Saturday, 5 December 2009

‘Anglican Decline’: the views from the top and the bottom

The article I posted last Sunday about decline in the Church of England generated quite a lot of interest from readers. As I was on holiday (hooray!) I was avoiding posting any replies to comments, but now that I’m back (are you supposed to boo on returning to the joys of parish life?) I want to pick up some of the issues raised.
As with man-made climate change, the Church of England seems to divide into ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’ regarding whether or not we are facing a staffing crisis and what exactly is its cause.
The believers point to cases like the one in Littlebourne, highlighted by Ruth Gledhill, where a benefice which raises more than necessary to pay a full-time minister was nevertheless told it wouldn’t get one “even if you raise £1million”. The future for such churches and their congregations seems to be more amalgamations into bigger groups of parishes served by fewer full-time clergy, whilst simultaneously facing unchanging, indeed increasing, demands for cash.
The deniers, which seems to be almost everyone in top management down to the level of archdeacon, claim this is due to the lack of people getting ordained, whilst simultaneously pointing to the ‘good news’ of the increasing numbers of clergy, albeit many of them part-time, and the narrowing gap between quota demands and quota payment which indicate an unfailing willingness of people in the pews to pay what is asked of them, even in our current reduced circumstances, which suggest that the old pattern of one-vicar-one-parish won’t be much missed anyway.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is precisely the difference in perspective between the managers and the managed (it would be unfair to say ‘the workers’) in the Church of England itself. From the top, there is undoubtedly some grasp of the overall picture and some sense of a plan which can, to some extent, be thought to be working. At ‘ground level’, things look very different.
Whilst on holiday, I visited a number of churches where, in addition to the ‘features’, I looked around for evidence as to how things were going. One such was an enormous and beautiful building, set in a modest-sized village with a congregation, I was told, of about a hundred —though mostly elderly—on a Sunday morning. The parish magazine, however, told a familiar story.
The existing vacancy was to continue longer than had been anticipated by the congregation when it began: “we shall not have a new Rector until June at the earliest.” But then came this ‘bad news, good news’ assessment:
In the meantime the state of our finances has deteriorated to the point where it is now doubtful whether [parishes X and Y] could afford their own Rector. The realistic position is that there are very few Clergy and not many villages who can afford them anyway. Collaboration with the surrounding villages is going to be the way ahead; this will mean fewer Clergy to pay and therefore less ‘quota’ to pay.
— to which one can only respond with a pantomime shout of “Oh no it doesn’t!”
What this illustrates is the difficulty many congregations have in grasping the real situation, even after, in this case, a face-to-face conversation with the local bishop. They can understand the message that there are fewer clergy to go around, and they are all-too-aware of their own financial difficulties. But they still believe that somehow they are ‘paying for their clergy’, and that therefore if the provision of clergy is reduced (as they have grasped it will be), then the financial demands on them will ease (which they almost certainly will not).
It is a natural assumption in life that you ‘get what you pay for’. Of course, ‘giving to charity’ falls outside this framework —that is why it is considered morally different. But congregations do not automatically see giving to their diocese for the provision of parochial ministry precisely in terms of ‘giving to charity’ —in other words, they do not understand it as an area where they should give irregardless of what they get. And when they do grasp that this is what is being required of them, they do not automatically rise to the challenge.
And this is particularly true where the sums raised are disproportionate to the ministry received. I mentioned before that our own deanery will soon be paying close to three-quarters of a million pounds for fewer then eight full-time clergy. That figure, it should be noted, does not include any ‘parish costs’, nor does it include upkeep of buildings, which I estimate at £10-12,000 per church per annum.
If both trends continue in their present directions —the demands for money going up and the provision of ministry going down —the system must eventually collapse. At that point, the ‘goose which lays the golden egg’ will expire and the knock-on effect will be felt throughout the diocese.
The point is, the present system —by which I mean the subsidising of substantial areas of ministry by churches with very little ministry provision of their own —is unsustainable.
The first aim of a coherent ministry-funding strategy must be to make as many ministries as possible effectively ‘self-funding’.
The second aim should be to make the connection between the supporters of ministry and those who are supported as direct and personal as possible. This is because generosity is linked to a perceived value and effectiveness in the work being supported.
When people give to charities, it is because they have a personal interest in the charity concerned —the work it is doing resonates with their own concerns, and they are happy to give because they value what is being done with their money. At the same time, their giving is appreciated by the charity itself, which provides feedback in the form of newsletters and so on.
Contrast this with the picture in most dioceses! Our own Diocese of Chelmsford now operates a ranking system for the payment of ‘Parish Share’, listing parishes as Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze. The last group are those who have paid less than 96% of their ‘Share’ but have made some effort to rectify the situation. Then we get this gem in the official presentation:
A parish that did not meet the Bronze classification (by 2010) would be considered a ‘Won’t Pay’ parish.
A ‘Won’t Pay’ parish would:
1. Be ineligible for diocesan loans.
2. Be ineligible for Mission Opportunity funding.
3. Be brought to the attention of the London Over the Border Fund with a request that the classification be taken into consideration.
4. Not be eligible to receive a curate.
5. Not be considered for any improvements to a clergy house (not including normal maintenance/repairs).
6. Have this taken into account at the next vacancy and consideration given to the viability of the parish and potential pastoral reorganisation.
Quite apart from the misleading suggestion that if you pay you quota you might actually become eligible for a curate, it takes some kind of leadership ‘anti-genius’ to come up with this sort of scheme!
The problem in so many diocesan funding schemes is that the people from whom they make their demands are regarded as potentially the ‘enemy’. Yes, they can be incentivized to pay. And provided they pay what we want, when we want, how we want, we’re happy (we’ll even give them Wizard-of-Oz style ‘award’ —meaningless, but it’ll make them feel warm). But woe betide the late payers! They will see what an organized diocesan response really looks like —visits from the archdeacon and the financial ‘crash-team’ will follow, until they get their act together, when we can go back to ignoring them like we usually do.
Do I sound a tad jaded?
Once again, it comes back to the division between the managers and the managed. No doubt, on the Bishop’s Council this particular idea looked good. But at ground level, where you’ve just been told you’ll be getting one less clergy-person —but by the way, we need another few thousand pounds —it is a different matter.
More to follow!
Revd John P Richardson
5 December 2009
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  1. I don't recall ever intentionally giving to fund a diocese. I always think of my donations as being to the local church.

    Who in their minds would give money and get nothing for it? Why do we need dioceses again? Why do we need bishops, who are just state appointees after all?

    I think I will cancel my standing order now, and ensure it goes to something I do believe in.

  2. Do as I do when visiting Anglican churches and giving by way of a CAF cheque: write on the back 'not to be passed to diocesan funds'.

    John Foxe

  3. John, the only thing I disagree with is the statement "the system must eventually collapse". The system has collapsed! Even in Chester, which seems to run a fairer system than Chelmsford or Canterbury.

    I wouldn't put all the blame on the managers though. My experience is that there is a lack of reality at parish level too. I frequently meet people who say that they are happy to give towards the upkeep of a church building, but not to the diocese. This despite the fact that the giving to the diocese pays for my stipend etc (the benefice is a "net receiver"). The diocese has made noises to the effect that a parish that doesn't pay full share might not get another vicar; but this doesn't seem to be "pay up or else" threat, so much as an attempt to make people see that stipends have to come somewhere. I'm afraid that too many people on my PCCs expect other churches to pay for them.

    It's worth asking what God's purpose is in this. For most people around here, the "church" is the building, which is regarded as a local good cause. So by choosing to give to the building, and not to ministry, people are choosing one over the other. I wonder if that is what God is doing: bringing us to the point where we have to choose?

    Stephen Walton