Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Churches: the 'New Normal'

The United Reformed Church has produced a discussion paper for local church leadership on 'The New Normal'. It covers a variety of practical and strategic questions for use of church buildings post-lockdown, and is a helpful read whatever church tradition you're from. With the news that Hillsong may not meet as before until 2021, there is a lot of thinking going on about what a post-covid church looks like.

I read this in an excellent collection of short pieces about lockdown/digital church. Seems spot on:

Companies have discovered that their employees really can and will work from home, so expensive office space gradually will be eliminated as will the lunch time crowds of many eateries. Although there will be a rebound as we try to “return to normal,” soon enough, every industry will recognize that this change is more enduring than the virus....

...Unfortunately, when things “return to normal” churches and restaurants likely will breathe a sigh of relief and go right back to business as usual. They won’t even notice that something inexplicable has changed forever, and by the time these new habits and trends become obvious to moribund institutions, it will be too late.

Mainline churches have been merging or closing for several decades. In the wake of this pandemic, that will greatly accelerate because the “return to normal” will be short-lived, and our churches are biding their time, waiting to get back to the way things were. It isn’t happening. 

Many congregations have seen the future and are retooling for it. They are paying attention to the implications of what will be the “new normal” for society. Churches that thrive will adapt to, and even exploit, new cultural realities. Those faith communities are rare, though, because the church and its leadership are among the most change-resistant creatures God ever made. In this case, however, that resistance may prove fatal.


  1. Many thanks for the link to these interesting essays. I agree with the assumption that the return to normal will be heavily delayed. During that time: (i) many former regular attendees will have let church slip out of their weekend timetables and will not return; and (ii) the elderly (i.e., the core of the Anglican demographic) may be too wary to attend in default of a vaccine - an effective vaccine seems some way off, and may never materialise (it hasn't for the coronaviruses we have known about for generations).

    The 'success' of virtual church may be heartening, but the real measure of its success is this: is the income of a parish deploying forms of virtual church what it was prior to the lockdown? If it is, then virtual church is a meaningfully successful phenomenon; if not, then it is largely success of a rhetorical kind.

    Of course, success is not necessarily measured by income. That would, of course, be crude and reductive, but it is nonetheless a marker of the extent to which a spiritual effloresence is matched by practical commitment by the 'attendees' (other than by various forms of community support). At present, and despite the coyness of the authorities, all the indicators are that parish share income as suffered a devastating collapse and has not recovered. This, then, I think is the true measure of the success of the shift to virtual church.

    It is customary for almost all institutions to suffer a serious loss of income when shifting from the real to the virtual. Customarily, the shortfall is made up by advertising income, but that does not seem a plausible option for the churches - never mind that the advertising industry is itself in distress.


  2. Another consequence from the shift from the real to the virtual is a reduction in overhead. Absent sporadic maintenance and insurance costs for buildings, which spike intermittently, but nonetheless yield income via parish share because of the atavism of attendees, the other overhead is the stipendiary clergy. Indeed, the stipendiaries are the main cost centre. When newspapers move online there is usually a major loss of headcount and/or salaries are slashed.

    This is not happening with the clergy. Whilst some of them have voluntarily accepted reductions in stipends, most have not. I have not yet heard of retirees accepting reductions in their incomes. A parson in England gets significantly more than twice a priest in France or Italy, and it is commonplace for a French priest in the equivalent to Bath & Wells to cover up to 30 communes/parishes by himself. An English parson gets a final salary, indexed linked, non-contributory defined benefit pension plus lump sum; which is now exceptionally rare in the pensions world; his/her French equivalent gets almost the lowest superannuation available in France. I also note that even the civil service scheme requires significant contributions. So retired English clergy will be in a vastly better position than almost all of their congregations, who will mostly be on defined contribution schemes will will not last for long following retirement. Not much solidarity there, where it matters.

    Since the buildings will yield relatively little compared to the cost of the clergy, and it would not be wise to have a glut of disposals in a market that has stalled and is already heavily discounted, the obvious place to start - it *might* be argued - is with a large and immediate reduction in stipendiary clergy and/or a major haircut to pension entitlements, including for existing retirees. Many SSMs, pastoral assistants and readers provide just as much, and sometimes more, value added than their stipendiary colleagues. Also, in France bishops and priests are paid the same (about 1k pcm); it should be the same here.

    Also, I note that church worship in France will be back to normal this coming Sunday subject to proper distancing and the obligatory wearing of face masks. This is already the case in Germany, Austria and Czechia. I have attended livestreamed services from a number of churches in those countries. There will be no reason for continued delay in this country once and if the covid mortality figures fall to acceptable levels.

    1. In the midst of all that, it will be interesting to see what happens to Diocesan structures. Our Diocese had just - the week before lockdown I think - completed a move to new premises as it couldn't fit all its staff into the old one. It has over 50 full time personnel, in a Diocese with around 190 stipendiary vicars, and the ratio of Diocesan personnel to parish clergy has been rising steadily for years.

      In many of our churches - the median congregational size in Bath and Wells is 23, and 75% of our churches are under 50 members - social distancing within an existing church building probably won't be a problem. The ones it will really hit are the churches - like both of ours - whose buildings are between 50 and 100% full on a Sunday. And these in turn are the financial lifeblood of the Diocese. The 50 largest churches in Bath and Wells (just over 10% of our 484 churches) contribute 43% of the Parish Share in the Diocese. It remains to be seen what active membership of those churches will look like if we can't gather in numbers as we did before. We will need to find another way to maintain identity, community and mission without a focal act of worship and building. At the moment the focal act of worship is online, but post-lockdown will mean fragmentation (or multiplication, depending how you look at it!) of services.

      We have a PCC tonight, and part of our agenda is starting to think through what all of this will mean at parish level.

    2. Thank you very much for this.

      As to diocesan structures, there can be little justification for 40+ diocesan bureaucracies overlain by a central bureaucracy in Westminster, which often replicates the functions of the dioceses. I have elsewhere proposed that all remaining parochial and diocesan assets are centralised in the Commissioners, and all diocesan administration is transferred to the Commissioners, who will be able to generate economies of scale which the dioceses are unlikely to achieve (I would also move the Commissioners to a more central, and cheaper, part of the country).

      This would, amongst other things, permit the establishment of a single safeguarding team ring-fenced from the rest of the Church, rather that the plethora of small teams who have produced painfully variable outcomes.

      I agree that the stock of buildings is insupportable. I had prepared a bill allowing for a bulk transfer of the stock to the state with the Commissioners providing a large dowry. In view of the impact of the crisis upon government finances that is probably a non-starter (assuming it would ever have had traction), although I understand the Commissioners may be ruminating an appeal to the Treasury for funds. What I think might be less implausible is if the buildings are supported via a general voluntary opt-in levy for 'national heritage' as part of the tax system (a variant of the Swedish model - the tax authorities in Sweden still operate a church tax despite the Church of Sweden being disestablished in 2000). The proceeds of the levy would form a common fund under its own trust, which would cover the repair/maintenance of historic churches; it would therefore generate economies of scale in the procurement of discounted labour and materials which PCCs can never generate. In return the buildings ought not to be privatised (they have been paid for in part out of past taxation: directly via church rate and indirectly via tithe), and public benefit would be maintained, but clergy would no longer have to dissipate so much of their time and energies on the buildings, which is not presumably why they took orders.

      However, something really must be done about the CEFPS, given that the parish share has to cover more and more of it with every passing year, never mind the stipends bill. I understand that Stephen Cottrell has effectively conceded that SSMs will probably become the rule in most places. Essentially, most stipendiary ministry became unaffordable after the Church lost its taxing power via tithe and then burnt through most of its glebe assets (which were heavily dissipated by freeholders prior to 1976, and then liquidated progressively by DBFs thereafter).

      Very best wishes for your plans!