IT WAS at a garden party (where else?) that home truths were pressed upon an archdeacon by a senior civil servant and a leading member of the business community. The Church of England, they said, was either very wealthy or very stupid. They could see no other reason why it kept open so many costly outlets, all selling the same product. This was a few years ago, when, perhaps, the archdeacon could answer that church buildings were not for “selling a product”, but were valued for the way in which they integrated faith and community; that they spoke of the enduring spirituality of former generations, to be drawn upon by existing congregations; that the parochial system carried with it a responsibility for everyone, even in the poorest parishes; or that the buildings had an intrinsic architectural merit, for which the C of E was proud to be responsible.
That was then, and this is now. The garden-party anecdote is quoted in the new diocesan strategy for Sodor & Man, which states bluntly that, whether they are viewed as outlets or architectural gems, the 41 churches on the Isle of Man are too many for the diocese to sustain. At the end of a long, considered debate, the strategy team concluded that the diocese would be bankrupt within five years if nothing changed. Then came the coronavirus, bringing them to what they describe as “the brink of financial ruin”. As a result, the policy document, now official diocesan strategy, points bluntly down the road towards the “hibernation” and sale of church buildings that cannot be made to pay their way. There would be continued funding for “hub churches” — a term that non-hub churches (“rim churches”?) are coming to dislike intensely. Any other category would largely have to fend for itself.
The document talks endearingly of having “the courage and the faith to break free from an insular way of thinking”. The likelihood is that they are doing exactly that, since several mainland dioceses are addressing challenges of a similar order. Sodor & Man has 15 parishes and 41 churches, and 75 per cent of its annual revenue has to come from parish giving. Larger dioceses can typically draw on other resources for half their revenue. The quiet sale of parsonages and other property or land — not so quiet when villagers discover what is going on (News, 21 August) — has been tiding them over. But, for many, the kitchen cupboard is almost bare, and all that is left is the best china.
There has been a long but desultory discussion in the Church about whether buildings are a help or a hindrance to mission. The message from the Isle of Man is that even this distinction is immaterial if the money for their upkeep cannot be found. What is lacking is any sort of general policy. Individual dioceses have been grasping nettles; but open, informed, and national debate is long overdue.