PARISHES in the diocese of Chelmsford are to be given a stark message next month: if they want a priest, they will have to pay the going rate. Last Sunday was designated a day of prayer, asking God to “loosen the drawstrings of our hearts”.
In the diocesan synod meeting next month, members will be asked to agree changes to the way clergy vacancies are filled. Benefices that 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 enter a new process in which alternatives are discussed, such as interim ministry, a self-supporting priest-in-charge, or a licensed lay minister. If voted through, the new processes will come into effect immediately.
This week, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, soon to move to York, said that the diocese had needed “a big reality check. My text for all this has been ‘the truth will set you free’. . . People may hate what I am saying, but it’s simply impossible to disagree with it: the accounts reveal everything.”
The immediate cause is the loss of a substantial subsidy from the Church Commissioners. Under the previous formula (known as “Darlow”, which is currently 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 a £1 million. Last year, parish-share receipts fell to 92.59 per cent of the total needed. Over half the shortfall was attributable to 21 parishes.
“The situation has become startlingly simple,” Bishop Cottrell told the diocesan synod in November. “If you want a priest you have to pay. . . If we don’t make these changes, it will lead to much more drastic and unplanned decisions being forced upon us.” Even parishes that met their parish share were not fully covering the cost of ministry, and would be asked to give more.
On Monday, Bishop Cottrell said that the debate in November had been “really good. There was a lot of pain expressed and honesty.” Leaving the problem for another ten years would have been a “terrible irresponsibility”. He was confident that the synod would vote in favour of the proposals. The diocese was not in “crisis mode”, and he believed that the diocese would respond with greater levels of giving. “And if not, there will have to be some cuts in clergy numbers.”
He wanted stipendiary ministry to grow, he said, and the diocese remained committed to the poorest communities. The entirety of the central LICF funding would go to subsidising their parish share, and if parish share was sufficient to pay for ministry, then all of the diocese’s investment income would also go to these parishes.
The changes build on existing reforms in the diocese. When Bishop Cottrell arrived as diocesan bishop in 2010, a pressing problem was clergy retirements: 47 per cent of stipendiary clergy were due to retire within the next decade. This was one of the drivers of the formation of Mission and Ministry Units (MMUs), whereby parishes and benefices have voluntarily joined together to share resources and mission. More than half (57 per cent) of parishes are now part of an MMU.
The “mantra” behind this was that “no priest should ever work on their own ever again,” Bishop Cottrell said on Monday. “It sounds obvious and sensible, but it’s a massive culture shock for the C of E where, for centuries, clergy have led in isolation.” Another driver was the desire to plant more churches — something that individual churches were unlikely to be able to do alone.
The population of east London and Essex is set to grow by 300,000 over the next ten years, and the diocese plans to plant 101 new Christian communities. Last year, it received a Strategic Development Funding (SDF) grant of £3.85 million towards this goal (News, 23 January 2019) .
“What we are really trying to do is define what we mean by ‘church’,” Bishop Cottrell said. “I think for too long, ‘church’ has meant a building and a vicar and possibly a geographic area to serve, and our job is to sustain that. . .
“I would say vicars only came into being as a consequence of evangelism not a cause. Europe was evangelised by movements of mission — usually monastic movements. . . We need new movements of mission, and vicars aren’t necessarily the best way of achieving that.”
He spoke of a “huge emphasis” on lay ministry in the diocese, including two lay-pioneer training centres.
But ordinand numbers have also increased significantly in recent years: between 2000 and 2012 an average of 19.5 curates were ordained each year; between 2013 and 2019 the average was 31. On Monday, the Dean of Mission, Ministry and Education in the diocese, Canon Roger Matthews, stressed that ordained leadership was “vital for the Church . . . On the other hand is the fact that God entrusts ministry gifts to all his people. It isn’t either ordained or lay, it’s both. We are, however, going to have to get used to having less paid ordained ministry than we have been used to.”
The shift would entail a “culture change”, he agreed. “It is still very deeply embedded in people’s thinking that ‘we must have our own vicar.’”
It was important to communicate “confidence that there will be jobs for those who are being selected and trained for stipendiary ministry,” he said, pointing to the release of central funds to finance the increase in curacies in dioceses (News, 12 July 2019). “We would be very foolish to be bringing people in and then not being able to give them a job.”
On Monday, the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd Peter Hill, described three church-planting projects underway, funded by SDF money, that diverged from the traditional model of a church building and incumbent.
In the Barking Riverside development, the Revd Sam Pollard, an assistant curate of All Saints’, Woodford Wells, and his wife, Anna, were working in small groups of eight to 12 people, to build a church community. In Beam Park, Carolyn and Mark Gilmore, a lay couple who had worked as missionaries in Uruguay, were working as community missioners, making contact with developers and councils; and on the Beaulieu estate, a pioneer priest, the Revd Dan Pierce, was running St Francis Community Church under a Bishops Mission Order.
Despite the current financial challenge, Bishop Hill — like Bishop Cottrell — remains in favour of the shift away from Darlow. “The godly, prayerful solution to this is deeper sacrificial, proportionate giving, which the C of E doesn’t have the greatest track record on, compared with other Christian denominations,” he said.
Canon David Hague, Vicar of the Good Shepherd, Collier Row, part of the Central and North Romford Mission and Ministry Unit
“We shouldn’t be surprised as we’ve known for a few years that this was coming, but the rubber is really hitting the road now. It’s known that some churches really work hard to pay their way and others perhaps can’t, because of the deprivation, and others won’t for all kinds of reasons — a lack of generosity, or disagreements with diocesan policy.
“We have always tried to pay our way and have always met parish share. We do have some subsidy through LICF and a transition grant and we always give ten per cent away to other causes. If we are steeping out in faith then the money will come and we always make decisions on that basis. The key is really good teaching in churches from all parish priests and we need to be first ones to live this way. You can’t speak with authority on something you don’t do yourself.
“A question people are asking now is, how much of the diocesan overheads it’s reasonable for each parish to pay? I don’t worry about money but I am concerned about justice in terms of how the amount each parish is going to have to give is calculated.
“I think that churches can be led by lay people, but should ultimately come under the oversight of someone who is ordained. Reimagining ministry for me means: how do we shape ordained ministry and licensed lay ministry to release people to bring transformation in the world? For a lot of churches that is big transformation of thinking.”
Dr James Lawson, a worshipper at All Saints’, Springfield
“All Saints’ is very lucky in that it has a community that is able to and does give very generously to the church. It’s unlikely to be in the position of being unable to pay for a rector of its own.
“One of the areas where I’m a bit critical is awareness of the proposals; the headline being: ‘If you can’t afford a priest you won’t get one.’ If you dig into the document, there is a commitment that that will vary depending on your ability to pay. There is some discretion. That could be better advertised.
“We are already seeing a culture change in the church. People talk nostalgically about the days when a rector spent lots of time visiting in the parish. On the one hand, it’s a good thing to encourage weaning people off dependence on a vicar doing everything — we want to recognise the ministry of all people. The concern I guess is that clergy then don’t have quite the same relationship with their parish that they had in the past — the priest can end up being like a technician of the sacred. There is definitely a sense of loss around that.
“More giving would require a bit of structural change at parish level — a move from periodic fundraising drives to thinking about it as part of our general spiritual weekly practice. It will be interesting to see how that is presented. Is there some distinctive way of separating this from marketing calls from charities? I am sure thinking is happening at diocesan level but does not seem to have filtered down to people in the pews yet.”