THE Chelmsford diocese is planning to bring forward by four years drastic cuts to stipendiary posts — a target of 60 in the next 18 months — in view of the impact of Covid-19 on already strained diocesan finances.
Briefing papers from the diocesan synod’s finance committee, published on Saturday, state that proposals to reduce stipendiary posts to the “‘minimum sustainable number’ of 215 by 2025” had been brought forward to 2021 in light of the pandemic.
The document states: “At their meeting on 12 May 2020, the Finance Committee has approved the proposal to bring forward implementation of the planned 2025 numbers to the end of 2021. This means reducing the number of stipendiary incumbent posts from 275 (as at 31 March 2020) to 215 in the next 18 months.”
The diocesan synod noted the paper and supported the actions proposed, subject to formal agreement in November.
A traffic-light system has also been approved by which each of the remaining 215 posts will be classed by the archdeacons from green (“to be retained or filled if vacant”) to amber (“desirable and should be retained if finances permit”), and, finally, red (“this post is unlikely to be filled with a full-time stipendiary incumbent and other options for enabling ministry should be considered”).
The maximum number of “green” posts in the diocese should be restricted to 150, it says. “This is 25 per cent below the affordable number determined in 2019 and is a reasonable worse-case scenario for long-term affordability. By limiting ‘green’ posts to this number we should not have to repeat this exercise in the foreseeable future.
“Once the ‘green’ posts are agreed, the ‘amber’ posts can be ranked in each deanery to determine those which will be retained subject to overall affordability. Thus, we expect a significant number of ‘amber’ posts to be retained when the 2025 number of posts (215) is reached at the end of 2021.”
As has been suggested previously, those benefices in the “red” zone which are unable to cover the costs of a full-time stipendiary priest — on average, £80,180, which includes a portion of central diocesan costs — will be invited to discuss alternatives, such as interim ministry, a self-supporting priest-in-charge, or a licensed lay minister (News, 28 February).
This will affect the number of stipendiary posts available to newly ordained priests. While the number of stipendiary curacy posts has increased from 12 to 16 as part of the Church’s national vocation drive, only two of the additional four posts are being funded by the Church Commissioners, the briefing explains.
“The time is now right to reconsider the number of stipendiary curates we will need to maintain incumbent numbers as well as the length of curacies and the possibility of placing curates towards the end of their training to support vacant parishes. We do not plan to furlough stipendiary curates in order that training and formation continues. And we recognise that many of our curates have been in the forefront of applying technology for ‘church at home’.”
Plans to reduce stipendiary posts in the diocese have been in place since 2011 — shortly after the arrival of the current Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell (soon to move to York) — when 47 per cent of stipendiary clergy were due to retire within the next decade.
The diocese’s financial position was transformed by the loss of a substantial subsidy from the Church Commissioners. Under the previous formula (“Darlow”, which is being phased out), Chelmsford received £3.1 million a year, enabling it to balance its budget. It now receives £1 million from the Lowest Income Communities Fund (LICF), and further funds from Strategic Development grants, but that still means a deficit of at least £1 million. Last year, parish-share receipts fell to 92.59 per cent of the total needed. More than half the shortfall was attributable to 21 parishes.
Three-month closure of churches has only added to the problem, with the ensuing reduction in Parish Share receipts to meet ministerial and other costs at parish and diocesan level.
The diocese currently has 48 vacancies. Freezing these was not recommended as a solution by the finance committee; it is unlikely, however, that the posts will start to be filled until September, anyway, the briefing states, given the continuing restrictions.
A diocesan spokesperson said on Monday: “Periodic review and monitoring of the number of stipendiary incumbency posts in the diocese of Chelmsford is part of a strategic mission planning cycle that started in 2011. Like all organisations, we have experienced a significant financial impact as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Triggering a new review at this time is based on mitigating a worst-case financial scenario, while we pray and work for the best.
“Indeed, in recent days, we have been encouraged by the generous giving that we have seen in many of our parishes and the support for our clergy and churches as they serve their communities during this time of great need.”