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‘We’ve got to find new ways of doing Christ’s work’

16 January 2015

The Archbishops' Council's finance chair, John Spence, explains the thinking behind the reports


"We must not in any way become a head office" - John Spence

"We must not in any way become a head office" - John Spence

WHEN people come to see these sets of papers, it's important not to view them as a central initiative, a central strategy, but, rather, a co-ordinated response to what the research and the Church of England has told us. What we did is that we took all the evidence and the anecdotal evidence and research of the past five years, and we then embarked on a series of conversations at diocesan level right across the country.

And the great thing that came out of it was a unanimity about the recognition that the spiritual and numerical growth of the Church is absolutely vital, and an understanding that the trends that have been going on in recent decades cannot be allowed to continue if we are to maintain our commitment to be a presence in every community.

If we're really going to take the whole work of Christ forward, we've got to find new ways of doing it. And so what we ended up with was a very clear thirst in every one of the dioceses that we talked with for growth in spiritual and numerical dimensions.

And that led us to ask, "So what needs to change?" The research in the public domain clearly says that our numbers have been falling at one per cent per annum. If you carry on with that at a compound rate you're end up with a very small Church. [In addition, Mr Spence spoke of ageing congregations and clergy: "Many dioceses well over 50 per cent of priests are well over 50."]

If you're going to have growth, you've got to turn that round, and you've got to make sure that they're as effective as they can possibly be. And so you need to think about how you train them, how you bring them through their career.

So you'll see that the great thing here is that everything comes together. You end up thinking about a range of different initiatives. Already the Archbishops have been thinking about how do we best equip our bishops to be the leaders of our Church, and how do we equip people to be the leaders of the Church in the future. . . ?

But when we went round and did the research on resourcing the future, we clearly saw the ambitions of each diocese; they told us what their ambitions were; they equally said to us, "But we need help if we're going to deliver this." It became very appropriate to create a steering group under Steven Croft in Sheffield around resourcing ministerial education. How do you get the most effective education for people? What are the most effective ways now?

Because our research, and the anecdotal-evidence piece already published, has told us so much about what makes for a successful priest: we know that. And that, actually, then took us into the work with the dioceses, when we identified the gap between their projection of the number of priests they will have, and their competence, versus what they think they need going forward. That tells you something about pathways to ordination and how we ensure a flow coming through.

And the dioceses also told us that they needed far more lay leaders and lay ministers of different competences coming through; so you ended up with a huge bucket of work under resourcing ministerial effectiveness.

And they also told us as well, as if we didn't know, that every rule in the Church of England is underpinned by national secular legislation. So, many of these rules may have been valid once, but are exhausting for the priests today, who have so many other things to be dealt with, and so a simplification piece, which Peter Broadbent started, is giving a couple of initial recommendations, but I think their work will continue for the next quinquennium and provide a flow of simplifying legislation.

And then, finally, you end up looking at the role of the National Church Institutions, which came rather later and very much at my personal volition, which was really saying: here you are: you are developing a national response to the needs of over 40 dioceses; your job is to help them deliver their strategies and implement them brilliantly, give them the tools that they need, do the things that they cannot do. Have we got a perfectly formed engine room at the centre? Let's think about that. That's the fifth and final strand, not that there's so much of that report being published at the moment: that's a work in progress. . .

I have been really struck by the degree of unanimity that is now there. I think maybe in the past people always said "We need to have growth, " but there may have been greater levels of confidence in the past that that growth could be achieved without fundamental change. I think now there is a real recognition that you need to do things differently. . .

THE formulae [for disbursing central funds to the dioceses] that are in place (a) are opaque, (b) are not linked in any way to the wealth or deprivation of the communities that each diocese serves. There's no sense of accountability: the money is dished out in rather a sense that this is your right, without any expectation of what it will achieve.

And, in a world of scarce resources, the funds that we distribute which come to us from the Church Commissioners are modest in the overall terms of the Church, but the way in which they are dispensed sends an important message.

[Mr Spence talked of] moving from a grant much more to a contract, or a compact might be the best word: there's going to be no legality about this. And what I'm absolutely clear about is that we must not in any way become a head office.

So what we're saying now is we must work out how we distribute the funds on a different basis, linked to the level of deprivation in the particular communities we serve. Why is that valid? Because the social infrastructure is less likely to be present in a deprived community, making it more difficult and probably needing more cost to take forward the mission of the diocese.

And, secondly, we need to make sure the money is also spent proactively in growth projects which otherwise would not happen; so it's differentiality.

And what we are saying to dioceses is: can we work out a way in which you hold each other mutually supportive and mutually responsible without coming near us? I certainly do not want any sense of people being answerable to Church House.

THE urgency of the change agenda as identified by the dioceses is such that, at the same time as we are doing these pieces of work, it's important that we move as quickly as we can to maximise their impact.

Any change of formula always means winners and losers, and if we can create a means by which we can have some transitional funding, it means we can move immediately to maximise the impact of the change. And that will need an element of intermediate funding, which is what in principle is what we want to talk to the Church Commissioners about. . .

Over and above that, clearly we're saying we recognise a need for a very significant increase in the number of people who are inspired to come through as ordinands. If we recognise that need, there is inevitably going to be a significant period before we see the payback from that. And I should not want to see that initiative stifled simply because individual dioceses feel that they can't afford the burden of that training cost. And that will be another area where we have think: could we make a case to the Church Commissioners as to why they might make an exceptional piece of assistance to us to help us get through the change? But we are not ready yet to quantify this.

At the moment, we think it's absolutely critical, and the Church Commissioners think that it it's absolutely critical, that we go to Synod and say in principle, "Are you OK with this, and do you recognise what a significant ask it will be?" And only when we sure that they do support the principle of the ask will we make specific requests.

GROWTH, for me, will mean not necessarily just something which is about a church-plant or whatever. It may well be a significant investment in a part of the world where we've found the going tough, and where actually this is initially going to enable us to stabilise the position. And we've really debated at great length about what good growth feels like.

Good growth must not be confined to the leafy suburbs, and it's not just about numbers. It is about an underlying process of discipleship as defined by a distinct way of life. If I do use the word "growth", please understand it to mean "grow as against what would otherwise happen".

In all the places we have talked through this thinking, be it the Church Commissioners, be it the Archbishops' Council, be it the House of Bishops, be it other places, we have a really overwhelming understanding of the issues, of the agenda, of the need to do something different, and the energy that goes with that.

Mr Spence talked to Paul Handley.

Do these initiatives increase your confidence in the Church's future? Vote here


Faced with six or seven new reports, we commissioned an illustrator, Brent Clark, to help us distinguish between them. Three (or four) of the reports were published after we went to press. See www.churchtimes.co.uk for details. Next week: a review by Linda Woodhead

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