At last week’s Diocesan Synod in Chelmsford Diocese, a paper was discussed which proposed a radical reduction of stipendiary clergy posts from 275 to 215 within the next 18 months, a reduction of 22%. (Since these papers are in the public domain, you can read it for yourself here.) Despite some of these positions already being vacant, this will almost certainly involve making actual clergy redundant, which I think must be unprecedented in the modern era. With our (appropriate) current pre-occupation with the question of racism in society and the church, this might get overlooked or thought of as a local issue—but in fact this could be a turning point, since its implications point to a radical rejection of a commitment to a strategy of growth for the Church of England.
The introduction to the paper sets out the paradoxical pressures that has faced both dioceses and the national Church for some time:
a. On the one hand, it was widely predicted that 40% of serving clergy would retire in the next ten years, creating a kind of ‘cliff edge’ for stipendiary ministry. In fact, this has not been realised, since dioceses cannot control exactly when clergy retire, and many have been staying on longer than expected.
b. On the other hand, the Church of England nationally has never consistently reached its giving target of 5% of net income of those attending, and dioceses across the country are reporting growing deficits.
c. This paradox has been brought to a head by a very significant change in the way that the Church Commissioners distribute their funding. Prior to 2015, the Commissioners distributed funds according to what was known as the ‘Darlow formula’, which paid attention to needs in the dioceses in different ways, but paid no attention to commitment to or potential for growth. John Spence was the leading voice in the 2015 report Resourcing the Future, which proposed that the Commissioners money was divided into two: the Strategic Development Fund (SDF), which would give grants for church planting and church growth initiatives, each of which would need to become self-sustaining over a five-year period; and the Lowest Income Communities Funding (LInC), continuing support for the poorest communities across the dioceses.
This proposal was radical, in that it provided central leverage to see a change in diocesan strategies—radical, in the sense that it challenged the autonomy of the diocesan bishop to have complete control over his or her diocese. The proposal was accepted, but in order to work, it needed every diocese to make the radical reorientation to church planting, mission, discipleship and growth that the shift in finances assumed—and this has not happened, at least not uniformly.
Chelmsford Diocese have faced all these pressures, and appear to have been considering these issues for some time (friends in the diocese said to me ‘None of this comes as a surprise to us’). In fact, the proposals are potentially more radical; beyond the drop to 215 posts, the paper mentions the next move to 202, and that only 150 will be secure in the longer term—a potential 45% cut.
I am not involved in the diocese, so am not privy to discussions that have been happening. But I think that there will be some key issues to be debated there in the next few months—and there are enormous implications for the national strategy of the Church of England.
1. What has been happening in teaching about discipleship and giving across the diocese? There is a sense in which financial giving is the measure of discipleship; someone once said ‘If you want to know if someone is converted, look at his or her wallet’. Peter Hill, suffragan bishop in the diocese, commented in his Presidential Address (in the absence of a diocesan bishop):
Do you realise that if 20,000 of our roughly 30,000 church members across the diocese gave an average of an extra £1 a week it would raise £1m per annum and begin to address our immediate financial crisis; an extra £2 (one cup of coffee) would solve it and an average extra £5 a week would transform our mission capacity and enable us to plan to deploy more clergy and lay leaders! That is the simple reality. It really isn’t that big an ask for some of us, although of course it is for others.
2. How has this decision-making process been handled? I was intrigued that this radical plan did not appear to be presented as a decision for the Synod to vote on, but as a paper to note, with a decision to be made in November. But, six months on, with only 12 months then left for execution, this will surely be too late to make a decision—it appears to be assumed that this plan will be implemented.
3. What will be the criteria for deciding where the cuts will fall? The paper includes the proposal:
Prune in order to enable growth. Based on Jesus’ teaching in John 15, our aim mustbe to enable gospel growth. Care will be taken not to cut posts that have strategic potential.
But the nub of the question will be the interpretation of that phrase ‘have strategic potential’. Does that relate to current clergy? Or physical location? Or theological tradition? If it happened that most of the churches currently growing were of a particular theological tradition, would it be acceptable to retain these and lose the others?
4. What will be the parallel approach to senior clergy posts? I understand that the diocese has recently increased the number of archdeacons to seven, in order to support growing churches. But if clergy numbers in parishes are being cut, what reason is there to continue to keep non-parochial clergy posts? Why, for example, do we now have half the parish clergy that we did a hundred years ago—but twice the number of bishops? Now, there is a catch here, in that episcopal posts are not funded from the dioceses, but by the Church Commissioners. But if we can make such radical change as moving from Darlow to SDF and LInC, why not divert this money as well?
5. In a similar vein, what will be happening to central diocesan staff? In our diocese, just under a quarter of those in full-time work or ministry for the diocese are employed centrally at the diocesan house (40.27 FTE employed in ‘central’ roles out of 186 in total, which is 22%, of which 142 are stipendiary parochial clergy, including curates). I don’t know what the proportions are in Chelmsford, or whether there is information about the national scene across different dioceses. But when clergy are being cut, should not economies be made there too? Why not look to centralise some of these functions nationally ?
6. Perhaps the biggest question for the future is about what this cut will lead to. As I have discussed before, one of the most robust findings in research on church growth is that total numbers attending correlate strongly with investment in stipendiary ministry. This is, in fact, a key conviction behind the whole SDF grant process. So there is every reason to believe that cutting these stipendiary posts will not be a ‘pruning that leads to growth’ but will in fact accelerate overall decline in attendance—leading to a further drop in income through giving, requiring further cuts. What is to prevent this being a spiral of terminal decline for the diocese?
7. This then raises a question, for this diocese and more nationally: what is the coherence between cutting clergy in existing parishes, and investing in church planting and pioneer posts funded by SDF grants? In fact, if those posts are factored in, presumably the historic posts and parishes will need to be cut even faster than the overall numbers suggest?
8. Part of the national response to the anticipated dramatic decline in clergy numbers through retirement was a commitment to see vocations to ordained ministry increase by 50%. But if posts are now being cut, how can that be effected? Why would people offer for ministry in a situation of declining opportunity? And, in any case, will there be posts for them to be deployed to at the end of training?
9. A more personal question for those of us in the Northern Province of York relates to strategic leadership. Stephen Cottrell was bishop of Chelmsford since 2010, so has been overseeing the diocese for a whole decade. He will very soon be inducted as Archbishop of York. We might now be wondering whether this approach—cutting clergy to address budget deficits—will under his leadership become a more widespread strategy. If so, I don’t think that is a very hopeful scenario.
At the moment, this is a decision being made by one diocese. And yet there are at least ten others who are, I understand, facing major deficits. The structural problems and strategic challenges were already there, and have been gathering momentum over the last five years. But all these have been rapidly accelerated by the pandemic of Covid-19 and the impact of the lockdown. The virus does seem to have created a krisis moment of judgement.
If this is the wider response of other dioceses (from conversations, it appears that at least a quarter are now actively considering clergy redundancies) it is hard to see how all the elements of the strategies for growth in the Church of England can remain intact.
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