Three vital statistics from General Synod

This week saw the first meeting of the new General Synod following elections last month. It was designed to be a largely uncontroversial first session, not least because around 60% of the members were new—something fairly unprecedented, which resulted in a surprising number of established members not being re-elected. Most of the items of business were either completing the formalities of items already discussed (including next year’s budget for Archbishops’ Council, and the finalisation of the changes to the Vacancy in See process), discussion to catch the new members up to date (Vision and Strategy, Governance Review), or things that were not controversial. You can see both the agenda and all the papers (since Synod conducts its business in the public eye) on the Church of England webpage here.

As a result, and as is often the case, the most interesting session was Questions on Tuesday evening from 5.30 to 7.00. 132 questions had been submitted; as has been the practice for several years, initial answers were published in writing and the Synod time was taken up with asking supplementary questions. Despite this, we only got just over half way through the list; Synod must give more time to this (and control the number of supplementary questions any one member can ask).

I here reflect on three questions that were asked, which potentially offered some illuminating statistics, all of which I was involved with one way or another.

Question 13 was asked by a new lay member of Synod, retired professor of material sciences Roy Faulkner, but I advised on the wording:

What are the numbers respectively of usual Sunday attendance, parochial clergy, diocesan posts, archdeacons, and suffragan and diocesan bishops over the last 100 years, say in 1920, 1950, 1980, 2010, and today?

No information was supplied on church attendance or diocesan posts, but the numbers of senior leaders and clergy in dioceses were given as follows:

What is striking here is that the number of clergy has declined by around 45% from 1959 to 2020, whilst the number of senior leaders (archdeacons plus bishops) has actually increased from 219 to 235. At the same time, according to Christian Research, attendance has declined from around 2,900,000 to around 800,000, a drop of some 75%.

Two things are striking here. First is that the number attending church per member of parochial clergy has decreased from 221 to 110. It is not clear that these numbers mean very much in an absolute sense, but they point to some of the key issues in the financial pressure that dioceses are facing: there are fewer people attending, giving and supporting clergy on average, so giving per person needs to be much higher than it was in the past in order to sustain the cohort of stipendiary clergy. The complexity here is that, with a massive changes in social context, not least the introduction of Sunday trading, even committed Christians attend Sunday services less frequently, so the decline in attendance numbers does not translate directly into a decline in the numbers of people who attend or are involved. In the past, the kind of people who might have attended twice every Sunday now might well attend once on two or three Sundays in a month, which alone would account for more than a 60% drop in the counted attendance numbers.

(On the subject of attendance, it is also worth noting that the challenge for the C of E is not that people are attending less, but that successive generations are not following in their predecessors footsteps. I came across this graph which illustrates it very well:

This tells us, yet again, that one of our main challenges is finding effective ways to nurture successive generations within the church family, as much as it is reaching each generation outside.)

But the paradox on stipendiary clergy numbers is that all the known research shows that cutting the number of stipendiary clergy leads to a decline in attendance, so we would normally assume that reducing the number of clergy further would probably lead to a further reduction in attendance.

The second striking thing is that the number of senior leaders per 100 parochial clergy has almost exactly doubled from 1.67 in 1959 to 3.26. I asked Stephen Cottrell a supplementary question ‘Is anyone aware of a particular explanation for this?’ and he answered in general terms ‘We must look carefully at all roles’. This growth in senior leaders is before we consider the huge growth in central administrative staff across the dioceses, so that in some cases up to a third of diocesan staff are in central administration, and only two-thirds are clergy in parishes.

There is no simple answer to this; we live in a much more complex and bureaucratic world than we did in the 1950s. And there is no doubt that some things are better done centrally. But the starkness and steepness of this change does concentrate the mind. Do we need to ask, of central administration and senior leadership, in a fresh way, what are all these posts for? Are they doing things which support the delivery of ministry in the parish—or are we trying to do too many others things which need serious pruning? Should we continue to do anything at all which is not about direct engagement in sharing and building faith?

In relation to overall numbers of parochial clergy, I asked Question 36:

How many dioceses have announced plans to cut the number of stipendiary posts over the next five years, by how much, and by how many in total?

This follows the announcement several weeks ago by Leicester Diocese (discussed here) that they were going to cut the numbers of stipendiary posts and form ‘minster communities’ that group parishes together. Several other dioceses are also planning to make stipendiary posts redundant. No numbers were immediately forthcoming, though Martin Seeley, bishop of Edmundsbury and Ipswich, in response to my supplementary question ‘When will we have them?’ promised them within a month. In the meantime, he observed in the written answer:

Dioceses are still assessing their immediate and longer-term financial circumstances. The scale and pattern of future clergy retirements is very difficult to predict through the unique context of the pandemic and the full implications of the ambitious Vision and Strategy have yet to be fully reflected in the plans of Dioceses.

Meanwhile measures are already being developed and implemented to mitigate the risk of a short term mis-match between the continuing flow of stipendiary ordained vocations and the needs of the church. These include the extension of the already existing Strategic Ministry Fund to create additional curacy places.

The crucial observation here is that there is a serious mismatch between diocesan short-term decision-making, and longer term national strategy. It seems odd to me that this issue is not number one on the agenda of meetings of the House of Bishops; I don’t see where else such a mismatch can be addressed, but to my knowledge it is not yet being dealt with there.

The second vital statistic arose in my Question 83, which sadly we did not reach, so I was unable to ask the important supplementary questions I had been intending.

In 2020, according to their annual report, the Church Commissioners made an excellent return of 10.4% on their assets which at year end were £9.2bn, an asset growth of approximately £867m. Of this, £281m was dispersed through LinC and SDF and to support the Pension Fund. Of the remaining £586m, how much went towards management fees and costs, how much was kept back to protect the assets against devaluation through inflation and to ensure intergenerational justice in resourcing, and on what basis?

The answer was simple: all of the £586m was the figure retained as growth in assets, as management fees had already been accounted for, but there was no clear explanation of the basis on which this decision was made. I find this quite extraordinary, as it represents a growth in the Commissioners assets of 7.0%. The written answer to my question included this comment:

As my predecessor told Synod in July, “The Commissioners aim to distribute the maximum funding for mission and ministry that can be maintained in real terms into the future. This balances the needs of the current and future beneficiaries: the task of a permanent endowment.”

I struggle to understand how, in a period of historically low interest rates, and comparatively low inflation, growing the asset base by 7.0% whilst refusing to subsidise the dioceses any further through the effects of Covid and lockdown can constitute a ‘balance’ between the needs of current and future beneficiaries. To make this a little more concrete: had the Commissioners decided to protect the future value of their assets by holding onto a growth of 5% instead of 7%—which is still pretty conservative—this would have released a further £167m, enough to contribute a further £4m to every single diocese in this one year, which would go a long way to buying more time by eliminating deficits and discouraging the cutting of stipendiary posts.

Would this have been a good decision to make? Would it help dioceses by protecting them from making hard decisions about pruning areas of activity and ministry? Isn’t the problem we face as a denomination our failure to confront the reality of unsustainable and ineffective ministry?

Possibly so, but whether pruning feels like a good idea depends very much on whether you are the person doing the pruning or the person being pruned. Given the current state of clergy morale, given the mismatch noted above between short-term diocesan decision-making and longer term national strategy, and given that some dioceses clearly are not making good decisions here, using these funds to buy dioceses another, say, two or three years so that they can prepare better to face reality would seem like a good thing to me.

The supplementary question I would have asked is: on what grounds was it decided not to do this, or something like it? Why are the Commissioners prioritising protecting their assets for the future to such an extent at a time when a good number of dioceses are facing substantial deficits, often of several million pounds? The key problem here is the lack of transparency in decision making. Others might or might not agree with the way the decision has been made, but at the very least we need to see the working if we are to continue to work together in mutual partnership and trust.

The third interesting statistic came in quite a different context and of quite a different kind, in relation to a series of questions relating to the prohibition on the use of individual cups to administer wine in Holy Communion. There was a series of questions about the previous claim by the House of Bishops that receiving wine in individual cups was ‘illegal’, but this has been challenged by a group of ecclesiastical lawyers, and there has been no proper response. Andrew Atherstone, in a supplementary question, noted that it was reported in The Globe newspaper (26 April 1902):

On another question connected with the Holy Communion an important ruling has just been given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Somebody has asked Dr Temple whether, in view of the possible danger of infection during the administration of the chalice, he would authorise the provision of small glasses into which the consecrated wine may be poured for individual consumption. We have not seen the words of the reply, but it is stated that the Archbishop declares there is nothing illegal in the proposal, the provision being made either by the churchwardens or by the communicant who himself desires it.

In the written answer to the questions, Michael Ipgrave, who is bishop of Lichfield, stated:

The House recognises that different ministers and churches have in good conscience adopted a variety of forms of administration of Holy Communion while Covid-19 continues to circulate in the general population. Whatever approach is taken, ministers and churches should be guided by the symbolism and ideal of ‘one bread and one cup’.

I then asked the natural question arising:

For bears of little brain like myself, is there someone who could explain to me in words of one syllable why it is possible to receive the bread in the form of wafers, which were never part of ‘one loaf’, yet for some reason it is apparently not permitted to receive wine in small cups poured from a single vessel, which clearly did originate in ‘one cup’?

My question was, very oddly, ruled out of order, as were two other forms of the same question (the first by new member Chris Blunt from Chester).

What became apparent in the exchange is that the House of Bishops have not offered any clear or convincing support for their prohibition on the use of individual cups at Communion, that there is actually a diversity of practice on the ground, and that this diversity will continue. I think it would help all concerned if we heard a simple admission: ‘We got it wrong’.

What these three issues have in common is the need for transparency, honesty and accountability in our decision making in different areas, and an integration and coherence in our strategies. I am not sure we are there yet.

As we approach Advent, how do we make sense of the language in the New Testament about the ‘end of the world’? Why is it pastorally important to get this right? Is all the language about ‘rapture’, ’tribulation’ and ‘millennium’ helpful—or a distracting fiction?
Come and find out at Ian Paul’s Zoom teaching morning on Saturday 4th December:

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40 thoughts on “Three vital statistics from General Synod”

  1. “ There was a series of questions about the previous claim by the House of Bishops that receiving wine in individual cups was ‘illegal’”

    Technically the Bishops have not said that individual cups are “illegal”. They have, however, told (again, technically, “advised”) us not to use them.

    I am using them.

    • I very much understand this as episcopal advice. I’m no lawyer but I don’t think there are sufficient grounds for making it illegal. Maybe it would help if your diocese took you to court so it could be settled once and for all 🙂

      • We’ll all stand before the Judge one day. Mind you, I like C S Lewis’ observation that in the OT you’re the plaintiff and in the NT the defendant.

  2. Thank you, Ian.
    I share your concern about the use and reinvestment of funds.
    However, I hope (and believe) your question “Should we continue to do anything at all which is not about direct engagement in sharing and building faith?” is intended to be provocative rather than serious. Presumably “building faith” includes pastoral care (loving each other) although this isn’t obvious, but I don’t have a lot of time for a church that doesn’t put a fairly high priority on both worship and practically blessing the less fortunate.

  3. Hi Ian,
    Thanks very much for your comments, and support at my first GS group of sessions.

    I completely agree with you that the church commissioners ought to have released more funds for immediate use, and if you look back over 25 years, their position has strengthened immensely. I asked this question at the church commissioners display in the hall and I was told: if we give the dioceses more funds, they are likely to create unsustainable posts which will later have to be cut when our income falls. I think that would make sense I the margins were smaller, but they are huge!

    On the subject of cups, a bishop told me they have agreed not to take any action against parishes which use individual cups, so we’re going to resume communion on that basis.

    Keep up the good work!


      • You mention Sunday trading as drawing committed Christians away from weekly church attendance. Sunday is now also ‘football day’ for many, not least school-age children. This is having a massive effect on families where worship of God in community is in direct competition with the hallowed game. Parents are fearful that if they don’t let their (mostly male) children compete, and don’t support them from the sidelines, then they will grow up resenting God. What is the answer?

          • In my curacy church we started a family service at 11:15. We provided a simple brunch. Crackers, cheese, fruit, croissants and good coffee. the kids came in the football kit straight from training.

          • I also think the statistics show that only 15% of young people are engaged in some sort of sport (not just football I.e. dancing, cheerleading, rugby) on a Sunday morning. As much as I agree with Ian about making services more accessible at other times (our children’s church is at 4pm on a Sunday and a midweek family service in the school is planned for the beginning of next year) having heard this argument often, I wonder if we’re deceiving ourselves. There’s still 85% to engage, even if we don’t catch the “sporty” ones.

  4. Re “the need for transparency, honesty and accountability in our decision making”

    The proceedings of the House of Bishops would be a good place to start. My own parish church publishes its PCC minutes, as do various synods and committees in the Church of England; are the Bishops above such scrutiny? Well, yes it seems they are. And they do this by opening a legislative loophole every time they meet.

    The law allows for members of the public to attend meetings of the House. However, in recent years it has been the practice of whichever Bishop is chairing to move Standing Order 14 so that the House may meet as a Committee in private. This is a deliberate preemptive move against openness, transparency and accountability. (Incidentally the other two Houses, clergy and laity, lack a comparable Standing Order; quite why the Bishops alone need such protection is unclear.)

    It has long been the case that various bodies (e.g. School Governors and the local council) can invoke a confidentiality clause for all all or part of the agenda if they are discussing sensitive issues. Fair enough. But that should be the exception not the norm. For the Bishops to start every meeting with that as a matter of course seems like an abuse of process. Furthermore, I believe that during the pandemic meetings of the House have been held online – making attendance by the press and public even easier to arrange. Can the Bishops set a better example and end this unnecessary secrecy?

  5. So even in pre-covid times many large churches used multiple (but not individual) cups….ours used 3 for wine plus one for alcohol free. I’ve worshiped at cathedrals eucharists where there were probably a dozen cups used at all points of the compass – how was this one cup or were the bishops who celebrated at these services ‘accessories’ to this allegedly illegal act?.

    This feels like an angels on the head of a pin argument that makes us look daft. Surely it should be up to individual incumbents (or PCCs?) to decide.

  6. Re Jonathan E – I think comments in the Thread above suggest that in practice it really is (up to individual incumbents or PCCs to decide).

  7. Re communion: If the issue is ablutions then simply give two small cups: one with consecrated wine and one with water. After drinking the former the communicant tips half the water into the empty wine glass, swills it round and drinks it. This procedure is then repeated with the remainder of the water and both glasses are then dropped in a bowl of sterilising solution to be washed up and reused.

    • But why, oh why, does the church get their knickers in a twist about communion and make something so simple, so complicated?

  8. Great questions Ian… keep them coming…

    I think it’s going to a longtime until we drink out of one cup… we’ve been intincting… but your point about the cups makes sense.

    I wonder how many of the Archdeacon’s in past decades also held parochial posts at the same time…

    • Thanks, will do!

      Jesus commanded ‘Drink you all of this’ and not ‘Intinct you all of this’, so I would rather have individual cups.

      Good question. And why not bishops too…?

  9. Jesus and the Twelve drank from a common cup, not to establish some special symbolism, but because in the first century that was just what any thirteen mates did when they got together. In the twenty-first century any normal group of people each have their own glass.

    A possible exception is some Masonic groups and University dining societies that are reputed to have a “Loving cup.” Do we really wish to tell people they have to be as weird as that to be a Christian?

    If the C of E can’t see this there are Baptist and Methodist churches just down the road.

  10. I heartily agree with you about the money and I am very suspicious of the benefit of all the paid advisors at the diocesan offices compared with the potential benefit of more paid normal clergy (if there are good applicants for normal clergy posts).

    We are still in interregnum and asked our Dean if we could use individual cups (in fact a member of our congregation has bought a set for us !) and we were told that we could NOT, in no uncertain terms. I was referred to the rubric of the old prayer book which clearly states that we should use one cup, but the same rubric states that the bread should be one loaf baked from good flour. So the blindingly obvious question about wafers was to be ignored . . .

  11. The response you quote from Michael Ipgrave seems considerably at variance with the early-covid response that came from the House of Bishops which said we could not and must not use individual cups and which were then challenged for their logic and correctness, not least on this blog. The Bishop of Lichfield seems to be saying, in Synod, and without others commenting, that it IS permissible to use small cups as long as the basic premise of the “one” is upheld.

    A mention that the cups have been filled in advance from one receptacle sounds sufficient in that case, though we may feel we should pour from one receptacle at the preparation of the Table?? In this diocese we have asked for the debate, but it has been delayed – but this response strongly implies each parish can make suitable provision. Is this a “don’t ask and we won’t look” approach, a recognition that the decisions properly lies with the parish (which would be strange!), a considered pragmatic temporary response because of covid which will be updated and possibly retracted in due course. It may even be that covid has given the opportunity for a revised view to take root (mixing metaphors) such that it is deemed normal practice in a few years.

    Thank you for reporting back the answer given by the bishop.

    • Yes, you are right—considerably at variance. It would be nice if that was admitted!

      I am glad to share the answer—but it does raise the question, if I had not, how would anyone know about it?

  12. Thank you Ian. Sadly just reemphasises how we are suffering from poor leadership. A leadership that seems to be lacking humbler, bolder and simpler approaches to enable the gospel message to flourish in our churches and in our nation.

  13. As an Anglican…. it happens I was visiting a Methodist church on Sunday.
    We shared Communion ; taking a piece of broken bread from a tray, drinking wine from individual cups… gathered in repeated semi circles at the front of church, each semicircle blessed as it prepared to return to their seats. None of the obscuring that intinction is, as if what matters is getting bread and wine no matter how.

    The practicalities were utterly secondary (and mentally absent) to the truth that we were sharing in the”oneness” of this wonderful meal.

    It was good.

  14. the number of clergy has declined by around 45% from 1959 to 2020… At the same time… attendance has declined from around 2,900,000 to around 800,000, a drop of some 75%.

    While the population of England has increased…

  15. Sadly, I’m one of the 58 previous members of General Synod (listed in the Sixth Notice Paper) who were not re-elected. Having described the position of the House of Bishops on the use of individual cups as ‘untenable’ and ‘unacceptable, in my letter in the Church Times (5 November, page 14), I was grateful that a number of Synod members did challenge it by questions and that those questions were reached, and the written answers challenged, by supplementary questions during the questions session on Tuesday evening. Had I still been a Synod member, I would have sought to ask a supplementary though I fear, like Ian’s question, it might have been ruled out of order.

    I did detect one chink in the bishops’ position in the written answer to questions 38-41, namely where +Ipgrave said that the HoB “agreed that it did not wish to propose the necessary legislative business to the General Synod which would make the use of individual cups is indisputably lawful.” I think the use of the word ‘indisputably’ is at least a nod of recognition to the validity of the arguments in the six barristers’ Opinion of August 2020, obtained by Synod member Mary Durlacher. The reality, as Bishop Pete Broadbent exposed in a comment on the Thinking Anglicans blog, is that the House of Bishops is divided on the issue.

    I am, however, encouraged by John Bavington’s comment (above) that “a bishop told me they have agreed not to take any action against parishes which use individual cups.” There is a hint of that being the bishops’ position in +Ipgrave’s written answer that “The House [of Bishops] recognises that different ministers and churches have in good conscience adopted a variety of forms of administration of Holy Communion while Covid-19 continues to circulate in the general population.” However, to state publicly that the bishops had agreed to take no action against parishes which use individual cups was, perhaps, beyond what they could say without undermining their whole position.

    By the way, I have attended a Sunday morning Holy Communion service in my diocese (I won’t name the church) where individual cups (plastic shot glasses) were used, and it would be interesting to know how widespread this practice is.

    • I actually think the change in position more significant that you suggest; I think they realise the game is up, and there is no actual obstacle to using individual cups.

      In fact, this was debated at length in the early 1900s, and even as part of the Lambeth Conference! More information to follow in a future post.

  16. I have looked again at the answers at General Synod, and I fear that the response, although appearing to allow for good conscience, may be carefully worded to justify the opposite. It may well prove to be a master-piece in saying nothing at all, in which case it is a terrible answer to a genuine question and a real slap-in-the-face to a desire for information and dialogue. The Bishop does not answer the questions asked of him but bundles them.
    “The House recognises that different ministers and churches have in good conscience adopted a variety of forms of administration of Holy Communion while Covid-19 continues to circulate in the general population” (this could mean that it is recognised but not condoned!). “Whatever approach is taken, ministers and churches should be guided by the symbolism and ideal of ‘one bread and one cup’.” (I find hope in the word “whatever” as that does seem to allow for variety). The second part of his answer ..

    “With respect to individual cups, neither the House of Bishops nor any individual bishop may formally authorize a practice if it is not lawful, whether temporarily or permanently. At its October meeting the House agreed that it did not wish to propose the necessary legislative
    business to the General Synod which would make the use of individual cups indisputably lawful.”
    As David Lammy says the word “indisputably” seems to be carefully chosen. The use of individual cups is of course not indisputably unlawful.
    The Legal Advisory Commission claimed that the use of individual cups was contrary to law on the basis that, although recognising there is no mention of individual cups in the BCP, “it is most likely that, if individual cups had been envisaged, it would have specifically referred to them”. How do we know what they would have thought then, and also knowing what we know now about hygiene etc? BCP does not permit intinction explicitly nor does it permit wafers – it must be bread ‘as is usual to be eaten’ yet this is not perceived to be a problem. It is an assumption that the BCP would not endorse individual cups and a greater assumption to think that the compilers would not consider an exception. The most we can say is it did not occur to them that individual cups might be considered.
    What is becoming a problem is the time it is taking for a new pronouncement which takes up the legal challenges; all the while the HoB procrastinates variant practices are being spawned and at the expense of leadership. People do it despite the bishop or behind the bishop – it is not helpful, nor is it good disagreement.
    I hope the Bishop of Lichfield’s careful comments are construed as permission for individual cups, where in good conscience and with due regard to the symbolism of one bread and one cup, minister and PCC wish to do so, and possibly with a time-frame for this eg while under the shadow of covid and until there is resolution to the legal disputes which make either answer genuinely disputable.

    • Thank you, Peter – and the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ whereby each minister/parish could decide what practice to adopt in their local situation, was the basis of the option I suggested in my letter in the Church Times, and is consonant with these remarks made by Archbishop Justin and Bishop Sarah Mullally in their joint article in the Daily Telegraph on 16 September 2020:
      “So here’s our challenge for the next phase of this complex, painful and hugely challenging time: let’s place our trust in the local, and make sure it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered. Some places will get things wrong – but that is true of central leadership too.
      It’s a challenge for government, and it’s one we also accept in the Church of England. Where some have felt we have made too many decisions from the centre, we recommit to empowering clergy and parishes, which are and have always been the foundation of the Church.”

      By the way, though, I’m David Lamming – not the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, though you’re far from being the first to confuse us (we’re both lawyers and supporters of Spurs!)

  17. And no examination of the fall in numbers of licensed readers/lay ministers here! There are important questions to ask about why those numbers are dwindling. Lay people with specific roles, training, commitment are vital to the wellbeing of church communities.


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