at least one of them. A single unit with all the economies of scale.

    So:

    1.) abolish all DBFs and have a single “bank account” or balance sheet.

    2.) Same pay for all clergy (curates are on barely less than their incumbents yet have far less responsibility; so why should bishops get more?)

    3.) make every Deanery into a single legally-constituted parish

    4.) Get rid of LOTS of buildings (give ’em away if need be; they are liabilities rather than assets)

    5.) an apology from whoever was responsible for the ad clerum of March 24th (HoB? ABC?)

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  2. I feel like one of the biggest challenges will be finding a way of restructuring that continues to serve urban and rural areas. It’s so apparent here – I minister in Telford which has 200k population, about 15 Anglican church buildings and 10 full time stipendiaries. Around me is Shropshire, with overstretched clergy already looking after several buildings each but tiny populations. The maths of one vicar per 11,000 population would leave massive geographical rural parishes, which I can’t see being viable.

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    • The measure ‘clergy per head of population’ is helpful in some ways, but does have limitations. My 3 rural parishes, total population c2,500, would only qualify for maybe 1/4 of a vicar on those maths…..but in terms of budget and parish share contributions they more than pay their way: they make parish share contributions, before other church expenses, of over £50k per year. In other words £20 per head of population – the equivalent would be Telford C of E churches raising a combined £4m per year in parish share.

      So the level of giving for particular churches has to play at least some part in decision making for clergy deployment – it would not be at all fair for our rural churches all to get say 1/12th of a clergy post when they make that sort of sacrificial financial contribution? Many rural churches frankly do give proportionately far more per head of population.

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  3. Great article Ian . Although we disagree on the COVID shutting of churches. The situation in the UK is different from here in Australia where we are facing a split over GAFCON and years of litigation on the assets in Sydney. As you know my interest is in safeguarding and perhaps you could look at what effect changes to laws allowing civil actions to proceed in the UK would have on the Church given in Australia some Dioceses face bankruptcy and payments to victims are halted ?

    https://youtu.be/HglA72ogPCE

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  4. It all began when the Catholic group on General Synod sank the Methodist/ Anglican reunion project in the 1980-85 session, and when I had failed to catch the eye of ++Robert, to deliver my humdinger clincher argument that we should proceed. Seriously, the sooner we sink the theology, that only an ordained priest can offer communion wine from the One Cup, then revival can come. There are of course a whole host of theologically trained lay people who could share the Sacrament, and the sooner we use individual cups the better. How many of us have recently waved a communion cup at a Zoom camera, assuming the folk at the other end are imbibing?

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  5. Great article Ian. I think Susie Leafe is spot on – we need to close 70% or so of church buildings and concentrate on a much smaller number of viable congregations (including plants/fresh expressions).

    Talk from Marcus Walker and Giles Fraser of the C of E abandoning the poor is disingenous. There is little argument over supporting UPA parishes but the fact is many churches are poor because they have small congregations, the vicar won’t teach stewardship and high maintenance buildings. Parish share needs to be set at a level which covers the £60k or so cost of a priest with say a 50% upfront reduction for UPA’s – if parishes can’t pay then the building should be closed and the priest redeployed.
    There needs to be a

    Reply
    • Sam – as a rural vicar I can say that many small churches DO pay their way for their vicar. Our 3 village churches certainly do in total, and there are plenty of other groups of churches that can say the same. So a ‘shut loads of churches’ approach seems to me unnecessary and unfair.

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  6. I think selling off, or otherwise getting rid of, church properties amounts to cultural vandalism of the worst sort. Close them by all means, seal them up if you must, but maintain responsibility for them.

    If the needed reform happens, if the decline reverses, you’re going to need them.

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    • Cultural vandalism to sell or give away redundant buildings? If culture wants them culture can have them.

      Many are simply in the wrong place – badly maintained, empty most sundays, crumbling plaster, no heating, rising damp, and roofs collapsing, in rural sites, where the population has moved away. Some are in the right place but empty or rotten victorian plots or 1960’s concrete architectural mistakes.

      They are no longer fit for purpose, nor used for their intended purpose. In a state of disrepair and empty, they speak prophetically, but negatively of the church: “we once woz ere”

      God does not live in buildings made with hands- the church should invest in turning them into low rent, decent homes or apartments for the poor, needy, vulnerable and invest any profit, and the money strategically spent on mission where there is traction.

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      • Indeed, Simon. The buildings would be sold with “vacant possession.” Ichabod. No solid foundations, no capstone, no inheritance in a Spiritual estate.
        To leave them as they are is to dishonour God, if they were built to the glory of God, a place of meeting with God and his people, diverse family, of collective worship, at the center; God at heart of the worshipping community, not a social club.
        What message does a neglected, run-down, closed church building send out, about Christianity? Even if a connection is made between the building and the God of Christianity what does it say about God?

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  7. May I make an outrageous suggestion? So many of the CofEs I have attended do not preach the revolutionary Gospel of Jesus Christ. I accept that the liturgy, creed and prayers are all presented in beautiful orthodox language. Those of us who are committed to conservative Biblical doctrine mean those words with all our hearts. But sermons do not warn against carnal living, nor about the godless materialism that surrounds us and threatenes to swallow the unsuspecting. As a retired journalist, I did a bit of research on my own, as I engaged older folk (like myself) about heaven, and whether they were sure of going there. Of the many I approached whilst enjoying apres-service coffee, some giggled nervously, some stared out of the window, others said ‘well, I hope so’ but could not define why they ‘hope so’. There is an appalling lack of Bible knowledge or strong conviction about what the Cross means to them personally. Few had any sense of how the indwelling Holy Spirit works. They may recite all the right words of the Creed every Sunday, but what does it MEAN in their daily lives? And as we read Christ’s words about going into all the world to share the Gospel – if an Anglican has never experienced the life-changing experience of repentance and redemption, why would he think it necessary to share it with his neighbour or even his children? And if he does not believe in Jesus’ Christ’s ‘two paths’ to the Afterlife – a narrow road leading to Heaven, and a broad one leading to Destruction – why would he want to share what he himself has never owned? Oh some might comment on his infant baptism or his confirmation decades ago, but when pressed could not verbalise any current or future value. I adore the beautiful liturgy which often makes me weep for the power of it in my life, the heavenly music often written by men in past centuries who surely knew what it was about to love the Lord with all their heart, mind and soul, but something is terribly wrong with services that do get to the heart of our need for salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice as the Lamb of God, and His commission to share that Good News with others. Why is basic Christian Education so poorly regarded by many clergy?

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    • Excellent question! And good to find another soul who appreciates both orthodox, educational, biblical teaching and preaching as well as beautiful traditional liturgy. It’s a real shame that we seem to be in a situation where ne’er the twain shall meet; in general (in my experience), either you get well executed traditional liturgy and music or you get good, biblical, faithful preaching.

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    • I agree strongly, Mrs Holland: in fact it seems to me obvious. If there is ‘planning for decline’, that is the very same negative mindset that produced the decline. The Ratner effect of not seeming to believe in your own product or of seeming to be washed out of any enthusiasm for it.
      -Nothing could be more devastating statistically (see Sam Brewitt-Taylor on JAT Robinson’s and the Soundings-Group’s fateful effect on 1960s vocations).
      -And nothing could be more pointless (why choose above all other callings a calling for which one has no enthusiasm?).
      -And little could be more overweening than claiming to know the future (the 1980s were not as the 1960s trajectory would have predicted).
      -And nothing could be more trivially self-fulfilling. The negativity is not a response to the problem. The negativity *is* the problem. No point wringing hands about a problem one caused in the first place, or pointing to that problem as intriguing data.
      -And nothing could be so in defiance of the facts. It is clear that where the biblical gospel is preached with emphasis on the Cross, forgiveness and salvation, changed lives, communities of the Spirit – then worldwide there is growth numerical and spiritual.

      It is one thing to plan for decline – a grossly negative and presumptuous thing to do in itself. But it is quite another to plan for decline without trying to remove the conditions that inevitably produce decline! Even when those conditions are generally quite foreign to the Christian Church both historically and internationally.

      That is even before we get onto the statistical aspect of the new tendency to treat homosexuality as a contentious issue – the correlation with decline is so clear that if a decline plan had been formulated it could scarcely have been formulated better. If one moves beyond the statistical and seeks the reasons for that, some could be cultural-conformity (which is liable to produce dilution), a spirit of factionalism and individualism (something which people might want the church to rise above if they are to devote time to it), and the hijacking of the Civil Rights narrative for non-endemic / non-inborn traits.

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      • “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” 1 Tim 4:13.

        Vicky Holland, Christopher Shell et. al. make the the excellent observation summarised by Christopher Shell: “It is clear that where the biblical gospel is preached with emphasis on the Cross, forgiveness and salvation, changed lives, communities of the Spirit – then worldwide there is growth numerical and spiritual”.

        Not surprising, Paul gave Timothy the solemn charge “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2), Jesus himself gave priority to preaching and teaching, and the Old Testament is full of the importance of teaching the Word of God.

        We could make a start by faithfully and regularly preaching the Word of God from the pulpit. My experience of churches who do this (gained from membership of different churches as I lived in various places to further my career) is that they grow: slowly perhaps, but grow nonetheless. There will always be seekers and those who start to attend out of curiosity who then come under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and come to faith.

        In one Baptist church where this was done (plus other outreach activities) they had about six baptism candidates at Baptism services held quarterly, leading to an annual growth of about 24 persons in a church of about 300 members. This more than made up for the annual death rate of about 5 persons that would be expected in a congregation that size. Consequently, the church grew, though some left for various reasons, hopefully to bless other churches.

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  8. The problem with our Church is that it refuses to think outside the box of staffing parishes with full-time clergy, whereas there is a huge army of readers and self-supporting clergy who could be responsible for the work in those parishes that might otherwise be shut down.
    When a “poor” parish falls vacant, how about asking it to work out its own strategy for its future?
    I know of a now disappeared “poor” parish in SE London that offered to pay themselves for a Church Army captain to take charge and develop the work. It was turned down by the diocese.
    It is time to release the huge bank of God-given talent – much of it lay – which has been ignored for too long.
    Mike Keulemans

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    • I wonder if it is more difficult to control a volunteer than someone whose income or accommodation can be taken from them if they disobey, and the hierarchy fears losing control of parishes run by volunteers?

      A ‘captain’ whose employment was funded by the congregation would presumably answer to the congregation rather than the bishop. Would that be a problem?

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  9. “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.”

    We’ve already done so, and I have no intention to start anything up.

    Online provision isn’t church; it’s a neo-gnostic abandonment of the physical reality of the gathered church. It’s just about tolerable in a temporary fashion, but either 1) people should come to church and recieve the sacraments or, 2) the church should go to people and bring them the sacraments (and I can only hope that ‘online’ ‘church’ doens’t replace the duty to visit and bring communion to the homebound, but I rather suspect it will in many case). There is no other “online” church.

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    • Is an online family gathering a family gathering? When I phone my parents, is that a continuation of the relationship by other means, or does it only count when I can see them in the flesh? Our online provision has given a vital point of continuity for our two congregations, and both have valued it immensely. They all look forward to seeing each other again, but those on shiftwork, or with health and mobility difficulties, are particularly keen that we don’t stop webcasting when all is ‘back to normal’.

      Yes there is a gold standard to communication and fellowship (‘then we shall see face to face’) but that doesn’t mean the other forms are not communication and fellowship at all.

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    • The provision of online church varies considerably. If I choose to stick with my local church, that means watching the local vicar celebrate communion in his living room and streamed to Facebook. That is not collective worship. There is no acknowledgement of those who are watching – between 0 and 5. It is all one way. After eleven months of being an online worshipper, I have come to the conclusion that churches with a strong foundation of resources pre-covid have been able to provide high quality online worship, by which I mean sound and picture. It is costly in terms of commitment, equipment and personnel. Once a month I make an online donation to whichever church I have settled on for that month. It goes against the grain to do this as I am accustomed to giving to my local church. I am keen to be with other worshippers in church receiving communion but at least it has given me an opportunity to explore the theology of spiritual communion. That doesn’t include provision of bread and wine elevated in front of the computer screen but simply a prayer and a heartfelt desire to receive.

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  10. I do sometimes wonder how many people who comment on the lack of viability of rural churches have actually been in rural congregations. Our small group pays its full parish share and helps to subsidise some of the more urban parishes in our area – rightly believing in mutual sharing in ministry. I work with churches more widely, and while some rural congregations do struggle, ours is far from unique. It is somewhat dispiriting, therefore, to have people make the generalised assumption that it is rural parishes which, because they are in small centres of population, must be unsustainable and should close. Where there are faithful people seeking to serve Christ, church life flourishes, whether in smaller or larger contexts.

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    • I am sure you are right—the situation is varied. Great to hear things are thriving where you are. For myself, I don’t think there is much point in making generalisations—but too often we avoid asking the questions of ‘sustainability’ whether that is in rural or urban contexts.

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  11. I agree with Vicki
    Recently we have launched the re-vamped Saints Alive course – a sort of Alpha course from the 1980’s. It is a Christian basics course with a leaning to life in the Spirit. Very simple. We advertised it as a Christian basics/MOT – genuinely expected 2 dozen to sign up – perhaps post Alpha. We had over 200 sign up (including from Africa, America, Macedonia) and most staying the course. These are mainly Christians, some of mature standing, but who want to revisit and renew themselves in the basics of the faith. I’m sure People are not desperate for yet another online zoom meeting with breakout groups – but they are keen to “begin again at the beginning” with the gospel faith.

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  12. Many Church of England’s buildings are not ‘fit for purpose’ and cost an ‘arm and a leg’ to run. It be about time that they should be abandoned and the money saved used for teams to focus on training the congregation to disciple people in ‘whole-life’ Christianity, leading people to commit their lives to Jesus in all areas of their life and to seek to transform communities based on biblical principles.

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    • Do we need paid teams for that? We live in a time of leisure (at least for many). W need to unlock the laity, but that doesn’t need paid teams and more paid staff, it needs a change of direction from the existing ones – in my opinion.

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      • ‘a time of leisure’? Perhaps, though that seems to be a futurist myth from the 60’s. Many continue to work hard in various jobs, just to survive.

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  13. I note all of the comments about the buildings, and the perception that they are a major burden. It should also be noted that they can also be an asset: the importance of local atavism and the belief that people have a stake (whether emotional or spiritual) in an ancient building should not be underestimated.

    My experience of the Church (attending services at >5,000 parishes) is that, contrary to Susie Leafe’s projections, we probably don’t need much more than 1,000 churches nationwide, and probably not more than a few hundred stipendiary clergy; Wales probably doesn’t need much more than 100 buildings and fewer stipendiary clergy. Attendance amongst the coming generation is a rounding error of a rounding error. Anyone who believes that the corner will be turned needs their head read: indeed, the longer people cleave to this deluded fantasy the more likely it will be that collapse will come to pass in a disruptive rather than orderly manner. Genuine support for the Church is now so shallow that it could almost be drowned a bath. However, closing a church usually guarantees that a diminished presence in any given community will cease and that community will become completely unchurched. That’s fine if the Church is prepared to abandon its much-vaunted commitment to having a presence in every community, and becomes a Church *in* England, rather than *of* it.

    Much as many ‘committed Christians’ may chafe against it, the Church has a dual mandate: as the provider of spiritual services to the nation and as the conservator of the largest part of its heritage stock. These obligations are, increasingly, mutually exclusive. Time, therefore, to cut the Gordian knot, perhaps as part of a wider settlement between Church and State, in which the reality of the marginal and, dare I say it, trivial presence in the nation is finally acknowledged.

    However, reading the comments above, I sense that many in the Church still want to have their cake and eat it. They want to retain the capital (and the proceeds of sale, where these are to be had) and they want to maintain much of their ‘presence’ and ‘privileges’. This does not strike me as being tenable.

    Who has paid for the churches that are slated for closure? It is, of course, the community. Yet the divestment of church buildings would result in the privatisation of the proceeds of what had been a public trust. How is that not theft, even if it has been endorsed by the legislature?

    Church buildings have been funded by past taxation: (i) church rate for everything but the chancels (compulsory up to 1868); and (ii) indirectly, via tithe, for the upkeep of chancels until 1836-1977 (or via chancel repair liability). They have also been funded by much voluntary giving made in good faith. There is also the parish share, which has amounted to a form of voluntary taxation, the burden of which has tended to increase regressively (to the great benefit of the Church Commissioners) since 1998.

    The disestablishment of the Church in Ireland and Wales was accompanied by extensive disendowment, which was actually the most controversial part of the process of untying Church and State.

    The assets of the Commissioners are now £8.7bn (up from £2.4bn in 1998). A very large portion of that capital growth has been facilitated by the abandonment by the Commissioners of their former liability for stipends and pension accruals. The core assets of the Commissioners were the episcopal and capitular assets expropriated after 1840 and the proceeds of Queen Anne’s Bounty’s tax on wealthy livings.

    The Church should certainly lose title to its buildings as part of disestablishment, but it could retain access to them rent-free (as in France). In order to achieve the economies of scale in the procurement of resources and materials which PCCs will never achieve, it would be preferable to vest title to the greater part of the stock in a national agency (perhaps part of DDCMS, and/or an expanded CCT) for the benefit of the public. Assets paid for the public in the past would remain a trust for public benefit. The Church would retain its ability to project its mission nation-wide, gratis.

    However, the agency would need a dowry to maintain the stock, and the Commissioners are the obvious source. If the Commissioners lost £6bn, it would take them back to where they were when the Pensions Measure 1997 came into force. However, they should be compensated. The most plausible way of achieving this would be Harry Olsen’s excellent proposal to abolish DBFs and to arrogate all diocesan assets to the Commissioners.

    The upshot is that the national agency would have the economies of scale to maintain the stock, whilst the Commissioners would have the economies of scale to run the Church (which increasingly attenuated dioceses lack).

    The dioceses could still exist, but they would be shorn of most of their administrative and financial functions, and they would become pastoral agencies, which is arguably what they ought to be in any event. DACs and DBFs are essentially the contemporary equivalents to the chanceries of medieval bishops; a residue of the obsolete concept of the bishop-as-baron.

    We would therefore cease complaining about layers of management or excessive numbers of bishops. Bishops would cease being CEOs, for which they are mostly untrained, and they could concentrate on their pastorates. Clergy would no longer waste their time on being conservators for church buildings and adjuncts to the heritage industry (for which they are not trained) and that time would be liberated for mission and pastoral work. PCCs (assuming they still exist) would no longer be fretting about the future.

    The only people who would lose out would be diocesan administrators, but some of them at least would presumably be TUPE transferred to the Commissioners. However, I would not wish to underestimate diocesan officials as an interest group.

    The Church would still be able to project its mission ‘in every community’ at a fraction of the cost, and the tension between buildings and clergy and buildings and people would be relieved, if not eliminated.

    Shutting the Church down across much of the country, and leaving the buildings to the birds, is not going to enhance the prestige of the Church, still less of the faith, in the large tracts of country that would be affected by some of the proposals above.

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    • Froghole – this is a brilliant piece and deserves a much wider readership. Any chance of the CT publishing it, do you think?

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    • Who is suggesting ‘shutting the church down across much of the country’? I think you are making the cardinal error, which I continue to protest against, of identifying ‘the church’ with ‘church buildings’. As long as this basic confusion remains, I don’t see how we can begin to think clearly about this.

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      • Many thanks, but I am not necessarily conflating the Church with the buildings, and it is Ms Leafe and some of the commentators above who are proposing mass closures. However, whilst it is false to conflate the Church and the buildings, it is equally erroneous to suppose that they are entirely distinct: the ‘church is the people and not the buildings’ is partially correct; in the eyes of the general public the distinction is far less obvious, and it is presumably the perception which counts. How many times, in my travels across the country, have I encountered instances where the erstwhile attendees of a shuttered church simply stopped going altogether rather than attend a nearby church which might be a mile or so down the road? I agree with the concern that you expressed about the treatment of Stephen Cottrell’s proposals; he is not proposing mass redundancies, and I fear he and his colleagues have been the victim of a calumny.

        A great many churches in England originated as manorial chapels, which is part of the problem. However, even though they were proprietorial in the very distant past (https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198206972.001.0001/acprof-9780198206972) they were very frequently erected, sustained or extended by voluntary contributions (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/church-building-and-society-in-the-later-middle-ages/DCEC5534C2B25F682CB7F778E4B0C86A) but also, frankly, by tax.

        The Church (or, rather, the parish – there being no meaningful distinction between civil and ecclesiastical parish) had a taxing power until 1868 on all rate-payers for the specific support of the buildings, and it it taxed all produce in kind (prior to 1836) or via rentcharge thereafter (1836-1936-1977). Whilst most tithe income was consumed by clerical or lay rectors, it was also recycled into the upkeep of chancels.

        It is true that wealthy industrialists or ‘improving’ landlords paid for new churches in the nineteenth century, but that represents only a relatively modest portion of the total, and many of those Victorian churches have been lost over the last century in any event.

        My proposals (which I wrote up into a draft bill several years ago) are not unlike those of Ms Leafe. Indeed, I am much attracted by what she has written. What I am suggesting instead is that the Church be relieved of almost the entire burden of its built stock with that stock being transferred to the state, but the quid pro quo is that the Church would need to make a financial contribution. I am merely proposing a variant – hopefully an improved variant – of what was established in France 116 years ago. The primary reasons why the Church should be relieved of that burden are: (i) to permit ministers and laity alike to concentrate on proclaiming the Gospels and serving the people rather the dissipating their energies and resources on buildings; and (ii) to preserve what is arguably the most important part of the national built heritage.

        I apologise for manner in which I expressed myself above. However, in the course of my travels prior to the first lockdown (covering every diocese), it was evident from the vast number of services I attended that the demographic profiles of practically every congregation were massively top-loaded. The only places where congregations enjoyed critical mass and a healthy demographic balance were in mostly evangelical churches, usually in university, the larger cities and in affluent dormitory suburbs. The situation almost everywhere else, whether urban, suburban or rural, was often dire.

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    • Losing title to buildings but retaining access by grace and favour is an absurd idea.
      It would be very easy to exclude a congregation for not having the Correct Opinions on homosexuality and transsexualism.
      Let the state receive the buildings to maintain, like old castles and tithe barns. English Heritage are the folk for the job.

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      • Why is ‘grace and favour’ access an ‘absurd idea’? This is precisely what happened in France in 1905. The Church in France lost title to practically the entire stock. The greater churches passed to central government, and the parish churches to the communes (the pre-revolutionary parishes under another name).

        The Church gets access to the whole stock in perpetuity. It therefore has the ability to maintain its reach. As such, the viscerally anti-clerical Briand, Combes, Waldeck-Rousseau, etc., did the Church a great favour. The flaw with the French arrangement is that many communes are very small and lack the means to support church buildings to an adequate standard; that is why I am proposing a national agency which would have better economies of scale. However, secular control of church buildings – even by communist mayors – has not proven to be an inhibitor to the mission of the Church in France.

        As to the concerns you have expressed about ‘Correct Opinions’, the legislation I drafted permits existing parishes to continue using their churches without inhibition. However, to prevent the dowry from being eroded, I envisaged a process under which parallel community uses would be encouraged for the purposes of generating income. However, after speaking to people on my travels I noted that there were genuine concerns about what might happen if a use repugnant to the church community were proposed. I had envisaged these concerns, and have suggested that if the PCC (or other church body) objected to a proposed parallel use then it would be able to appeal against it to a panel chaired by a judge and with Church and community assessors, whose decision would be final. There would be no ability to ‘exclude congregations’.

        I don’t doubt that others might have better ideas than mine. However, I have been trying to think of ways in which the Church might be liberated from the burden of its stock, without impairing its reach. I apologise for having caused offence.

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        • It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it that if you hand over the titles of your property to another, then one day you may find yourself locked out when a new Pharaoh who knows not Joseph appears. And that happens within denominations as well, as we have seen in the tragedy of TEC. Within the Church of England, many evangelicals have already walked away from their buildings because they k ew liberal bishops would work against them. In August 2020 over 500 left St John’s Newlands in Hull to join a new Anglican network.
          If a local church community can’t maintain the building, it’s obviously the wrong building for them. I have seen some churches in France, in now secularised areas, and they are pretty run down.
          As for English parishes, there is simply no point in keeping open a country church used by six people once a month. Nobody would run a school or post office that way.
          The abolition of most of the positions and activities of the diocese would make little difference to the impact on the church on the community at large, and that is where savings could be made.
          Combining archdeacon and suffragan posts with parish jobs would be another useful move.

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          • Many thanks. I understand your concerns; whilst the Church in France has become reconciled to republicanism and secularism, there have been periods since 1905 when the opposite was the case, but I know of no instances (from my reading of the topic) where a congregation has been evicted from a church on account of the antipathy of a mayor or other official. An attempt to do so would result in a claim against any such official for a breach of the 1905 law (and its supplements to 1908).

            “I have seen some churches in France, in now secularised areas, and they are pretty run down. As for English parishes, there is simply no point in keeping open a country church used by six people once a month. Nobody would run a school or post office that way.”

            I agree; I have seen churches in a similar condition. This is a function of the very small size of communes or the hostility of the local political establishment. There are many depopulated districts in the Midi or in some of the isolated mountainous parishes of the Jura or Haute-Savoie, for example, where the local populations are almost in single figures; the maintenance of a church building is a heavy charge to them. There are other regions, such as the Pas-de-Calais, Brest, Limoges, etc., where the red republican tradition is very strong, and mayors are often reluctant to provide support. That is precisely why I feel that the stock in England should be vested in a national agency.

            The analogy with a school or post office is an interesting one. Are churches of comparable value? Should worship be discarded altogether because it is obsolete – just as a sub-post office might be closed because people are no longer sending letters? Is it better to have some form of Christian presence, even if occasional, than none at all? It has been my experience that people will often stop attending worship altogether rather than travel a short distance to a neighbouring church. Is it right that a community which experiences the closure of its church become completely unchurched? These are not questions which it is easy to answer, but what I proposing is a scheme which would make the question unnecessary: the Church’s reach would be guaranteed, subject to the payment of a premium out of funds which have waxed by dint of the diversion of parochial incomes to the Commissioners (as a function of the parish share system).

            As to your remarks about the abolition of management positions, I am in substantive agreement. It is not so long ago when it was routine for suffragans (even diocesans in sees with modest incomes) and archdeacons to hold parochial cures. I would extend this principle to capitular clergy, since there is little need to have more than one canon in residence at any one time, especially now that cathedrals and governed by mixed clerical and lay councils; indeed, it is not so long ago when it was routine for capitular clergy to spend much of their time in their parishes and only travel to their cathedrals when in formal residence.

            Thank you again.

          • Many thanks. I understand your concerns; whilst the Church in France has become reconciled to republicanism and secularism, there have been periods since 1905 when the opposite was the case, but I know of no instances (from my reading of the topic) where a congregation has been evicted from a church on account of the antipathy of a mayor or other official. An attempt to do so would result in a claim against any such official for a breach of the 1905 law (and its supplements to 1908).

            Laws can be changed, you realise? Once the title to the buildings has been signed over to the state, there is nothing to stop the state changing the terms under which congregations are allowed to use them. They wouldn’t even need primary legislation to do so, if they wrote into the original settlement a clause allowing them to pick which congregation is the ‘official’ one for each parish and therefore had use rights, and then made the ‘official’ designation dependant on, for instance, toeing the line with regard to certain contentious doctrinal matters.

          • This is a response to “S” below, since there is no ‘reply’ function to his note.
            S writes: “Laws can be changed, you realise? Once the title to the buildings has been signed over to the state, there is nothing to stop the state changing the terms under which congregations are allowed to use them. They wouldn’t even need primary legislation to do so, if they wrote into the original settlement a clause allowing them to pick which congregation is the ‘official’ one for each parish and therefore had use rights, and then made the ‘official’ designation dependant on, for instance, toeing the line with regard to certain contentious doctrinal matters.”

            I ‘realise’ this all too well. The legislation I proposed would permit the parish to continue worshipping in its church. There would be no power to evict. Parallel uses of the building would be encouraged to generate income, where it is feasible to do so. The agency (which I envisaged having a substantial Church representation on its governing council) would determine whether a parallel use is possible following consultations with the parish, and the parallel use would have to be ‘appropriate’. If the parish objected then there would be an appeals process – before a judge with two assessors, one being a Church representative. I appreciate that further safeguards might be required.

            S says that the law can be changed. Indeed. However, S’s remarks suggest that title to property – any property – somehow stands above the law, as if it were God-given. Nothing could be further from the truth. All property rights are creatures of statute or case law. There is nothing to prevent parliament from declaring that all churches – right now – become bingo halls. What the state giveth, the state taketh away. The law can always be changed. Opponents of the disestablishment and disendowment of the Church in Ireland and in Wales complained about the violation of property rights. The Irish Church Act removed *all* property from the Church and vested in commissioners, who restored certain categories of it to the Church. The Welsh Church Act confiscated all pre-1662 endowments and burial grounds, leaving the Church only the cathedrals (which were to have been confiscated under Asquith’s bill of 1894) and churches, moveable property, glebe houses and its paltry post-1662 endowments; other property rights, such as advowsons, were abolished. Opponents of disestablishment railed against this violation of private property (by Liberal governments which otherwise celebrated the right to private property); this made no difference and parliament confiscated Church property anyway.

            So, S is quite right: there is nothing to stop the state intruding in an invidious manner if the buildings are vested in the state. However, there is also nothing to stop the state intruding now, or at any time, without the buildings being vested in the state. Under the scheme I proposed, the state would have to amend the statute in order to give itself the right to evict a congregation. There is only a cigarette paper’s worth of a difference between that and the state introducing a separate bill to evict congregations whose views it considered repugnant.

          • S says that the law can be changed. Indeed. However, S’s remarks suggest that title to property – any property – somehow stands above the law, as if it were God-given. Nothing could be further from the truth.

            Actually, it’s quite close to the truth. Because there is one thing that stands above the law, and that is politics. Parliament makes the law, so what politicians think — and what those who vote for them think — is very important in working out what the law is to be.

            And traditionally British politics has had a very high regard for property rights. Much higher than other European countries, for example, such as France. Maybe it comes from our common-law tradition. Maybe it’s something about living on an island. I don’t know, but it remains the fact that while of course the British Parliament can, and has in the past, used powers of compulsory purchase to take title of private property, it is generally very reluctant to do so. Look at, for example, the winding British Railways, in comparison to the continental ones which have straight high-speed lines between cities, in large part because the continental Europeans were far more willing to simply use legislative powers to seize the necessary land whereas in the UK if a landowner did not wish to sell their land to the railway company the line simply had to divert around it.

            So any proposal through Parliament to seize the assets of the Church of England (and make them, say, bingo halls) would be sure to provoke outcry and rebellions within Parliament. That’s not to say it would be necessarily defeated, just that it would be a battle.

            But if the Church were to voluntarily sign over title to is properties, then a subsequent alteration to the terms of use would not generate nearly so much resistance. You can rely on a lot of MPs to stand up for the principle that the state should not, except in extremis, interfere with property rights at all, ever. Far fewer — perhaps none — would come to bat against a technical redrafting of a terms-of-use-agreement.

            Indeed varying the terms of use might not even take primary legislation. It could be done under secondary legislation. Depending on the details of settlement it might even be an order in council or perhaps just a change of a contract, so it might not even ever come to a vote.

            So while you’re right that technically nothing stops Parliament from right now simply removing all the Church of England’s property by legislative fiat, it is quite wrong to say that therefore the Church voluntarily signing it over would make zero difference to the amount of control the Church has over it.

            After all, noting technically stops Parliament from right now passing a bill of attainder to seize all your property. But that doesn’t mean that you may as well just hand over all your property to the government as they could just take it anyway. The passage of such a bill would be politically impossible, so even though there is no legal reason that all your property couldn’t be seized tomorrow it won’t, practically, happen.

            Similarly although a bill taking the Church of England’s property into state ownership is not quite as impossible to imagine politically as a bill of attainder against you personally (you could imagine the arguments that it’s already a form of public service, etc, though set against that would be the fact that a lot of the building were constructed by private individuals and gifted to the Church so are not simply the state’s to take as it wishes), it is still not a foregone conclusion that one would actually make its way through the full legislative process, even if one were to get to the stage of being proposed by this or a future government.

            In summary: yes, the state could feasibly take control of the Church of England’s buildings, but it would have a fight on its hands. Don’t make it easy for them by just handing them over.

          • I am most grateful to S for the further remarks made and the way in which they have been made. I found them very cogent and useful.

            It is quite right that politics determines what is or is not possible, and it is certainly possible that if the state attempted to expropriate the assets of the Church without the consent of the latter, then the state would have a battle on its hands. However, it might be relatively easier than was once the case, since the Church now has few allies in parliament – none of the current party leaders, and few of those around them, are meaningfully Anglican, never mind Christian. The real reason why parliament would not interfere is that it will probably not be bothered to do so, since the affairs of the Church are now seen by the great majority of the ‘political nation’ as a purely private matter in which the state is unwilling to intrude, save only that it might one day eliminate the final residue of establishment privilege which attaches to the Church for wider political reasons.

            Property rights exist solely because they are politically and economically convenient. However, when they are not, they are swept away: think of the concept of compulsory purchase (or ’eminent domain’ in the US). Why is it that previous British governments have swept away Church property rights with nary a thought? It is because the rights of the Church are seen as being neither politically expedient nor economically useful. Take, for example, tithe. This was long thought to be an inalienable and indefeasible property right of the Church, and it provided the greater part of the incomes of most clergy. The first Melbourne ministry converted tithe in kind, which was often highly contentious, to rentcharge in 1836 (often to the disadvantage of the clergy) because it was not only perceived by the political economists – including many Anglican political economists – as economically inefficient (which it was) but also politically inexpedient (it was one of the primary causes of the ‘Captain Swing’ disturbances of 1830). Time passed, and it became still more problematic in Ireland and Wales (it was finally scrapped in Ireland in 1869), and again in the 1920s when falling returns to agriculture meant that the moduses agreed in the bumper years of the first war had become insupportable, resulting in ‘tithe wars’: it was slashed in 1925 and put into run-off in 1936, slashed again in 1951 and abolished outright (twenty years earlier than promised by the third Baldwin ministry to the Church in 1936) in 1977. As far as the state was concerned, it had better things to do than to protect the property rights of the Church (or of lay impropriators); it was unwilling to utilise its police powers in defence of those rights, and so they were abolished. If certain Conservatives defended the property rights of the Church in Ireland or in Wales, it was mostly because the landlord class saw the Church as the outworks of the landed interest, and were concerned about what might happen to that interest. When nothing did happen (pace the Wyndham Act in Ireland), they moved on, emotionally and politically, and the Church was left to fend for itself; attempts to garland the property rights of the Church in spiritual arguments met with short shrift (think of G. K. Chesterton’s celebrated put-down of F. E. Smith).

            This, then, is the reason why – at the high-water mark of property rights in the nineteenth century – the Church was susceptible to confiscation. Its title was considered worthless because it was deemed by officials and economists to provide the community with scant material benefit. Why then, were landlords (including ecclesiastical corporations) able to hold canal builders or railway projectors to ransom via parliamentary counsel? It was solely because parliament was then a landlords’ parliament. Since the landlord interest has faded almost completely from the legislature, the ability of landowners to disrupt public projects has receded (although this does happen occasionally – think of the 17th duke of Norfolk blocking the extension of the A27 over the Arun between Tortington and Lyminster, or the 10th duke of Rutland blocking mining in the Vale of Belvoir). Parliament is now a legislature dominated by owner occupiers, yet even they have been incapable of blocking something as disruptive as HS2 (whilst their indifference to the property rights of the Church will be almost total).

            S mentions France according less prestige to property rights than the UK. This is not necessarily the case. The Radical party politicians (and many of the Left Republicans) who assailed the Church in the wake of Dreyfus, and who expropriated the entirety of the Church’s property (including churches and clergy houses) in 1905 were usually conspicuous in their defence of private property. Indeed, one of the reasons why French politicians of the centre and the left were so solicitous of private property rights was because the petty farmers and shopkeepers who were the backbone of the Radical party – which dominated the politics of the Third Republic – occupied former Church or noble lands: they were concerned about ‘legitimist’ politicians who might return that land to its ancient owners (as had occurred to some extent, or been threatened, during 1814/15 to 1830). That pattern was repeated across much of western Europe.

            Now who has recently expropriated more private property without compensation than almost any other body? Why, it is the Church itself! The Endowments and Glebe Measure 1976 permitted DBFs to expropriate parochial assets for diocesan purposes. This was not a species of cy-pres, which arose because parochial trusts had failed: it was a simple smash-and-grab operation from ‘living’ parishes sanctioned by legislative fiat. These were assets which had been given in good faith by past donors specifically for the benefit of their parish churches. Having confiscated these assets without compensation, DBFs then dissipated the proceeds of sale for the support of often distant clergy: to pay their stipends and to enhance their pension rights. The DBFs were therefore permitted by Synod (and parliament) to ride roughshod over local rights and have engaged in a species of licensed theft on a large scale. At the time it was protested that the Measure was necessary because it was alleged that many freehold incumbents had sold glebe to augment their incomes, but the mask soon came off. Now, I am not criticising the Church for having done this – in many ways it has made much sense – but the Church should be wary of critiquing the motes that are in the eyes of those who would argue for disendowment (sometimes for the good of the Church) when there are beams in its own eyes.

            Many thanks again to S for such stimulating and interesting arguments.

        • “My experience of the Church (attending services at >5,000 parishes)”

          FIVE THOUSAND? That’s one a week for a hundred years.

          Anyway, to your point: why would the State take the buildings? It’s simply not in their interest. They are liabilities more than assets.

          Reply
          • Many thanks. I was attending many more services than one a week, that’s for sure: simply finding out when service were being held was often a great effort.

            The National Churches Trust takes a different view about the value added of church buildings: https://www.houseofgood.nationalchurchestrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/House-of-Good-AW-digital-small.pdf. They are a liability, but they may also often be an asset.

            I agree that the Treasury would be apprehensive about DDCMS taking on the stock, but this would presumably depend upon the accounting treatment of the stock, and whether it would be construed as an asset (which I think more likely) than as a liability. Moreover, the point of proposing the partial disendowment of the Commissioners was: (i) to create a dowry which would neutralise the impact on the Treasury (and allow time to permit the development of parallel uses, where possible, that would offset the erosion of the dowry); and (ii) to effectively return to the parishes the capital which has been drained from them via the parish share system. The churches would, of course, remain open to congregations without charge (as in France), so that the Church could retain its more or less comprehensive reach. The reason why I have proposed disestablishment is not only that the preservation of the Church’s existing (and somewhat doubtful) privileges has become politically untenable, as that it would also provide political cover for a reconstitution of relations between Church and State which would permit the Church to retain something approximating to its existing reach.

  14. This is a fascinating discussion. The CofE position is in many ways similar, and in many other ways very different from the position of the Church of Scotland. I note the assumption behind some comments that a church presence in a community is a Church of England presence. I’m not sure that is always helpful, and there are some communities in the north where non-conformists are the main church presence in communities, and there must be (indeed there are – see Carlisle) better ways of working in partnership for mission in these communities.
    We do not have the massive inherited funds of the Church Commissioners in the CofS, so the cold gales of change are biting much faster and more keenly here. Planning is a mix of responsibility between the national – setting stipend, training ministries, broad-brush allocation of numbers to Presbyteries (roughly equivalent to Diocese) and regional, where the Presbyteries attempt to negotiate the patterns of ministry provision, pastoral charges, and buildings. And the changes we face over the next few years will require herculean levels of cooperation and willingness to collaborate for the whole structure not to collapse.

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    • Many thanks. The Church of Scotland is in striking contrast to the Church of England – and I believe that the assets of the former are markedly less than that of the Church in Wales (about £0.5bn or so, compared to about £0.75bn in Wales). The looting of the Kirk in the sixteenth century by lairds and commendators (usually greater landowners), was far more drastic than anything which occurred in England, and ministers were especially dependent upon teinds (which were finally abolished in 2004).

      The reduction in HLF subventions in 2016-17 was a moment of acute crisis for the Kirk. An appeal was made to the devolved government, which was refused. This led the General Assembly to institute a Radical Action Plan, which will see the drastic reduction in the stock. This has been well under way for more than a decade, but the Plan, which was endorsed by the GA in 2019, will greatly accelerate the rationalisation. Presbyteries are being merged, and churches (and manses) are being sold at an accelerating rate, regardless of antiquity. For example, in east Fifeshire, and in Shetland, most churches are now slated for closure.

      Scotland has probably suffered the greatest and most rapid collapse in attendance and commitment of any European nation, absent Ireland. Whilst the Kirk believes that drastic pruning will permit rehabilitation, there is scant evidence to the contrary, which is a problem for a church which was described in the Church of Scotland Act 1921 (the Kirk’s effective constitution) as a ‘national church’ exercising a ‘territorial ministry’.

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      • Endorsing homosexual clergy has also led to large congregations leaving. The Tron Church in Glasgowm one of the largest in Scotland , walked away from their buildings over this, and other parishes have done the same.

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  15. Michael Nazir-Ali is the individual best placed to summarise here, given the combination of his intellect with his having chaired the C of E Millennium review into its use of its human and financial resources.:

    Telegraph 9.2.21 – I am sure we are not allowed by Telegraph to quote verbatim for too long stretches (it is on Anglican Mainstream 11.2.21), but his main points are:

    (a) local clergy and churches are often doing the business, and the issue lies with the institution;

    (b) the institution has two main preoccupations which are simultaneously costly, draining, tangential (and think of the really big things they are being forced to overshadow):
    First, ‘safeguarding’ allegations against individuals the more prominent the better (and yes that is a suspicious trend in the media age) – which he calls typically ‘lengthy, costly and far-fetched’ (if Martyn Percy is the end-game, then yes);
    Second, ‘jumping onto every faddish bandwagon about identity politics, cultural correctness and (empire-related) mea culpas.
    Both subsets are making little distinction between past and present. Of course this could be interpreted in innocent ways (the law itself does not at all, quite rightly, think severity diminishes with the years) and less innocent (sometimes if what one wants is a spicy story, there are none involving headlinable living names and ones involving dead names long ago are far less easy to disprove, especially in an age where conplainants are automatically called victims! – something which does no favours to those several who actually are victims).

    Given this (he says) it is unsurprising that crises are identified regarding all 3 of money, people and buildings – but even then it is not proposed by the report to cut back on the bureaucracy or on the said novel priorities to stem these crises.

    To misquote Nietzsche: ‘The Church/Denomination is dying!’ ‘Yes – and who do you think shall have killed it but the soothsayers who discern its demise?’

    Years before AIDS, it was a given that greater organisation and ‘visibility’ of homosexual behaviour would lead to far more opportunities for promiscuity, which of course is in any circumstances a multiplication table not an addition sum. Promiscuity was known to be linked to disease and death. When AIDS broke out, it was only a handful of years after the sexual revolution bang on cue. When the demise spoken of above broke out, it was again only a handful of years after the Gene Robinson affair and the turn to political correctness and squandering of resources in other ways. The true prophets are again vindicated above the moaning soothsayers, but neither deserves any credit, because the true prophets are inhabiting the world of the ”bleedin’ obvious” (cause and effect). Though one has to wonder at the diligent veiling of that ”bleedin’ obvious” – indeed often a redoubled rush in the same suicidal direction – which I have documented from several highly evasive priovate correspondences.

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  16. you said one of the solutions would be “to see new people come to faith.” Well, not quite. That’s to dodge the much, much harder challenge and one which the Lord himself neither commissioned any of us for nor provides the power of the Holy Spirit for: you’ve got to persuade them to attend the Anglican church.

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  17. Thanks for this article Ian. As a complete devotee of the parish system – it defines the Church of England, we are people of ‘place’ – future growth depends on investing in the local, and I believe that to be centred around part-time, non-stipendiary, lay and ordained ministry raised indigenously. We should also learn from past mistakes and missed opportunities if we are to avoid tripping over the precipice by mistake. Blame games are unhelpful but we do need to acknowledge the extent to which clericalism continues to prevent church growth. We need to keep all our churches open but not necessarily as gathered worshipping congregations. And we need to see leadership in the form of non-stipendiary bishops and the administration of dicoesan offices run by volunteers, just like the parishes. We also need to re-open the debate about eucharistic presidency – otherwise we will soon need to choose between priesthood and sacraments. And I’d prefer our congregations to have the latter than be denied them because we cannot generate (without stipends) the former.

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