The Times on Saturday chose to run with the ‘news’ that the number of stipendiary Anglican clergy is in decline. According to their article, the Church of England will lose “as many as one in ten paid clergy in the next five years”.
Of course, for many Anglicans, this is not news at all, especially if they are in rural areas (which means anywhere outside an urban environment). Typically, rural ‘parishes’ now consist of agglomerations of individual parishes, even into double figures. Recently I met a clergywoman from Norfolk looking after no less than fifteen. And the number of parishes involved is no guarantee of a full-time minister. In our local area another clergywoman is overseeing five parishes whilst holding down a part-time diocesan post.
Typically, urban churches tend to be protected from such amalgamations by the size of their populations. In our diocese, the ‘cap’ is now something like 3,000 people per full-time minister, which means that most urban parishes are safe —for the time being. However, the ‘cap’ is constantly increasing, so that eventually even the urban parishes will have to be merged.
There are, however, two schools of thought as to why this situation has come about and continues to worsen. The official line is that this is essentially a matter recruitment. The Times quotes a typical (though anonymous) church spokesman saying that, “The bigger pressure is the really quite encouraging number of ordinations is not as big as the number of those retiring.”
But this is slightly misleading, for the ‘encouraging number’ of ordinands includes an increasing proportion of part-timers. Moreover, when the difference between part and full-time clergy is taken into account, a significant demographic variation emerges. Amongst the part-timers, a disproportionate number are female, over forty, training on part-time courses. Amongst the full-timers, a disproportionate number are male, under forty, and training on full-time courses at evangelical colleges.
There is thus a correlation between the intended work-pattern and what might be called the ‘socio-theological’ profile of the candidate.
And this hints at another, alternative, explanation of the decline in clergy numbers, which is that it reflects a fiscally-constrained, socio-theological agenda. In other words, those running the Church of England are planning for a declining workforce on the principle that, whilst it is all they believe we can afford, they also do not believe it particularly matters for the overall ministry of the church.
Whether this is indeed the case, and whether they are right in their analysis, is a matter for debate. At the grass-roots, however, the people responsible for finding the money —the laity in the pews —are quite clear in their own minds that the willingness to recruit manpower, not the ability to raise money, is the real problem. And, ironically, I think they are convinced of this precisely because, despite raising large amounts of money, they see little return by way of ministry. From their point of view, the manpower is definitely there —after all, this, they are told, is why their money is needed —it is just somewhere else!
They see their money going out, and they know how it is being spent, but they see little in return, most especially if they are in one of the typical multi-parish rural benefices. (Next year, our own deanery of some thirty parishes will pay £625,000 for 8.7 stipendiary clergy —a staff level which is about to be reduced by 1.)
This being so, the institution needs to take account not just of the fiscal implications of its current policy but the psychological implications. It is not enough simply to tell people that ‘X’ costs ‘Y’, and then expect them to find the money with unfailingly good grace, even in a good cause.
In order to get the best (and, dare it be said, the most) out of them, people need to see a connection between their giving and others’ receiving. The Bible speaks about ‘koinonia’ —fellowship —as the basis for giving to other Christians (2 Cor 8:4), but that sense of fellowship has to be sustained, and it has to be seen to be fair. Too many congregations feel as though they are paying taxes, whilst being deprived of ministers.
And this impression is reinforced by the resolute refusal of diocesan officialdom to change the basis on which money is raised and disbursed. Despite evidence for its inefficiency, most dioceses insist on a ‘quota’ based arrangement, where parishes pay a sum, set by the central authority, into a diocesan ‘pot’, from which money for stipendiary clergy is then disbursed, via the Church Commissioners.
The argument for this system is that it is ‘fair’ —‘rich’ and ‘poor’ parishes alike pay as they are able and receive as they need. In practice, however, it is neither particularly fair nor at all effective.
To begin with, the notional ability to pay often overlooks the actual situation in a congregation, since it is often assessed on the basis of local income and deprivation levels for the area, not the church members, whose disposable income may be quite at variance with that of the local population. Thus in supposedly ‘rich’ rural areas, many congregations consist of retired people with correspondingly restricted disposable wealth, whereas in ‘poor’ urban areas, congregations may contain a disproportionate number of relatively well-off members, compared with the local population.
Furthermore, the ‘need’ for ministry cannot simply be estimated on the basis of either population density or social deprivation. The fact is, an individual clergy person can reasonably deal with a a congregation of perhaps 120-160 adults. Research done back in the seventies showed that beyond that point, congregations typically grew only to the extent that they could add on more pastoral workers. Once a congregation reaches this size, the size of the parish population becomes more or less irrelevant.
Figures derived for our own diocese (Chelmsford) suggested that beyond a certain size, the larger a parish becomes the more people are simply unreached by the parish church. Thus the population ‘cap’ becomes basically irrelevant. If a church, or group of churches attracts a certain number of adults, the minister is effectively at full pastoral stretch, whether the parish is large or small, urban or rural.
Part of the trouble is that the Church of England’s ‘managers’ have in many cases committed themselves to a model of ministry which denies that the clergyperson is ‘chaplain to the congregation’. Ministry is conceived as being to the ‘whole parish’, and since need is seen in material terms, a large parish in a deprived urban area is defined as more ‘needy’ than a small parish in a well-off rural area.
The problem with this model is that the ministry of the Church in the urban area is simply not able to deal with the ‘needs’ so-defined. It can alleviate some of them, but very few. And in any case, the very fact that this is set within a parish environment, with the usual paraphernalia of services, congregations and PCCs says that the model is not even coherent. The minister is expected to be both chaplain to the congregation and, somehow, a ‘parson’ to the whole community —and often fails to be effectively either.
What is needed are new approaches to the recruitment, funding and deployment of ministers. The basic unit of ministerial funding needs to be seen as the viable congregation (or group of congregations), with those congregations giving as directly as possible to the funding of their own ministers. Instead of stretching ministry more and more thinly, resulting in the demoralization and decline of congregations, especially in rural areas, the Church of England needs to establish strong centres which are then given the vision to support an expanding ministry in other, weaker, situations which are not, initially, able to support their own ministry. Once again, however, the link between giving and recipient parishes needs to be kept as direct as possible.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons why this is resisted seems be a central fear of losing control. Proposals that ministers should be paid for locally are rejected as ‘congregationalist’, as if Congregationalism were a matter of accountancy rather than theology!
The time must be fast approaching, however, when the pips being squeezed for the funding of the Church’s ministry do, in fact, squeak, and the people in the pews begin to start asking hard questions about the policy which is so manifestly failing. Perhaps it is time for some rich benefactors —and such do exist —to begin funding the modern equivalent of the ‘lecturers’ who dotted the landscape in Puritan times. Whatever may be the outcome, what is desperately needed is initiative and boldness, not further cuts, leading to further reductions. If we were a business, the shareholders would be demanding answers from the management. We are not a business, but that is no excuse for not being businesslike, especially in the service of our Lord.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
29 November 2009
29 November 2009