THE Archbishop-designate of York, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, has dismissed a Sunday-newspaper report that he was to lead a review involving “massive shrinkage” in the number of cathedrals, dioceses, and parish churches.
The report appeared in The Sunday Times this week under the headline “Church of England weighs up cull of bishops”. It followed a meeting of the House of Bishops on Thursday of last week, which reported, besides hearing coronavirus updates and insights, “a series of breakout groups further looking at issues including political and economic change, shifts in technology, as well as the impact of demographic change”.
“Sources”, “a source familiar with [Bishop Cottrell’s] thinking”, and “senior Anglican figures” were quoted as saying that the Bishop had “privately signalled that he is prepared to contemplate dramatic cuts and the mothballing of historic buildings”, and that a video conference call last week to “kickstart the process” would consider “how many buildings the church needs”.
The report referred to the impact of changes on the funding formula earlier this year, which, for Chelmsford diocese, resulted in a deficit of about £1 million, and necessitated what Bishop Cottrell described at the time as a “big reality check” (News, 28 February).
He said on Tuesday that he had not been asked to lead a review of the dioceses “to ensure the number of buildings and paid clergy is not unaffordable”. The group that he had been asked to chair was the Vision and Strategy group, whose purpose was to see how the five marks of mission might shape the Church of England over the next ten years.
It was “primarily to do with spiritual renewal, evangelism, and whole-life discipleship”, with particular emphases on safeguarding the environment and on issues of justice, not least for the poor. It had not yet met, and, when it did, the Bishop said, “We envisage a wider-ranging process of consultation to get as many voices as possible in the room.”
As for “massive shrinkage”, he said, the Church of England remained committed to being the Church for everyone and for every community. The deliberate move in Chelmsford towards prioritising “more of our limited resources towards our less wealthy communities” had been a big challenge, made harder by the pandemic.
Some initial thinking had been done to assess the work of the group and to see what other related work might be needed elsewhere. “And, because of that situation we find ourselves in as a world, there is inevitably some talk about the financial challenges we face and what might be done about them.
“But my group has no remit for making any decision on these matters. And such discussions have been going on for a very long while.”
Sources close to the House of Bishops meeting said on Wednesday that the House had not discussed a paper relating to the reduction of the number of dioceses or bishops, and that Bishop Cottrell had not addressed the House on this issue. The source said that there were different views among the Bishops on the best way forward.
A Church House spokesman said on Wednesday: “Our most recent House of Bishops meeting included updates from groups of bishops looking at coronavirus and its implications for the future of the Church of England. This also involved a series of breakout groups further looking at issues including political and economic change, shifts in technology, as well as the impact of demographic change
“For at least the last ten years, the Church of England has continued to review the size and number of dioceses so as to most efficiently and effectively share the gospel and serve the whole of our nation. Along with other communities and organisations, the current pandemic has brought this discussion further up the agenda. At the moment, it is no more than a discussion, and there are no specific proposals.”