Sunday, 29 November 2009

The CofE and its clergy: decline is not inevitable

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 Richardson
29 November 2009
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  1. John

    A really interesting piece. Some thoughts.

    From Mouse's perspective in a large urban parish, I can't help feeling that the picture is even more complex than you describe. If you take our parish as an example, we contribute around £180,000 to the diocesan coffers, yet see a 'return' of just a single sitpendiary minister. We get told that we are a rich parish and need to subsidise poor parishes. No doubt true, but the feeling that we are short changed remains in the congregation, and doesn't really explain why our parish share has more than doubled in the past five years, yet we've seen no change in ministry provision (in fact our curate was not replaced when he moved on about five years ago).

    Mouse believes that, as you say, decline is not inevitable. If all you invest in a parish is one 15th of a vicar, you cannot possibly hope to grow the congregation (in any respect). When you get into this cycle, you are simply managing decline. The example of cutting university chaplaincy in Southampton Uni is a good example of a short term cut that will have big long terms implications. They should be cutting overheads, not core ministries.

    Mouse also wonders whether you are being rather optimistic in your view that there are people out there 'managing' the Church of England! These things don't seem as well planned to Mouse as you seem to imply.

  2. Mouse, would the Diocese reinstate the Chaplaincy at Southampton if funding could be found from other sources? I would refer to the example of Holy Trinity Brompton which, with its enormous resources, has been able to step in and revive a number of churches regarded as 'redundant'. For this, they have needed, and have obtained, diocesan permissions.

    I suspect funding could be found for an evangelical Anglican Chaplain at Southampton. The key question is whether the diocese would accept such funding with theological 'strings' attached. In the case of HTB this is inevitable, but apparently also acceptable. I wonder, though, if this is because HTB has very successfully positioned itself - vide the their St Paul's Theological Centre and the links with St Mellitus College.

  3. Hi John,

    In Australia, the model of church financing you recommend is the norm. In Sydney Diocese, additional support is offered by the Diocese to those churches unable to fully pay for their head minister, but the aim is always to grow the congregation & giving to a sufficient size for the church to stand on it's own feet. Accepting them as full, instead of provisional parishes, is always one of the better parts of Synod. In some cases, smaller parishes have been amalgamated with larger ones, but the expectation is that the rector will try to grow the congregations in all the churches associated with a parish. How many ministry staff a parish can have is limited purely by their ability to pay, and team ministries are becoming more common.

    In the bush, it's more common to encounter parishes without clergy, mainly due to falling incomes & demographics due to the drought. Having a minister responsible for multiple parishes is less feasible, given the greater distances between towns compared to the UK.

    Roger Gallagher

  4. If the Cof E was a business, I fear, it would follow the banks and Post Offices and abandon the English village altogether. It would concentrate on cathedrals with glorious music and Evangelical strongholds with sound preaching. Such a reduced church would pay its way. This is to follow the charismatic new churches which only set up where success is all but guaranteed. This is not the role of the Church of England which was reformed to meet the spiritual needs of the whole nation( I think we can infer this from the Elizabethan settlement).

    We measure clergy workload by congregation size, population, area, number of churches and possibly type of area. Those are relevant factors but I do not know how to compare a rural and urban situation using them.

    You give a maximum size for the effective ministry of one person. I think larger urban parishes are justified if they make good use of preaching ability and provide training posts for curates.

    A more pressing question is what is the minimum size of congregation that can be expected to be self sufficient. If clergy costs are a major factor, I suspect that two part time clergy would minister better to 6 small rural congregations than 1 full timer. The cost problem is likely to be more to do with buildings.

    There is a regional problem in clergy recruitment. Some areas are not able to recruit sufficient candidates to meet their anticipated needs. Other areas have surplus candidates only recruit in accordance with their anticipated needs. Last year there was talk of theological students unable to find jobs.

    Is this a time for boldness? Do we need a decade or two of evangelism funded if necessary from a sale of investments. At present we seem to have a view of the churches ministry which would need the involvement of say 20% of the population whereas the actual figure is probably near 5%. Please improve on these estimates. I only make them as a guess to the scale of the problem


  5. Tom Watts, Winsford30 November 2009 at 16:24

    In the diocese of Chester where I am, as I understand it there is a clear policy that churches must pay a parish share that covers all the ministry they receive (apart from training curates). When a parish is not meeting its parish share and its minister leaves, the minister is either not replaced or replaced at a part-time rate that can be met by the church. This is a blunt but effective instrument: it forces dying churches to die a bit more quickly. But it also limits pioneer ministry in places that might be unable to stump up the cash so quickly. Given that pioneer ministry can generally find money from outside the diocese structures, it seems to me this is overall quite a good system.

  6. John,
    Thanks for such a thorough explanation. For the benefit of those of us on this side of the Pond, how much do C of E clergy make per year (full and part-time)?

  7. I see Ruth Gledhill has linked to yours in her blog today, John.
    What strategy does the Cof E actually have? Spreading its clergy thinner & thinner isn't going to achierve anything except an early grave for some.

    Mark B.

  8. Like Tom, I'm in Chester diocese, with three rural parishes, and I agree with his assessment of the system. But it is hated by rural churches, most of whom think that there are lots of big urban churches that are not paying their way (which of course is not the case). Effectively, my parishes expect other churches to pay for them, an attitude I struggle to be patient with!

    John, I think your analysis is spot on. Can I suggest that central to the whole crisis is that the parish system has completely collapsed, but no-one is willing to acknowledge it? Not just as you say in urban areas, (the C of E never adapted to the indistrial revolution) but in rural areas as well.

    The whole parish system is built on the idea of one clergyman, one parish. That is why attempts to make it work in the 17th & 18th centuries focused on eliminating pluracism and non-residency. Now we invariably have multi-parish benefices, which institutionalize... pluralism and non-residency.

    However, the entire C of E seems to be in denial about this. John has mentioned the "managers'" commitment to "whole parish ministry". I have 3 parishes, with a total population of only c.1800, but spread over a large area with poor communications. There is no way I can have a "whole parish ministry", still less some one with 15 parishes. In my benefice the largest village, with new housing, is a mile away from its parish church: a mile of busy main road with no pavement and thundering artic lorries. The parish system has failed this community completely: a new church needs planting there.

    But this denial exists at a local level too. My experience is that churches still expect the same level of pastoral care that they would have got from someone who had one parish of a few hundred people, and who actually lived there (one of my churches is 11 miles from where I live: I drive through 4 counties to get there).

    What this means is that evangelical clergy have three agendas pressing on them:
    1. Our agenda: which comes from scripture and the ordinal. To preach and pray, evangelise and disciple. Gospel focused.

    2. The parish agenda: to be nice; to visit people; to raise money for the church; to keep he services going; to bring in more people without changing anything; to do what they want and never be challenging.

    3. The diocesan agenda. GAP: not your GAP John, this stands for Growth Action Planning. This focuses on growth as the highest priority. Good in many ways, but often seems to have little Christian about it. Driven by management techniques, and the focus seems to be succes, rather than faithfulness to the gospel.

    The C of E desperately needs to start to see the congregation, rather than the parish, as the main "unit" of ministry: I thoroughly agree with what John says about the need to establish strong centres. Sadly, this would mean withdrawing from some places; but then the collapse of the parish system means that we're not really there already.

    Stephen Walton

  9. John, a very interesting article, which needs to be read by the "Powers That Be".

    In my view, the first move is to cut those costs that do not promote the Gospel. Diocesan staff could probably be halved - headquarters staff in all organisations have an inflated view of their significance. Dioceses are (theoretically) for oversight of vicars and the like, not little corporations.

    More importantly, with 50% of churches having less than 25 peeople in them, the number of church buildings must be severely reduced - maybe they need to be halved as well. Roughly speaking, a paid stipendiary costs the same as two to three churches.

    Secondly, the more affluent churches should be linked to struggling ones, ideally ones with similar "churchmanship". People will give generously when they know where it is going, and better still, they can pray for and help practically. That is real unity, not the kind that the diocese try to engender.

    How to do this? The dioceses will not take kindly to the implied reduction in their power, and will come up with all sorts of excuses. They must be ignored. The more affluent churches must start the process, asking the diocese for parishes they can support, and switching their giving (except for funding their own clergy, of course). The falloff in income will force the dioceses to carry out the steps above.

    Since clergy are likely to be put under pressure from their diocese not to do this, it would be better that this was organised by lay members.

    The alternative? Shrinking congregations, an increasly irrelevant church and, most importantly, more of England will be lost. For ever.

  10. John, stimulating as ever. I dont know if you or your fellow bloggers have read Peter Williams recent article in Anvil. '"Pragmatic, comfortable and unobtrusive": Can the Church of England ever learn to evangelise?' I think the link is Some challenging observations and conclusions related to this issue with much to discuss and act on. Perhaps for another discussion. And all the better that it's published in Anvil. Bob Marsden, Buxton

  11. To answer 1662 BCP, the national minimum stipend in Cof E is just over £20,000 pa full-time.
    Church Commissioners estimate average cost for a full clergy package (housing, pension etc.), smoothed out across the whole country is about £38,000 - an expensive business!

  12. Just to say I cannot reply to comments at present. I will do so hopefully at the end of the week, and expand on a couple of ideas then. Thanks to all those who have contributed. Do feel to post replies yourselves.

  13. Thanks for a very interesting discussion, all. I have a particular concern about dioceses sponsoring people for ordination and then not deploying them after training. I can't make sense of this behaviour, except as a measure of financial desperation. And I note that this year Rochester, who operate the kind of local clergy pay system oft advocated here, has not taken up its full allocation of curates. Meanwhile here, with the other kind of share system, we have significant numbers of growing churches, and have taken four extra ordinands off the dole queue, on principle. I think we need an open/ transparent discussion around all the points raised here, and with accurate information to back it up about some of the things which are easily said but hard to prove...

  14. In terms of ministerial strategies, here's the one we operate in London:

    Principle 1: A local neighbourhood church in every locality (parish-based)
    Principle 2: a full time leader (paid or unpaid) for every worshipping community
    Principle 3: a Leadership Team for every worshipping community
    Principle 4: develop other forms of church (networks, youth congregations, ecumenical, ethnic-based, ambient, cell, workplace) as required
    Principle 5: Local priests – ordaining those who emerge within a parish
    Principle 6: Lay Ministers of all sorts!

  15. Sorry to go off topic, but as an Aussie from a rural background, nothing illustrates the different way that you Poms view distance than the Stephen Walton's complaint that one of his parishes is 11 miles away from home! I had to travel further than that to go to primary school each day (around 26 kilometres, or 17 miles), and many kids on my bus run lived 10 to 15 kilometres further out than me.

    Roger Gallagher

  16. As with most of what John writes, spot on. I'm at the opposite end of the same diocese, in a deanery with 16 clergy but with almost the same revenue as John's deanery which only has 8.7.

    Part of the problem here is with the way that Bishops are now financed, not being a drain on diocesan resources as they are funded from investment income. They are therefore not accountable to PCCs, and any decision as to whether or not we need so many bishops can only be made by those who fund them, to whit, the Church Commissioners.

    Is there any other organisation with such a loopy management structure as the C of E?

  17. The basic unit for mission is neither the minister nor the parish. It's the worshipping community which seeks personal and social transformation in their parish (and, to a lesser extent, beyond it.

    This has always been the basis for Evangelical Anglican ministry, hasn't it?

    Chopping and changing ministerial roles and benefices makes little difference unless the local church remains viable for mission.

  18. It's news to me that (as someone asserts earlier) money can usually be found for pioneering ministries - CMS are advising MinDiv on selection and training of pioneer ministers while making people on the ground redundant!

    In commercial concerns it's usually R & D that goes first in a recession, as all efforts focus on keeping the ship afloat rather than planning ahead, and sadly the same principle seems to be operating in the C of E.

    Since God is ultimately in charge of his church, I have to assume that there is an underlying plan. It is to be hoped that someone, somewhere is 'trying to find out what God is doing and join in with it'.

  19. Pete

    Those of us south of the river wish there was such vision down here! We seem to operate with the following principles:

    Principle 1 - try not to change anything

    Errrr that's it.


  20. I wonder if the "Co-Mission" approach in London which i've read about represents a way around this problem - self-funded churches in the Anglican tradition? I know this raises other issues, but how much of this stems from a dog in the manger attitude?

    Mark B.