So bad it was beyond caricature — that is my verdict on the meeting of clergy and churchwardens to discuss the Saffron Walden ‘Deanery Vision’ in the Diocese of Chelmsford’s latest so-called ‘strategic’ exercise.
In his blog, Paul Roberts over in Bristol describes a typical diocesan consultation thus:
“This usually involves putting together groups of lay representatives who have little knowledge of each other’s situation, together with the clergy and some senior diocesan person. The result ... is some kind of boxing and coxing affair so that none of the churches have to close, priests (either existing or future) are shared across various kinds of combinations, and laudable things are said about the need for collaborative and lay ministry (as if these weren’t already happening).”
And that is exactly what happened at St Mary’s Saffron Walden on the 7th of February.
Thirty or so gray-haired clergy and laity, muffled against the cold, gathered at the front of a draughty, cathedral-sized church where they struggled to hear the Area Bishop, the Archdeacon, the Rural Dean and one another above the sound of a bell-ringing practice.
After an introduction by the lay-chair, the Bishop split us into twos and threes where we could ‘share our hopes and concerns’ (I'm concerned about the bells, I hope we can go home soon). The Archdeacon then wrote these down on a flipchart.
Why we did this, I have absolutely no idea. The Deanery Pastoral Committee has been meeting for several months to discuss the ‘vision’ and has already received ‘mission statements’ from virtually every parish, so they should have been able to tell us what these hopes and concerns were. However, I now know (as if I didn’t already) that people would like their churches to have more people in them but are concerned about the loss of clergy.
The Bishop then told us that nationally the situation regarding clergy and church workers is good and healthy, with ordinand numbers rising in recent years. In the Diocese of Chelmsford, however, the number of stipendiary clergy available for deployment continues to decrease and we need to shed about two posts a year for the foreseeable future.
The Archdeacon then put on her ‘nasty vicar’ act (following the Bishop’s ‘nice vicar’) and told us three things: 1. The Deanery Vision exercise is not only about clergy numbers and was not launched for the sake of cuts. 2. We can’t have more stipendiary clergy because we already have six more in the diocese than is ‘fair’ on the rest of the country. 3. Paying our Parish Share is a really tough challenge, but the Church Commissioners subsidise our diocese as we are counted as one of the poorest (isn’t every diocese?), so we should feel a bit more guilty than we do and make a bit more effort to pay.
The Rural Dean then got us down to business. First he explained how diocesan policy emphasised the ‘Five Marks of Mission’. Then he told us the local missionary vision would not be imposed on us but grown from the parishes upwards.
Then he described the process of collecting data so far. The ‘mapping exercise’ sent out to clergy in 2006 apparently didn’t excite them: no paperwork had come back. In December, therefore, a fresh questionnaire was sent out which included a further mapping exercise, questions about resources, etc. All this, apparently, will help us to identify areas where we can cooperate. We will also have a better idea where resources are needed and where the limited number of clergy should be placed. The Deanery Pastoral Committee has come up with possible proposals which, once agreed, will go to the bishop and archdeacon.
He then handed out a badly-photocopied map of the parishes in the Deanery and described how they might be merged and combined over the next eight years to produce larger groupings with fewer stipendiary clergy.
And, apart from comments from the floor, that was it.
What I would like is for some ‘senior diocesan person’ to explain to us why we have been given this task without the means to carry it out. As Paul Roberts puts it, “Churches in such plans are essentially congregations in competition with each other for limited resources: this is not conducive to creative collaboration or innovation.”
The resource is full-time clergy, whom we have to decide how to place, but over whose funding and recruitment we have no control. This is not a management exercise. It is a 'failure to manage' exercise of Dilbertian proportions.
Meanwhile, the sheep went home not just cold but hungry. Worse than that, though, they went home divided amongst themselves, fearful for their own future and jealous of what others might get.