The Church of England Must Put Parishes First to Survive, Commentary by Prudence Dailey

One of the most highly publicised items on the agenda of the recent meeting of the General Synod was a Vision and Strategy paper proposed by the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, which suggested that the Church of England might be called to plant ten thousand predominantly lay-led house churches over the next ten years. This came in the wake of a conference at which clergy were described as a ‘key limiting factor’ inhibiting church growth. While the resultant outrage was partly based on a misunderstanding—the claim was that the finite number of clergy is a limitation, not the clergy themselves—the fear that their traditional parish ministry is under threat is also not entirely misplaced.

We are constantly assured by the Church’s hierarchy, including the Archbishop of York, that there is no desire to side-line the parishes: I am certain that this is sincerely meant. The danger is, however, that the more we channel our energies into ambitious new initiatives, the less time, energy and money there is for the daily round of traditional parish ministry. I have written before about how parishes are becoming increasingly ‘squeezed’ in terms of both human and financial resources, and it is, perhaps, instructive to understand how we arrived at this point.

Historically, clergy stipends were paid directly by parishes from the income from glebe and endowments, with poorer parishes being subsidised from a nationally administered fund known as Queen Anne’s Bounty. Clergy did not receive a Church pension, and so—unless they had other means on which to retire—they were moved to smaller and smaller parishes until called to their final rest. In 1976, the Glebe and Endowments Measure transferred ownership of all the parishes’ endowments to the Church Commissioners (the body responsible for the administration of the National Church’s property and investments), while glebe was handed over to Diocesan Boards of Finance. In return, Dioceses would fund clergy stipends, while pensions (with all clergy now required to retire at 70) paid by the Church Commissioners. 

Over time, however, the pressures of inflation, combined with some poor investment decisions by the Church Commissioners in the past together with increased central expenditure by Dioceses, have meant that more and more of the costs stipendiary clergy—including a contribution to pensions and clergy training as well as immediate stipend costs—have fallen on congregations which are themselves declining in numbers (and are, of course, still responsible for the maintenance of church buildings). 

Against this background, it is easy to see why at first glance a lay-led church, perhaps meeting in someone’s home, might seem so appealing: both the manpower and the venue are free! The case has been well made elsewhere for both the impracticality and undesirability of such an arrangement; but the question remains: what can the Church do to breathe life and resources into its parishes?

Where once the Diocesan Staff would have consisted of the Bishop, his chaplain and his secretary, the staff list of this Diocese (Oxford), as shown on its website, currently numbers over 170 people. Some of these are fulfilling essential functions that are legally or practically required; but it is also important to remember Parkinson’s law, that work expands to fill the man-hours available. Not so long ago, a suffragan bishop boasted that this was a ‘rich diocese’, with plenty of resources at the centre. Meanwhile, parish clergy are losing sleep over how to meet their parish share, or whether they can afford to reclaim their out-of-pocket expenses.

What is needed is a fundamental reimagining of the nature of the Diocese, and its relationship with parishes. A Diocese, properly understood, is not the bureaucratic edifice it has become; but first and foremost a geographical area under the jurisdiction of a Bishop and encompassing a number of parishes, within which the Diocesan Bishop shares the cure of souls with the incumbents of those parishes. Before any new policy is suggested or any decision is made, the first question should be: ‘How will this impact the parishes? Unless there is a willingness to adopt such an approach, there may not be much of the Church of England left in ten years’ time.