THE diocese of Rochester has cancelled all optional spending, in an attempt to stave off a financial crisis after running out of money.
The diocese had exhausted its reserves, using them to plug holes in its budget for the past decade. It must now make “tough decisions” on clergy numbers, its Bishop, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, has revealed.
A letter from Bishop Langstaff was sent last Friday to priests, churchwardens, and PCCs, explaining that the diocese was freezing all discretionary spending, as it had run out of reserves.
For years, the diocese has run a budget deficit, with the gap between income and spending covered by dipping into its reserves. But now the diocese has been forced to resort to emergency cost-control measures, which include halting non-essential repairs to parsonages, a reduction in training, freezing the clergy stipend, and stopping all recruitment at the diocesan office.
Bishop Langstaff said on Saturday that the underlying issues that had caused the problem were a lack of giving from parishes, and having too many clergy in the wrong places.
Asked how he would cut clergy numbers, Bishop Langstaff suggested shortening curacies, boosting lay ministry, and increasing team ministries. “I’m very clear that freezing numbers of ordinands is not a sensible way to go forward at all, because you’re then not preparing for the future,” he said.
He would not allow vacancies to go unfilled for years, but would review how the priests that the diocese has could be spread differently across the parishes. “We’ve stuck to quite an old model. There may well be more imaginative and creative ways of doing things.”
Clergy and parishioners in the diocese would notice changes as the diocese battles to keep its spending under control, Bishop Langstaff wrote. “We are very sorry we have to do this, as we are aware it will have an impact on parishes and potentially on you.”
Parish giving had been decreasing in recent years, which was exacerbating the problem, the letter continued. “While we continue to be grateful to parishes for their pledged offers, the reality is that parish pledges for 2016 were £230,000 lower than budgeted.”
On Saturday, Bishop Langstaff said: “Some [churches] are incredibly generous. But we need to look at it parish by parish. We think there are some parishes which could afford to contribute more.”
Asking for a hand-out from the national Church, however, was not an option for a wealthy area such as Rochester, Bishop Langstaff said. While money from the Church Commissioners would be used to restart ministry in pockets of deprivation such as Chatham town centre, it would not be right to go “cap in hand for what you might call our regular patterns of ministry”.
Despite the financial crisis, his message was one of reassurance: “This is not a time for random or panicky actions, but there is an issue which needs addressing: we need to get the budget into balance.”
Plenty of other dioceses had faced similar problems, but, by taking some “tough decisions”, the diocese would be back in the black within a few years, he said.