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battle for weekly Sunday worship is over in many parishes, and the canonical obligation associated with this need to be rescinded.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.