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Birmingham diocese seeks to undo parish system

01 March 2019

Changes in ministry patterns supported by £5 million funding


Birmingham City Centre, with St Martin in the Bull Ring

Birmingham City Centre, with St Martin in the Bull Ring

PARISH boundaries are set to disappear and the number of stipendiary clergy is to be reduced in the diocese of Birmingham.

The changes in ministry patterns, outlined in its People and Places programme, are supported by the Church Commissioners’ award of £5 million of Strategic Development Funding (News, 25 January).

There has been a mixed response to the strategy, described by the programme’s director, the Archdeacon of Aston, the Ven. Simon Heathfield, as “a visionary thing that will help the Church make its next change to do what it’s supposed to be doing”.

Reform of the diocese’s common fund undergirds a programme in which resources will be shared on the basis of population size rather than historical boundary models.

The pattern of a stipendiary minister for every parish has been deemed “no longer sustainable, fair, or a good fit” for Birmingham, the poorest of the dioceses in England, with no historic resources.

It serves a population of 1.5 million people in a growing and evolving city that is diverse in multiple respects. In all, 44 per cent of its parishes are in the most deprived ten per cent in the country (13 per cent fall into the most affluent 20 per cent). The People and Places framework document describes 100 of its 184 parishes as “struggling”, and highlights an extreme disparity of wealth between parishes.

Despite what the Archdeacon called the “joy, powerful witness, and work by amazing groups of Christian people here”, the confluence of ageing congregations and inherited buildings was, he said, “sucking up more money than can be imagined in poor communities, and with very little liquid assets to apply to them or to stipends”.

No churches are currently targeted for closure. But, while the nuanced language of the framework document suggests that the ambition is to revitalise struggling churches, it warns: “If this is not possible, then closure might have to be the best solution, so that resurrection can happen elsewhere. This will be examined closely as part of the emerging Buildings structure.”

A structure of 72 “oversight”, 36 “local”, and 28 “context” ministers will replace the present model. The framework document declares this terminology to be “working titles, which, at this stage, should not be probed too deeply”, and acknowledges that “oversight, local, and context ministers can be found in many places around the Church of England currently, even if they have different names.” The term “minister” embraces everything from stipendiary and self-supporting priests and permanent deacons to Readers, Readers-in-charge, and youth ministers.

Oversight ministers — “usually, but not necessarily always, ordained, and always paid” — will work across two or three churches. They will not receive a higher stipend, but may get help with admin, such as book-keeping. Every church will have “at least one local minister, but that may not be ordained, paid, or full-time, though in many places having one who is all three may still be the norm”.

The provision of 28 context ministers — giving specialist support in particular contexts, such as chaplaincies or outreach workers — is dependent on new income generated by the new common-fund method, to be capped at 60 per cent of unrestricted income. The majority of churches must now, at least, fully fund the cost of their oversight ministry — a cost that they will be sharing with others.

The framework document calculates the allocation figure of 36 local ministers as “the number of current posts that could be fully funded by places that do not currently pay for the full costs of their ministry, and whose oversight allocation would be less than their current ministry”, subject to the common-fund cap. The wealthiest churches will pay for their own ministry, and will contribute the cost of one full-time stipendiary elsewhere.

On the deployment of curates, the document declares that there is no intention in the future to deploy curates only to parishes that can afford to pay for them: “Curacy numbers are not included in our People and Places calculations,” it states, “and we would like to increase the number of curacies.” That said, some wealthier places that can afford to pay for their curates directly will be asked to do so.


THE Birmingham plan is not as radical as the replacement of the parish system by the Church in Wales and its introduction of larger Ministry Areas, after the 2012 review. The Diocesan Secretary and Chapter Clerk of Bangor, Siôn Rhys-Evans, said last week: “In Bangor, we’ve moved over five years from 122 parishes to 27 Ministry Areas. It’s a journey we’ve undertaken together across the diocese, and the sense of common endeavour and shared commitment to change has been important.

“Spending time together, learning together, and being patient with one another have all been important things. Ministry Areas have focused on the hard work of recognising gifts, building teams, and taking serious decisions about finances and buildings. However, the real gift has been a move from a culture of denial and scarcity, and the pressures of keeping the show on the road, to a place where energy is beginning to be released for transformative worship, witness, and service.”

Parishes in Carlisle are also being encouraged to cluster into ecumenical “Mission Communities” with Methodist and United Reformed Church churches. A leadership team in each is envisaged to be headed by a Mission Community Leader with individual accountability. Here, too, it is emphasised that the position of Local Church Leader will not simply be modelled on that of the incumbent or minister. Exeter, Liverpool, and Chelmsford dioceses have also been involved in a degree of reorganisation.


UNDER the People and Places framework, oversight areas will contain about 17,000 people. “We have been very conscious of issues of justice and equality as we seek to rethink with a faithful and generous heart what it means to be fit for purpose as the Church of England across the West Midlands,” Archdeacon Heathfield said.

“We are conscious that if we just said, ‘You can only have what you can afford, and if you can afford it, you can have it,’ we would be legitimating the rich getting richer, and withdrawing ministry from vast areas of the poorest communities in England. That’s not acceptable either in terms of theology or justice.”

The Church Times canvassed the views of clergy and lay people inside and outside the diocese. Supporters of the scheme generally affirmed the more flexible patterns of ministry and models of lay ministry, and commended the diocese for “motivating people in mission and evangelism, clarifying parish vision, and discerning and developing gifts”.

They also observed that plenty of parish churches had never had their own priest, and had operated in multi-parish benefices for decades: “The idea is hardly new.” Realism was also acknowledged about “financial constraints, which hit a relatively new and under-resourced diocese like Birmingham before those with inherited assets”.

Some doubted, however, whether there were enough lay people with the time, gifts, and theological training to replace the diminishing number of clergy. Others feared that this kind of proposal could “remove agency and power from parishes to the centre, with serious negative consequences for church mission”; and that “allocation by population will see the end of rural parishes on the periphery of the diocese.”

During a discussion on a podcast, The Young Tractarians, the Assistant Curate of St Peter’s and St Luke’s, Wallsend, in Newcastle diocese, the Revd Endre Kormos, gave a robust response, reckoning that, under People and Places, one ordained priest, with other ministers, could be allocated to 164,000 people, suggesting that Birmingham’s proposal was like “taking an axe to the diocesan structure”.

Expressing concern about how people were to receive the eucharist, he said: “There is one priest to make Christ present on the altar on Sunday. . . How are we not setting up these places to fail if we keep under-resourcing them? What does this say about ecclesiology and the Anglican order of bishops, priests, and deacons?”

A lay commentator on Anglican affairs, Andrew Sabisky, reflected: “I do understand where Birmingham are coming from. I think their mindset is: ‘We don’t want to close churches. . .’ So, rather than close small, financially unsustainable churches that can’t pay for their own ministry, this plan represents a way of keeping them alive on life support. The problem is that life support is generally not very good at keeping people alive. . . It sort of prolongs the inevitable.”

The diocese has responded unequivocally to questions raised about continuing commitment to “Presence and Engagement areas”: those where at least ten per cent of the population belong to other faiths. People and Places would ensure that “even in 100-per-cent other-faith places, there will be one oversight minister for every 50,000 people, which in some cases is a greater commitment to other faiths than at present.”

Statistics on church attendance and clergy deployment suggest an association between clergy numbers and the likelihood of growth or decline (News, 5 August 2016). The mission-statistics co-ordinator for the Church of Scotland, the Revd Dr Fiona Tweedie, said: “It is changes in clergy resource rather than benefice structure which are associated with the likelihood of growth or decline, albeit that reductions in clergy resource are often implemented through the amalgamation of parishes.”

Archdeacon Heathfield acknowledged that “robust and difficult” conversations were taking place, but that there were parishes willing to face those hard questions, and which had themselves acknowledged that change had been expected for a long time. One congregation member had said: “There are 20 of us here in this big, old building, and we are in a 90-per-cent Muslim area. It’s inevitable that we were going to have to share our vicar.”

Clergy redundancies depended on the outcome of the common-fund discussions, the People and Places framework acknowledges. “It is expected that there will be some movement around the diocese as the right people are found for the right roles, where their giftings best match the need and God’s calling.”

Asked whether clergy felt vulnerable, the Archdeacon said: “Every season of change brings uncertainty and anxiety. But my experience, when I sit down one by one with colleagues and see what that looks like, is that the future may well be an even better fit for every occasion in the way things may change.

“That’s a big thing: to continue to see vocation not as a fixed thing that happened when I was ordained, but as an unfolding relationship that makes me more and more who I am called to be as I go through my vocation.”

Over the next 18 months, he suggested, a number of clergy might move into a different sort of ministry: if near retirement, for example, by shifting into a different category if they chose, for the final few years of ministry. Four stipendiary clergy in the diocese reach the age of 70 in the next three years, and a further seven in the following two years.

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