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Prudence Dailey’s Commentary: Will Parish Churches Survive the Squeeze?

Will Parish Churches Survive the Squeeze?

From the moment I first became aware of it, I was uncomfortable with Diocesan bureaucracy: there were too many staff with incomprehensible job titles, and little accountability. The Diocesan Synod was, apparently, filled with people who would not say ‘boo’ to a Bishop. Unlike the General Synod (with its quasi-Parliamentary procedure, amendments, and points of order), the proceedings were dominated by a series of presentations in which a succession of Diocesan staff reported on what a great job they were doing, followed by a few softball questions.

It all seemed very far from the real concerns of the people in the Parishes, and I wondered why anybody would want to spend four Saturday mornings a year at its meetings (my own membership being ex officio, due to being on General Synod). Only very recently was it put to me that some people derive a perceived sense of status from it—which, if true, is somewhat alarming. My worst fears about the Diocesan bureaucracy’s sense of its own importance were reinforced a dozen years ago when I heard on the grapevine that the initial draft of the Diocesan Annual Report contained not a single mention of the Parishes.

Since then, while ‘the Diocese’ moved into a large corporate office block (having outgrown its previous premises), pressure on Parishes has continued to increase, with the lion’s share of their income from giving being swallowed up by Parish Share leaving them starved of resources for local ministry, while many simply cannot raise the sums asked of them.

Despite the pressures, however, this Diocese (being comparatively wealthy) has not embarked on a programme of widespread local cutbacks. Other Dioceses are having it worse—much worse. I have, for example, recently become aware of the situation in another Diocese, where five ‘Transforming Mission Centres’ have been established, with paid staff and six-figure overheads. 60% of the funding for these comes from the Church Commissioners, with the remainder being met by the Diocese—that is, from Parish Share. The aim of these Centres (as with so many initiatives in recent years) is to promote overall Church growth; but there is little evidence of success.

Meanwhile Deaneries (and therefore the Parishes within them) are being faced with the need to cut costs—in other words, to cut clergy—in order to make ends meet. This is despite confirmation from the Church of England’s own research that reductions in clergy numbers lead to decline in attendance and giving. At the same time, Parishes are being combined into ‘mega-Parishes’ with a single PCC (depriving individual congregations of their own voice), and churches are being closed.

The local Diocesan Branch of Save the Parish issued a press release expressing their concerns, which generated some effective coverage in local newspapers; at the same time, they wrote to their Bishop, asking him to meet them. Thus far he has bluntly refused, citing their having gone to the press as the reason for this. No wonder there is a breakdown of trust in many places. And this particular Diocese is far from being alone.

I should make it clear that I have no doubt that Bishops and other senior leaders responsible for these schemes are well-intentioned, and sincerely want to spread the Gospel. They are not lining their own pockets, and want to win disciples for Christ. The problem is that the Church of England has become increasingly fixated with the chimera of wholesale numerical growth (notwithstanding the decrease in religious observance right across the Western world, as society becomes more secular), at the expense of the maintenance of existing provision.

The irony of this is that numerical growth CAN and does happen—at the local level. The right clergy in the right Parishes can and do draw people into their churches, and win them for Christ. At the same time, however, it remains much easier to drive congregations out than to bring them in: a few dozen new converts will not make up for hundreds of former churchgoers who have drifted away in dribs and drabs because their once-loved village churches are no longer holding regular services, or have closed altogether.

Miss Dailey has been a member of General Synod from Oxford Diocese for over 20 years.