Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The parish system: game over?

update: a couple of days after this post, the Bishop of Blackburn raised the threat level in his diocese and has put them on notice that they have only 2 alternatives, fundamental change or extinction. Ian Paul has an excellent analysis of the statement, and the challenges involved. 

From Anna Norman Walkers presentation to the recent 'Westminster Faith Debate' on the future of the parish system:

"In the Diocese of Exeter we have 607 churches, many of which are listed. Over 200 of them attract less than 20 to Sunday services, and 124 attract less than 10. The average age of a committed member is 65..... It is time, I believe, to allow some aspects of parochial life to die and trust God for resurrection rather than resuscitation. The battle for weekly Sunday worship is over in many parishes, and the canonical obligation associated with this need to be rescinded. The maintenance of a parish share system which has become a tax on mission for some, and a smokescreen from the reality of death for others needs to be abandoned, in favour of a system which enables healthy churches to flourish, and sick ones to expire in their present form."

Here in Bath and Wells we have just under 500 churches, 66 of these have 10 members or fewer, another 162 have 11-25. And we have a parish share system (for non-Anglicans, this is how parish churches contribute to central costs, including training and provision of vicars): the practical result of this is that one of the churches in our parish has grown by 32% in the last 9 years, the Parish Share we pay to our Diocese has grown by 92%. A further 10% rise awaits us next year. It doesn't take a maths genius to work out that this can't be sustained in the long term. Worse, it means that there's less resources available to invest in growth for the future. Every growing church set in a declining Diocese is faced with the same

The only escape from the spiral is that a) the majority of churches in the Diocese start to grow instead of decline (in the latest stats I have, declining churches outnumbered growing churches by 6 to 1) b) we change the way the sums are calculated and collected (as many Dioceses are beginning to do) c) we find the ecclesiastical equivalent of George Osborne and do some serious austerity. Otherwise, in the words of the designer on Titanic 'the ship will sink, it is a mathematical certainty'

The post on this blog that's been read more than any other, by some margin is 'The Leading of the 5,000', which looks at how the CofE can function with 5,000 frontline staff in a system designed for 3x that number. I note that whilst demand for some of the churches 'services' is stable (baptisms, weddings), we don't have a parish system that can be sustained with the projected number of paid clergy in the CofE. Part of the solution has got to be fewer buildings, releasing the thousands spent on insurance, heating & maintenance every year to be spent on the living breathing body of Christ.

This might be seen as abandoning the smaller churches: my view is that unless smaller churches (indeed, all churches) can learn to see their life in Christ as something distinct from their building, they are in serious danger. Our buildings are resources we have for a season, nothing more. Unfortunately, as Marshall McLuhan nearly said, we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us. If a church cannot conceive of existence without a building, it has not just been shaped, it has been warped out of recognition.

One part of the possible answer: Exeter diocese are exploring the idea of 'Festival churches': parish churches turning into places which provide people with occasional offices and festivals wanted by the community, putting ownership back in the hands of the community, and releasing the local church community from the task of maintaining the building on their own.

Update: the next debate in the Faith Debates series looks at whether buildings are an asset or a liability. Could be interesting.


  1. When we came to our parish the question of number of churches arose - there are three. However, when we analysed the accounts we discovered that they very nearly paid for themselves from hall rentals and occasional offices (excepting major appeals). I am not saying that all churches can do this, but closing a church would have cut numbers and lost members of the congregation reducing our ability to pay share.

  2. Alan - each parish will be different, but even doing the exercise you did moves away from seeing the church building as a given, to something which needs to justify its existence. And again, if someone's Christian faith is bound up more with a building than with the community, such that if the building closes they will leave the community, then I'd have to wonder about their priorities.

    1. Aye, but the church has to meet somewhere, and if you close the building, where will they meet? I realise that in the UK many church buildings are far too big for the needs of the congregation, and too expensive to maintain, but if you do away with the parish system, what happens to the people of the parish?

    2. The early church met in homes, public buildings, wherever they could. The example of Exeter diocese has 124 churches that could fit into a front room. The people continue to be the church, just as the Israelites continued to be the Israelites even when they were wandering around in the desert. If the local community of disciples really is a local community of disciples, they will want to carry on meeting together and they will find a way. if they aren't really a local community of disciples then you have to ask why they need a medieval building in the first place.

  3. It occurs to me that one thing that is rarely mentioned (though you
    > yourself do of course touch on it in speaking about the reality of
    > faith in churches that are purely building centred) is whether it
    > actually all really matters in terms of eternity, or indeed whether
    > there actually is an eternity
    > That seems to me to be the fatal problem with festival churches with
    > the implication that as long as I come along to festivals that’s me
    > and God sorted..
    > As a diocesan Missioner in Chester said a good many years ago, forget
    > all the obvious controversies it’s the question of universalism that
    > is the big one and the one nobody really ever talks about… it seems to
    > me that the C of E has been gradually slipping into that position for
    > many years now…

  4. Thanks for this David.

  5. Thanks David. Very sensible. A key point here is that finance actually reflects commitments about ministry, and so financial systems need to be brought in line with ministry vision.

    One simply way to do this would be to make share reflect ministry costs only...

  6. David,

    If the CofE is to grow (by bringing new believers in through the doors), do you think that it needs to change the way it offers the Good News? Does it need to be made more appealing to the modern non-believer?

    The message is a timeless as it ever was, but maybe the traditional Anglican service is just not that appealing to modern people. I appreciate it's not just a marketing exercise - sorry if I make it sound like one.

    Would value your thoughts though.


  7. I would be interested in finding out how much costly planning processes for alterations to churches contribute to this. Far too many rural churches don't even have toilets or kitchen facilities, but re-ordering projects are almost prohibitively expensive.
    Once churches do have facilities, they can be used far more constructively and contribute to parish finance.

  8. Richard - we could start by being more appealing ourselves, making people feel welcome is usually a good start. The church growth research report earlier this year spoke of several interlocking factors: a desire to grow, ability to reflect and prioritise, focus on children and youth, willingness to try new things, lay leadership, clear sense of purpose, empowering leadership, encouraging discipleship, and a welcoming ethos. None of those are directly to do with worship and forms of service, but they do affect them.

  9. All good points David - thanks for your insight. :-)

  10. This is a counsel of defeat. You seem to be confusing the Church of England with the Baptist Union. The form of Christianity represented by the Church of England is, in part, building centred. Not instead of genuine faith. But as part of an incarnationally present national church that is visibly "open for business" and open to all. To be sure it is possible to be church without a building - many congregations do this, including increasingly in the CofE. But part of the essence of Anglicanism is to be the prominent church at the heart of the community in a building infused with theology and equal to its purpose. This grand vision, sustained for centuries, may eventually become unaffordable, but if so then it should only be with sadness and regret that we pare it down, not with some wide-eyed evangelical zeal about how churches shouldn't really rely on buildings anyway.

    1. The real question is whether the 'essence of Anglicanism ' always tallies with the essence of Christianity. It's the Christian people rather than the buildings that the church is 'open for business'.

      They were built for a different time, when the church count count upon the tithes of the land and Sunday worship was a pageant that had little competition due to trading restrictions and held the whole community in thrall.

      Today, the same church buildings house dwindling congregations who can't muster the art of connecting with their parish residents, far less getting them to part with their hard earned money for maintenance and overheads. Hall hire and festival hosting won't fully cover those either.

      'May eventually become unaffordable'? This sounds like a line from Downton Abbey: rallying the whole community to support the stately home that is the heart of their economic life. That vision died out with the rise of the middle-class.

      And as if the 'grand vision' isn't completely unsustainable already. What planet?

  11. I'm interested in your comment that the parish system cannot be sustained with the projected number of paid clergy in the CofE. I'm sure you are right, but there are lots of unpaid clergy who could be deployed much more imaginatively if we were not so hung up on the unspoken assumption that not paid=amateurish=fit only to be a "proper" (paid) clergyperson's occasional little helper. Many of these (usually older) clergy have life and organisational experience which alas the CofE completely fails to use because it only thinks about the paid headcount. Big and wasteful mistake!

    1. Too true. A few years of theology and pastoral training and their 'vicar knows best' arrogance knows no bounds.

      I just leave them and their sycophants to it.

  12. I've spent some time looking at not only how the Parish Share is calculated, but also where it goes. For instance, the kinds of projects that gain Mission Development Fund grants may well engage with the community on some level, but they typically lack any evangelistic engagement. £1000 here for the Ukelele club. £9000 there for setting up community choirs. It all adds up. Meanwhile precious little is put towards intentional evangelism because it's far too direct and is deemed to lack 'incarnational' halllmarks.

    What those running these projects lack is the sort of charism and conviction of a divine encounter with Christ that characterised the early church. I don't doubt their sincerity, but, to the public, they're just another bunch of well-meaning unpersuasive 'pillars of convention'.

    You look at the New Churches and they're full of anticipation that life-transforming encounters with Jesus can and do still happen every day. They aren't steeped in recitations and rituals too mysterious for outsiders to unravel. They anticipate that they will be part of the great things that God will do. Even their laity have a better grasp of scripture than many CofE clergy. Most members can deliver a meaningful testimony about God's practical goodness in their lives. And their congregations are growing.

    Perhaps, Anglicans can take a leaf out of their book.

  13. One last point (at the risk of being called a troll) is that, if this was a commercial enterprise, the overwrought concern over premises that can't pay for themselves would be misplaced.

    I like your option (c), but instead of just austerity, the CofE should really ask why its 'product' is unattractive. My belief is that, in every aspect of church life, form and ceremony don't connect with ordinary lives, however they are re-packaged, sorry, re-imagined by a plethora of Task Groups,

    People empathise with stories of change and transformation. They're all over YouTube. Honest testimony about how God has broken the power of addiction, instilled the discipline to pay off and stay out of consumer debt, transformed a failing marriage. People want to see the before and after. Most of the visioning in church is about the 'after' with no transparency about what any of us were like before. In contrast, the gospels present a 'warts and all' image of real discipleship, about how they learned to overcome rivalry, selfishness, and betrayal to serve a common purpose.

    If you can't show people that you've walked part of your life in similar shoes to theirs, they will never trust you to walk the rest of life with them.

    1. Form and ceremony, done well, can be very powerful: that's why the CofE is still in such high demand for weddings, and why, left to themselves, people devise their own forms and ceremonies. But if we become defined by form and ceremony, then that's a whitewashed tomb, the forms must be an expression of life, rather than a substitute for it.

      Our normal services use things like liturgy, hymns, set prayers, in a traditional building at a traditional time (10.30am Sunday). But we've been growing because within that form, the church aims to be welcoming, relevant, family-friendly, with good quality pastoral care and individual follow up. We don't always manage that, but like it or not the Sunday morning is our current 'shop window'. We're in the blessed position that our shop window is full, interesting, and fairly attractive. In other churches the shop window is cold, sparsely populated and in bad repair.

      But yes, whatever we do, it has to connect. And that affects everything from how we welcome people at the door, to the illustrations the preacher uses, to what gets prayed for, to the social/community life of the church.

  14. In Winchester Diocese we have a new Parish Share system which is based on numbers of regular worshippers (adults who come to services once a month or more) and their 'affluence'. The more people that come, the more Parish Share to be paid (roughly £600 of Parish Share per 'regular' per year). For the 4 parishes (and 100 'regular worshippers') here that means Share of £60-£65K per year. I am the only paid member of staff. With another £40-£60K needed for other costs (heating/lighting/insurance/maintenance...) for the 4 churches we have continued to make ends meet. Here, at least, there seems to be no need to close buildings (which would continue to attract the support of those for whom the building is a special place). The financial struggle is to make more regular givers and change the focus of fundraising from church maintenance to growth. Don't let money distract from worship and discipleship!

    1. I think that is the daftest system, because it is a pure tax on growth and takes no account of sustainability.

      A much better system is to charge on the opposite basis--that of clergy numbers. That way, unsustainable ministry is challenge, and growing churches can invest.

  15. Not sure if you're interested, but my mother had experience of a crash change in the way things were done. Admittedly this was the RC church in France, so it didn't have the extra dimension of "establishment".

    Her diocese (Perigord) went overnight from 555 parishes to 32 sectors. Mum's sector contains 26 (I think) churches, and has an area of about 100 square miles. The de facto head church gets two Sunday masses a month, there are three or four other churches at the top table that regularly get a service a month, and there are some in the "second division" that will get three, maybe four services a year. A lot of the rest get nothing. The community is somewhat fractured - a lot of people won't come all the way south from the northern villages for services - but as a sector it is probably holding its own and not significantly declining. I think having a congregation of 70-100 at every service does a lot more than trying to run a service for ten.

  16. Pitkins' comment gives a great glimpse into the inherent unfairness of the Parish Share system.

    For example, the Parish Share formula is partly based on attendance. So, a church could be successful in growing the congregation through outreach, but not in convincing new church-goers to contribute financially. As Ian Paul explained, it becomes a tax on growth.

    Also, the Affluence Factor is based on the relative deprivation of the wider community and is not a realistic rating of any church’s ability to contribute.

    Notice that St.Paul encouraged giving, but only to alleviate genuine hardship and to support those of good reputation in ministry, especially in furtherance of evangelism and doctrine.

    He wrote to the Ephesian bishop, Timothy: ‘Honour widows that are widows indeed, Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man. Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work...Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. (1 Tim 5:3, 17)

    So, why is it that Mission Development is run along completely secular lines, like a Local Authority Community Development effort? Why do so many churches do little more than incidental public evangelism.

    It may be right for dioceses to encourage giving. However, there should be more emphasis on evangelism accountability and financial prioritisation of teaching and preaching the gospel to adults, instead of just targeting measures aimed at reversing the CofE's demographic time-bomb.

    Of course, clergy stipends, parish staff, maintenance and running costs all have to be paid. However, I am gravely disappointed when any hobby that might engage a sector of the community can gain funding as mission.

    It all smacks of so much desperation: self-indulgent church-goers plundering mission development to springboard a pastime into a career long before the church turns its attention to alleviate genuine hardship and support public outreach in ‘word and doctrine’.

    Currently, secular aspirations are hijacking evangelistic mission. (As an aside, I think that if I was a Channel Islands’ church-goer, the safeguarding debacle would leave me feeling hard pressed to contribute a single penny to the Diocese of Winchester).

    It’s time that our dioceses applied a lot more scrutiny to what passes for mission. I’ll give to specific ministries and to those in hardship, but good stewardship not only demands regular donations, it also demands the accountability of those in receipt of our funding.

    1. The examples you gave in a previous post (e.g. the Ukulele club, I'm assuming this was an actual example from a real Diocese), might be necessary for a church to make connections with its community - we have a community choir, though it was set up without any Diocesan funding! The issue, as you say, is whether there's any intentional evangelism going on alongside it. These sorts of activities are 'sowing 1' in Laurence Singlehurst terminology, high accessibility, low evangelistic content.

      Maybe part of the application process needs to be showing how they fit into a broader strategy. We have things like this, but we also have an Alpha course, and various stepping stones between the 'social' groups and committed membership. A 'hobby that engages a sector of the community' can be mission, depending on how its done.

    2. David,

      I think that we broadly agree on what might qualify as part of mission. (The Ukelele Club was a genuine example).

      I'm simply questioning how much of mission funding should go to these types of activities. The heavy financial constraints mean that, in many cases, we can't do both. In terms of priorities, mission development shouldn't merely be about getting people into church services. We can't and probably shouldn't fund community engagement through a pastime and developing intentional evangelism equally.

      St. Paul told Timothy: 'And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.' (2 Tim. 2:2)

      This priority of discerning reliable church members and entrusting them with the task of communicating the apostolic witness to others should attract significantly more funding than it does.

      You're doing a great job within your diocese, but it's clear that many other dioceses see mission development funding from a significant different perspective.

    3. "there should be more emphasis on evangelism accountability and financial prioritisation of teaching and preaching the gospel to adults" - this, for me, is the very heart of it. I see all the rest as ultimately a displacement activity as we refuse to face our (corporate) loss of faith.

  17. In a previous Diocese (in another province) where I worked non-stipendiary would only receive the Bishop's licence if they were deployable. One church sitting with 3 or 4 NSMs looking for work while other churches were vacant and struggling was inthinkable. Not so in the CofE. Another factor here, especially in the South of England is Diocesan 'bloat'. There always seems to be room for one more advisor at Church House while parishes must have long interregums 'to allow the church to let go'. Anyone on a Diocesan synod willo know that DBFs budget for these long interregnums and yet the knock on effect of decline during vacancy can be catastrophic. I would be interested to find out whether any parish has legally challenged the requirement to pay parish share during a vacancy when the share is based on incumbent stipend plus a portion of the Diocesan budget.

  18. Gary Stephenson20/10/14 9:20 am

    Interesting reading as we are about to embark on 2015 share allocation to parishes. If the system is going to change well, we need two things:-

    a clear and well-thought-out view of what we want to move towards (not sure whether this is best developed "bottom up" or "top down")

    a reasonable time frame to get to it (eg environmental change over a number of years can be survived by more species than a catastrophic event can - no, don't start a debate about metaphorical dinosaurs please!!)


  19. Brian Sutcliffe25/1/16 1:51 pm

    The C of E needs another reformation .All the commissioners funding should go to the parishes and let the Diocesan cathedrals go along with most of there staff. Let the church survive at parish level that's were the future is