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Funding decision sharpens debate about the vision

21 October 2016

Madeleine Davies looks into the new way of distributing grants from the Commissioners

Diocese of Coventry

Re-opening: St Mark's, Swanswell (see story, below)

Re-opening: St Mark's, Swanswell (see story, below)

WHEN the General Synod was told, last year, about plans to spend some of the Church Commissioners’ capital, the alternative was described in apocalyptic terms.

The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, described an “existential crisis” of decline. Without this extra money, he argued, it would be impossible to fund Renewal and Reform, the programme designed to bring the Church back from the brink.

After years of upholding the principle of inter-generational equity (distributing only such sums as would enable the value of the endowment to be maintained in real terms through time), the Commissioners have agreed to unlock £72.7 million of funding between 2017 and 2026. This money will be used to cushion the blow to dioceses that are due to lose funding as the Commissioners change the way they distribute money, under the “Resourcing the Future” programme.

The Synod’s response was favourable. But not everybody feels sanguine about the decision.

Dr Eve Poole, who teaches at Ashridge Business School, and chairs the Faith in Business programme at the theological college Ridley Hall, in Cambridge, used to work for the Commissioners. She is “horrified” by the decision to abandon the principle of inter-generational equity. “Robbing tomorrow on the basis of today’s dodgy logic is in no way exercising fiduciary duty,” she says. “I entirely appreciate the politics, but the Commissioners were always proudly non-partisan, in order to exercise their state-given duty responsibly.”

The Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Wallsend, in Tyne and Wear, the Revd Alexander Faludy, has doubts about funding “speculative mission initiatives before dealing with major unresolved structural problems in the Church’s finances”, including the pension-fund deficit. He is concerned that, while money is being released to fund Renewal and Reform, increases in parish share are having a “demoralising effect on congregations and clergy alike”. It is, he argues, “generally a good idea to fix the roof before trying to build an extension”.

The Rector of Plemstall and Guilden Sutton, in Cheshire, the Revd Dr Mark Hart, has been a critic of some of the premises behind Renewal and Reform. He, too, questions the Commissioners’ plan. “Is it plausible that an increase of just 0.5 per cent in the Church’s total spending for ten years — £7.3 million per year — makes the critical difference between decline and renewal?” he asks.

“And if that can be demonstrated, wouldn’t the current 560,000 planned givers be willing to pay an extra 25p per week to fund it? If there is an underlying feeling that this is money we can afford to lose because the Church Commissioners’ funds have performed so well in recent years, isn’t that irresponsible?”

The chairman of the Archbishops’ Council’s finance committee, John Spence, disagrees. The £73 million is a “1000th of the value of their fund”, he says, and the principle of inter-generational equity has not been compromised.

“The General Synod support is because there is a very compelling story here. People understand that, if we were to continue the way we were, we would end up with a very large fund with the Commissioners but large areas of England where the Church was absent.”

The new funding arrangements must be seen in a wider context, he argues. “What will make the difference is our support for each diocese to have an action plan, making sure they have adequate resources, and when they need major investment, making sure there is somewhere they can go.”


Where the £72 million is going

UNDERPINNING the new funding arrangements is the decision, by the Resourcing the Future Task Force, to reject limiting expenditure (“that is the management of decline”) in favour of stipulating that all of the funding distributed to dioceses should be investment for mission and growth.

Under the previous system, £50 million was distributed from the Commissioners to the dioceses every year, of which three-quarters was “Darlow funding”. Although the Darlow formula was supposed to support poorer dioceses, the task force determined that it was, in fact “subsidising decline”, had “only a superficial link to growth” and “failed the poorest communities”.

It found that considerable amounts of resources were channelled to parish churches “for the simple reason that they are declining, not because they are in deprived communities or are serving large populations”. Its report to the Synod gives the example of one diocese in which more subsidy (£2.6 million) was put into parishes that were less deprived but declining, than those that were more deprived but growing. It is estimated that a diocese where attendance fell by five per cent could receive a four- to five-per-cent increase in Darlow funding and that only one third of funding allocated to dioceses was going to the poorest communities.

Statistics collected by the Research and Statistics Unit of the Archbishops’ Council suggest that 18 per cent of parishes are growing, 55 per cent are stable, and 27 per cent are declining.

Under the new system, half of the funding to dioceses (£24 million per year) will still be earmarked for the dioceses with the greatest concentration of low-income communities.

The formula for identifying these dioceses is based on the resources of the general population of the diocese rather than any measure of diocesan income, to remove the possibility of a perverse incentive (whereby a diocese’s funding would be reduced if attendance grew or its financial position improved). First, the average income of residents in diocese is calculated. This is then modified by taking account of how many people are reliant on the Government for a basic income. Dioceses are then ranked according to this modified income figure and their population, so that the poorest and most populous dioceses receive the most funding.

For 2017-19, 26 dioceses will receive lowest-income-communities funding. Mostly, this will be slightly less than the Darlow funding that they received this year, although four will see increases. Coventry, for example, received no Darlow funding this year, but will receive £429,040 in 2019. Worcester’s funding will go up from £336,975 to £733,923. The £72 million will cushion the decrease in other dioceses, so that no diocese faces a change of more than 15 per cent in annual funding over the next three years. Transition to the new funding arrangements will take place over ten years.

The diocesan secretary of Coventry, Ruth Marlow, says that the money is a “really important change. . . It recognises that many of our people live on the lowest incomes. It enables us to do more of the work that we have been doing in some of our poorer areas . . . and to be more creative and more focused on that particular area of our mission.”

The money will not be granted to these dioceses without scrutiny. They will have to set out plans for its use, and the achievement of these plans will be evaluated in future spending cycles. There will also be a process of peer review and shared learning. Money could be withheld if there are serious concerns about a failure to achieve plans, or a lack of evidence that the money is actually going to the poorest communities.

Coventry diocese has already earmarked projects to benefit from the money, including repairs on a building in one of the poorest parts of the diocese, where a new “resource church” is being established, and a project in another “very poor” area, where work is under way to fill gaps left by the withdrawal of services.

The decisions are “absolutely evidence-based”, Ms Marlow says: the indices of multiple deprivation have been used to identify areas of particular need.

The Bishop of Penrith, in Carlisle diocese, the Rt Revd Robert Freeman, believes that, under Darlow, it was “too easy for dioceses to use it to prop up their stipend fund, or as a compensator for a shortfall in parish offer”. He welcomes the challenge from the Commissioners to think “more carefully or starkly” about how to deploy limited resources. But he thinks that the phrase “subsidising decline” was “unfortunate”.

“The stories behind whatever that scenario is can often be quite complex and personal,” he says. “The Church is about people and their stories: it isn’t just about strategy.” The Commissioners have to “walk a tightrope between having centralised expectations and criteria, and recognising that, locally, people are working hard to make sense of a local missional strategy — and that may be different from the expectations of those writing central policy criteria.” There were different styles and patterns of mission and ministry in a dispersed rural setting, for example.

From an urban perspective, the Bishop of Burnley, in the diocese of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, suggests: “We need to think very carefully about what a healthy estate church is.” He has previously criticised the Church for having “unquestioningly swallowed suburban methods of measuring success in church life based purely on the criteria of money and numbers”.

The Bishop of Stepney, in London diocese, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, is alive to these concerns. When he was asked to join the Resourcing the Future Task Force, he warned the group that “I might be an uncomfortable presence.” Like Bishop North, he has previously expressed concern about a crude focus on numerical growth (Comment, 10 January 2014).

“To their credit, they wanted my voice for that reason, as we should not have an uncritical approach to the growth agenda,” he says. He understands concerns that “by going for numerical growth at all costs we could lose something really significant, in terms of the inherited traditional understanding of a Church that is committed to areas of significant need, poverty, inequality, and deprivation. That is not the ground on which growth is most easily achieved.” The allocation of lowest-income-communities funding was a recognition of the need to protect work in these areas, he says.

But, while he recognises that helping a church to grow is “difficult under any circumstances”, he stands by the claim that, under Darlow, the Church was “subsidising decline”.

“A large amount of the money was going into churches which were not in deprived areas, where there was good potential for the Church to grow, but actually there had been a steady story of decline there. It is legitimate question to ask, under those circumstances, what would need to happen to halt this decline.”


Strategic development funding

THE lowest-income-communities funding is only one half the money to be distributed by the Commissioners. Another £24 million a year will be available in strategic development funding (SDF). To receive a grant, dioceses must submit a bid, demonstrating that their project will result in “a significant difference to their mission and financial health”.

A Q&A released with the report Resourcing the Future emphasises that there is no “push towards novelty”, and that tried and tested mission activity will be supported. Neither are “risky” projects ruled out, if the “potential benefit can be shown to be worth the risk”. Applications will be received twice a year, with deadlines in April and October, for grants of between £500,000 and £1 million.

Advice for applicants states that projects designed to improve mission strength will be assessed on “the extent to which they are likely to lead to a significant increase in the number of new Christian disciples”. It also reassures applicants that the Commissioners are not expecting a “polished” effort, and will focus on content rather than style. Applicants will, however, have to show that there is a “credible chance” that aims will be delivered. Monitoring and evaluation are required.

”We understand that there may not be evidence for every activity or intervention,” the C of E’s Director of Communications, the Revd Arun Arora, says. “However, for every project, we would expect there to be either evidence that it has worked in another setting, or, if it is more innovative, a logical and well thought-through rationale for how the proposed project or activity will deliver the anticipated outcomes — i.e. more a calculated risk than ‘taking a chance’.

“The evidence could come from the effectiveness of a comparable activity, or from the Church Growth research programme, or from another source.”

The Strategic Development Fund (SDF) predates Resourcing the Future, though on a much smaller scale. Several grants have already been distributed, typically for projects lasting between three and five years. Birmingham’s Growing Younger project, which seeks to add between 1000 and 2000 new “disciples” to the worshipping community by 2020, and to lower the average age, has secured £1 million towards various elements, including 26 missioners working with children and families.

The Transforming Wigan plan, which includes a goal of 500 per cent more young people involved in church, has been given £900,000 over seven years. So far this year, nine grants, totalling £7.8 million, have been announced.

In response to criticism that the evidence for the effectiveness of these programmes is too weak, or simply does not exist, the Resourcing the Future Task Force told the Synod last year that the evidence base had “increased significantly” in recent years. “Nobody pretends that there is a simple relationship between cause and effect,” its report said, “but there is a growing amount of information about what is likely to support growth — or likely to maintain decline.”

Mr Spence argues that “nobody has said this is a numbers game, which would be a fool’s game”; but then he adds: “You do need to look at numbers,” given the demographics: the average age of churchgoers is 20 years older than that of the general population.

The Church Commissioners are encouraging “new models of church”, he says, and they continue to be informed by “highly experimental” initiatives.

“We do know certain things that lead to church growth, like the role of a highly engaging priest who can mobilise lay communities and who reaches out. We know that there is firm evidence of that sort of thing. We are learning all the time.”

Another concern sometimes voiced is that Renewal and Reform appears to be geared towards one type of church tradition: Evangelical.

“It is up for everyone to embrace it in the way that works for them,” Mr Spence says. “There is absolutely no bias in where this goes. . . I very much look forward to every part of the Church embracing this and taking it forward, and, indeed, there is evidence of that already.” The job of the centre, he says, is to respond to what the parishes and dioceses need.

Chichester will not receive lowest-income-communities funding, but the diocesan secretary, Gabrielle Higgins, believes that the ability to apply for SDF grants will have a “huge impact” on outreach. Chichester contains some of the most deprived communities in the country, she says, and “we need to resource mission and growth in all areas, not only those which can afford it themselves. . .

“If we can break the vicious circle of reduced investment leading to further decline, we can enable these parishes to become self-sustaining centres of outreach and mission, which, in turn, we hope, will help to resource others,” she says. The money will “help to rekindle imagination and faith, and begin to reawaken us to the reality that God is at work in his world bringing wholeness and new life and we can be part of all he is doing”, Under the previous system, she says, the extent to which the diocese could support such a strategy was “much more limited”.


Theological concerns

CONVERSATIONS about growth have brought to the surface different ideas about what the Church of England is. For some critics of Renewal and Reform, the problem is not just inadequate evidence, but the theology, or lack thereof, underpinning it.

“If you think Christianity is about bums on seats, by all means launch a recruitment drive,” says Dr Poole, referring to the drive to increase vocations. “I don’t think God is sitting there counting, or that we ‘win’ if we do better than the Muslims.

“I think we win if we bring about the Kingdom here on earth. Bums on seats may help with that, but they may not. The metric is about what the salt and light are doing, not how big the salt store or the lamp is.”

Mr Faludy is pleased about “the sense that someone is finally taking the situation in hand”, and welcomes greater transparency about where central funding goes, and how dioceses spend it. But he has doubts about the narrative of Renewal and Reform.

“Real resurrection involves embracing real death, and undergoing transformation, not simple restoration,” he says. “Resourcing the Future explicitly positions itself as an agenda to help to turn around the Church’s decline, and says that the Risen Christ will be at the centre of our society.

“To me, that sound like an attempt to recover a waning Christendom paradigm: a vision of the Church as culturally and socially normative. What it feels like to me is the C of E being reshaped to have another crack at an old vision rather than embracing a new one. There is thus a danger that its resurrection may turn out to be Docetic. A new vision would be grounded in our being a distinctive and respected voice in a neutral public context, not the framers of that context.”

The decision to publish theological reflections on Renewal and Reform, arguably late in the day, appears to indicate an openness on the part its promoters to criticism and debate. In the first reflection, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Canon Sam Wells, argued that the Church of England must stop trying to be like Goliath and operate like David (News, 8 July).

Bishop Newman is conscious that some fear a “growth machine” that acts like a “great juggernaut which is rolling across the landscape . . . maybe crashing into things along the way, and demolishing parts of what the C of E stands for that are really precious to people. . . I think there is a need for those of us who inhabit this middle ground to say yes to growth, but not at all costs.”

Some fear that churches that pursue numerical growth are “paying less attention to some other aspects of faithfulness in the Christian tradition”, he says. “Presence and local engagement, and the role of priests in their local communities, can be very below the radar, yet absolutely vital, and won’t necessarily lead to people sitting in the church pews.” He prefers the word “fruitfulness” to “growth”.

But he also likes the strapline in the diocese of Liverpool: “We aim to grow a bigger Church so that we can make a bigger difference”.

“If we want to be Church for the nation, and reach out into every community and serve our neighbours, actually we’ve got to grow, because if we shrink to levels that projections seem to imply, then we’re not going to have an impact or influence on our communities.”

As a bishop, he has recently reassured liberal Catholics in his area that they have his full support for a project that may not deliver huge numerical growth, but will have an “extraordinary” impact on some of the most marginalised communities. He has also ensured that the group on church-planting contains people of a variety of traditions and approaches.

Central funding remains a “relatively small sum of money” compared with that raised by parishes, he says (£50 million is four per cent of the Church’s overall expenditure). “In some ways, all that can be done through Commissioners’ funding is to nudge the Church — at a diocesan, deanery, and parish level — to think creatively about how we are spending the money that we raise.”

He has been struck, recently, by the conclusions of the French Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar in True and False Reform in the Church. “His thesis is that any genuine and lasting reform has always come from the edge of an institution rather than the centre. Renewal and Reform is an important programme in the life of the Church, but ultimately it has to be a work of prayer. It is probably going to come more from the edge than from the centre.”


Examples of SDF funding

THE diocese of Exeter has been awarded £1 million for its Growing the Rural Church programme (total cost: £1.8 million). The project seeks to use church buildings — a struggle to maintain for some small congregations — to strengthen mission and evangelism. The target is to engage with about 100 rural churches over seven years, to “release existing church members to focus their time, money and energy on growing in prayer and making new disciples”.

“Consultant Mission Enablers” will support local people to find a sustainable model for their church, in consultation with the local community. Graham Davies, the diocese’s property director, said that it had taken almost two years to secure the grant, and a “considerable amount of effort”, but that it had received “invaluable support” from the Commissioners.

The diocese of Carlisle has been awarded £859,000 towards its £2.08-million three-year project to establish 35 to 40 new mission communities across Cumbria, in partnership with other denominations. The aim is that each of these communities has at least one new fresh expression of Church, resulting in 1500 new churchgoers. A target of a ten-per-cent increase in church attendance overall has been set.

Bishop Freeman said that the leaders of the communities would “move away from a traditional vicaring role, to develop the vocation and enthusiasm and learning of ordinary Christians, so they can take more responsibility for their church and its future”.

Although the bid team had been “quite cautious, wondering about the extent to which we were going to have to jump through the Commissioners’ hoops”, he had found the Commissioners’ engagement “extremely helpful” in posing “tough questions” that had helped to refine the project. Although setting numerical targets “does have a ring of business or corporate, which feels bit horrid”, it had been helpful in setting out the scale and importance of the project.

“This is urgent and important, not just because of meeting the target, but because of the secularisation of Cumbria, the decline in strength and vitality of many of our churches, and the fact that, if something does not happen fairly soon, then quite a number of churches will get to a tipping-point and won’t be recoverable.”


Coventry church to reopen for youth ST MARK’s, Swanswell, in Coventry, is to open its doors to worshippers for the first time in 45 years, writes Hattie Williams.

Since its closure in 1972, the Grade II listed building has served as a GPs’ surgery, a charity warehouse, and as the Outpatients Department of Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital. In September next year, the church, built in 1868 in the Gothic Revival style, will return to its original purpose, and reopen as a city-centre resource church.

City-centre resource churches are part of a Church of England strategy to reach younger people who live and work in inner cities. “The church will need a lot of work to restore it as a worship space,” a spokeswoman for the diocese said. “Groundwork and preparations will take place in the new year.”

City-centre resource churches planted in the past two years include St Luke’s, Gas Street, Birmingham, which opened in September last year and has grown rapidly.

St Mark’s was in an “ideal location” to attract a young congregation, as it was close to Coventry University buildings and accommodation, and also Warwick University, the spokeswoman said. Its opening would coincide with the new academic year. “The church will aim to get young people involved from the beginning, and will encourage them to take part in community and social-action projects, and reach out to their peers.”

The Alpha course would also be introduced, in a partnership with HTB, she said. “The worship will be contemporary, and will appeal to young people’s tastes in music.”

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said that he looked forward to the “resurrection” of St Mark’s as “the worshipping centre of a new Christian community that seeks to live out Jesus’s ways of welcome, love, and healing for all”.

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