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‘Focal’. ‘Oversight’. The C of E of the future

10 September 2021

Madeleine Davies begins a two-part examination of the Church’s future

Illustration from a 2019 consultation document: Towards a generous and flourishing Diocese of Sheffield in 2025

Illustration from a 2019 consultation document: Towards a generous and flourishing Diocese of Sheffield in 2025

IN 2019, Anglican worshippers in the diocese of Sheffield were informed of the existence of a “four-headed beast”. They were not alone in facing this creature, they were told: it existed in every other diocese, especially in the north and more urban areas.

Its four heads may be familiar to Church Times readers: falling attendance (in Sheffield, a fall in Usual Sunday Attendance from 20,000 in 1988 to 12,000 in 2018); significant shortfalls in most parishes, “squeezing” the diocesan board of finance (DBF) (out of 192 contributors to the diocese’s common fund in 2018, only 17 paid the full costs of a dedicated stipendiary priest); problems presented by buildings and structures (leaving clergy, lay leaders, and congregations “overwhelmed by compliance, safeguarding, and administrative demands”); and a heavy dependence on the “magnificent” contribution of older members.

In 1999, there had been 155 stipendiary incumbents in the diocese of Sheffield; now there were just 100 (News, 28 May 2021). It was possible, the diocese agreed, to use historic reserves and other funds to maintain current numbers: “But it is surely obvious that, as long as expenditure exceeds income, the long term is bleak.”

A more radical approach was needed, one offering “an exciting and thoroughly Anglican prospect . . . groups of disciples, meeting in a variety of venues, led locally, mostly by focal leaders and volunteer teams of lay people and self-supporting clergy, overseen by stipendiary incumbents (and some self-supporting clergy) offering oversight of wider areas, as leaders in mission”.

It is a model that will, by now, be familiar to Anglican churchgoers in many English dioceses. Several dioceses are consulting about variations of it at the time of writing. It is also an approach that has attracted significant financial support from national sources. In total, Sheffield has been awarded £5.7 million from the £45-million Strategic Transformation Fund announced by the Archbishops’ Council in July 2019, “to help those dioceses facing significant financial challenges and planning a major restructuring programme to provide a platform for the Church’s sustainable growth”.

The allocation was described in the Strategic Investment Board’s annual report as “a significant milestone in the life of the Church”. The board has also awarded £1.7 million to support Manchester diocese in developing its transformation plan, while Birmingham’s People and Places strategy was awarded £5 million (News, 1 March 2019).


BY 2025, it is projected that the number of full-time stipendiary priests in Sheffield will have fallen to 83. Reductions will happen only as people choose to retire, or leave the diocese. There are no plans to pursue parish boundary changes (a way to trigger the loss of a post), and the diocese has acknowledged that it can implement the new model only with “the good will of the clergy and the whole people of God”. This includes the consent of the stipendiary incumbents currently in post, all of whom have been invited to become “oversight ministers”.

A report on responses to the 2019 consultation noted that, while worshippers agreed that the model was the best of the six options presented for tackling the “four-headed beast”, “many did so with resignation and without much joy. Respondents clearly struggled with feeling ‘excited’ about the model.”

The diocese is clear, nevertheless, that there is no Plan B. Across the diocese, 59 mission areas are being created, each made up of a group of parishes with at least one oversight minister. In 2019, the diocese warned that it had more stipendiary incumbents than it would be able to afford, and would, therefore, be “exercising considerable caution in making permanent appointments under Common Tenure before allocations of numbers of stipendiary incumbents to deaneries have been agreed.

“Where appointments are possible, there will be a strong expectation that parishes are able to indicate how an appointment will carry forward the Diocesan Strategy.”

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, has acknowledged: “We will be hard pressed to sustain a reliable pattern of a weekly celebration of the eucharist in the ‘golden slot’ on a Sunday morning, i.e. starting between 9.30 a.m. and 11 a.m., in every parish or benefice.”

Asked whether he understands the concerns of those who wish to “save the parish” (News, 4 August), Dr Wilcox is unequivocal, but makes a request for “historical analysis”.

“I am absolutely clear that we are dealing with at least a 30-, 40-year problem, a threat to the parish,” he says. “I’m very happy to call it a threat to the parish, but it’s not a three-to-four-year threat to the parish.

Illustration from a 2019 consultation document: Towards a generous and flourishing Diocese of Sheffield in 2025

“The concerns that are being voiced now seem to be focused around the end of the Darlow formula and shift to strategic development funding (News, 21 October 2016), but that shift was intended to be part of a solution to a problem that was by then already longstanding.” (The Darlow formula channelled central church funds into the poorest dioceses; a portion of that funding now goes to strategic-development projects.)

The real threat, Dr Wilcox says, is “to the stipendiary incumbent”. On arriving in Sheffield, he inherited a diocese in which diminishing numbers of clergy had simply been spread more thinly, with the result that many priests had “awful” levels of well-being. While the diocese would love to increase numbers (its ideal is 300 — one stipendiary incumbent per 4000 in the general population), the current approach asks, “How can we deploy them in realistic ways that promise a fruitful vigorous ministry?”

This approach will have to go “hand in hand with a revised grasp of what stipendiary incumbency is for”, Dr Wilcox continues. “We are very clear that role of the stipendiary incumbent is to resource the whole people of God for the whole mission of God, to release all the baptised into the fullness of their baptised vocation, not to be a one-person ministry.

“Even if we had 300 stipendiary incumbents in the diocese of Sheffield, I would want them, in this sense, to be oversight ministers: overseeing the whole people of God, and nurturing gifts and ministries for the whole people of God.”


TIME spent in the Church Times archives is a reminder that the decline in the number of stipendiary clergy in the C of E has been a long-term phenomenon. In his 1963 report The Deployment and Payment of the Clergy (CT, 17 January 1964, et seq.), Leslie Paul estimated that 20,000 stipendiary clergy were needed to extend an effective mission into urban areas (Comment, 19 November 1993).

By 1978, the House of Bishops defined a “sufficiently large” number as 11,600. This, it was estimated, necessitated ordaining to stipendiary ministry between 400 and 450 people a year (a number that had fallen to about 250 by the early 1990s but is now on target). The latest figures put the total at 7670.

While falling numbers of vocations have been part of the picture, debates about different models of ministry have long been driven by financial considerations, not least the withdrawal of financial support for stipends by the Church Commissioners. In 1991, the Commissioners funded 45 per cent of stipends, the rest covered mainly by churchgoers.

By 1999, this had fallen to 12 per cent (News, 16 April 1999). The trigger for the 1993 Lambeth Group report — which concluded that the contribution of the Commissioners to the cost of pensions, stipends, and housing could not be maintained — was the investment losses incurred in the early 1990s (News, 30 July 1993). A highly critical report showed that, having agreed to fund pensions and stipends at a level beyond their means, the Church Commissioners had lost £624 million — more than one fifth of their assets — by speculating in shop property (News, 23 July 1993).

But even when performance improved, the demands of servicing clergy pensions proved onerous, even after responsibility for post-1998 pensions was handed to dioceses while the Commissioners retained responsibility for pensions accrued before then.

When dioceses were told in 2001 that they would need to find an extra £11 million a year (News, 6 July 2001), the diocese of Truro announced that one in three stipendiary clergy posts would be cut over the course of the decade “through natural wastage”. The Bishop spoke, in now familiar tones, of a need for “fundamental change to the patterns of ministry” (News, 15 June 2001). In 2003, the General Synod was told that the shift in the balance of funding from national to parish level had amounted to £90 million a year over the past decade.


HOW BAD is the financial picture today? A discussion paper, Perspectives on Money, People and Buildings, circulated to all bishops and diocesan secretaries in January, confirmed that the C of E’s income fell by 8.1 per cent in the year to November 2020; the paper projected a further fall of ten per cent for 2021 (News, 5 February 2021).

These national figures disguise a large variation between dioceses, set out in their respective annual reports. The largest fall in parish-share income was 17.8 per cent, while another diocese had seen a year-on-year increase of 0.5 per cent.

The pandemic has exacerbated longstanding problems in many dioceses — 25 of which had structural deficits before the crisis. The paper explains that, to date, the Church has survived the decline in attendance — a decline of about 40 per cent over the past 30 years — by drawing on historic assets to subsidise parishes that cannot afford their ministry costs, and by steadily reducing the number of stipendiary ministers.

Pre-Covid, about 5000 parishes around the country were receiving financial support from their dioceses toward their ministry costs. Many bishops, the paper reported, “believe that the financial challenges being exposed by the pandemic mean this is the moment to embark on radical changes to re-shape existing resource patterns and ministry structures”.

As Dr Wilcox remarked, the traditional pattern of a paid, ordained minister in every parish has long proved impossible to sustain in many areas of the country. In Sheffield, just 48 out of 143 benefices fit the model of a single-parish benefice with a dedicated full-time stipendiary incumbent. These are disproportionately located in the two wealthiest deaneries.

Across the dioceses, the Church is already heavily reliant on the contribution of self-supporting ministers, retired clergy, and lay volunteers. The passing of legislation in 2019, confirming that holy communion need be held in only one church within a benefice every week, was a recognition of the huge growth in multi-parish benefices (71 per cent of parishes are now part of one, compared with 17 per cent in 1960).

Observing the consultations under way, the Revd Tiffer Robinson, Rural Dean of Lavenham, and Rector of Rattlesden with Thorpe Morieux, Brettenham, and Hitcham, in St Edmundsbury & Ipswich diocese, observes that proposals about shared lay and ordained leadership and oversight ministry are hardly new.

“We were being told to do that in all rural multi-parish benefices, 12, 15 years ago,” he says. “Basically, what we are seeing is what happened to the rural Church now happening to everyone else.”

The track record isn’t encouraging, in his view: “We are seeing the rot set in — the same flawed thinking that has caused so much damage in rural dioceses, in rural benefices, is now being applied to urban areas, because we are still running out of money, because — lo and behold! — cutting clergy from rural parishes that were subsidising the wider diocese didn’t really work very well.”

His position is that, without financial help, dioceses are not able to support parish ministry, and that concern from the centre about “subsidising decline” (News, 21 October 2016) can overlook the fact that “not all churches that can’t pay their way are declining, and often the decline follows a reduction in parish ministry, not the other way around.”

He is aware of two four-parish benefices in Suffolk which were paying their way. After the departure of both priests, they were given a single priest for all eight parishes: “Sure enough, they have all declined. . . They got asked to pay less as they only had one priest; so we didn’t save anything as a diocese. We precipitated decline, and now, of course, there’s no way they could afford two priests like they could ten years ago. Had they continued to have two priests, who knows?”

His perception is that finances in the diocese started turning around once it stopped cutting clergy: “We’ve increased giving: it’s a completely different approach.”

Graphic from the 2019 Sheffield paper

While he is not opposed to focal ministry, he is wary of using it as a means to cut clergy numbers. Often the presence of lay leaders capable of taking on such ministry is directly tied to clergy good at discerning such vocations, he observes. “Oversight ministry” is “a bit of a vague term that describes a part of what most incumbents do anyway. . . It’s what already happens, where it works; we have been pushing collaborative ministry for decades now.”

Certainly, the evidence base for cutting stipendiary numbers isn’t encouraging. Going Deeper: Church attendance statistics and clergy deployment, a study by the Revd Dr Fiona Tweedie, found that “an increase in the number of clergy over time is associated with a greater likelihood of there being attendance growth. A decrease in clergy is associated with the greater likelihood of there being a decline in attendance growth” (News, 5 August 2016).

One of the problems in Lincoln diocese identified in the 2012 Central Services Review was “widespread dissatisfaction” with the “New Era approach”, in which stipendiary ministers were replaced with voluntary lay ministers (News, 28 September 2012). Parishes felt that they were “presiding over decline”, and a lack of stipendiary priests and low levels of giving resulted in a “downward spiral of despair”.

At the time, the diocese’s response was to pledge to recruit 100 new clergy (News, 4 October 2013), though, in practice, it has found recruitment a challenge, and the increase in giving required to fund even existing stipends never materialised. It is currently battling an annual £3-million operating deficit, and has warned that the use of historic assets to plug the gap cannot continue beyond 2025 — a sharp reminder that historic wealth is no guarantee of protection against decline (News, 28 February).


IN SHEFFIELD, central funding, including the £5.7 million from the Strategic Transformation Fund, is being used to fund, for a limited period, a number of posts designed to ease the transition and provide support to the new mission areas.

These posts include six associate archdeacons, three dedicated building officers, a digital mission adviser, two generous-giving officers, and a programme-support officer to “provide the National Church with evidence of progress”.

Five “mission priests” are working in parishes with specific targets concerning numerical growth and common fund receipts. The new model for ministry is just one aspect of a diocesan strategy that aims to grow the worshipping community to 2.5 per cent of the population, with targets including the establishment of 50 new congregations.

Dr Wilcox says that, if money allowed, he would love to see an increase in stipends in the diocese. He connects the challenge to his attempt to address the disparity in wealth across dioceses — something set to come to the General Synod in November (News, 28 May).

“I hope the debate will make it clear that any new settlement to resource stipendiary incumbency across the C of E will have to be comprehensive,” he says. “It will have to take in all the separate pots of money — absolutely all the £9.3 billion that the Church Commissioners currently have, all the aggregated historical endowments which are currently unevenly distributed between dioceses . . . then parish reserves. . . Those assets need to play much more intentionally, much more strategically, into the picture.”

He points, too, to the “great unevenness” in congregational giving. “All of those factors will have to be reviewed if we are to arrive at a sustainable financial footing to save the stipendiary incumbent.”

In Sheffield, work is now under way on finding the 150 focal ministers sought over the next five years. These are the leaders who will act as “a focus for both the local congregation and their wider context”, who will be nominated by their church and authorised by the Bishops. To date, three have been authorised, and 12 are “almost ready”. It is expected that some will be lay people, in addition to self-supporting ministers and some stipendiary clergy.

Is Dr Wilcox conscious of concern that the diocese’s emphasis on the need to “liberate and maximise the whole people of God for the whole mission of God” could, in effect, be placing additional burdens on an already pressed people?

“God forbid we become a clericalised Church, but on the other hand, nor do we want to foist jobs, responsibilities, burdens on to lay people,” he says.

“What we don’t want is for the baptised person to be left thinking that, if they rock up in church on Sunday and live an essentially respectable life the rest of the week, that is the fullness of their baptised vocation. We do want to nurture them to maturity in Christ, to release them into the fullness of their God-given ministry. But it must be their God-given ministry: it can’t just be what the Church needs them to do. . .

“It is about the incumbent as the overseer of the people of God helping every member of the people of God to grow up into fulness of their baptismal dignity, their vocation. . . Capacity is going to be an be issue over the coming years but the answer to that is not to stop asking the lay people ‘so where is God calling you to be active in God’s service?”


Diocesan plans

The diocese of Canterbury’s strategy “Towards a Sustainable Future” refers to a “historical over-reliance on stipendiary clergy”, and states that deanery planning “suggests that a slightly smaller number of stipendiary posts may be needed to support our local mission and ministry”. It envisages “a continuing shift towards oversight ministry” and the development of focal ministry “where this makes contextual sense”. The number of stipendiary curacies — increased to nine new curates per year, in line with the national strategy to increase vocations by 50 per cent — will be capped at four.

The diocesan budget in Exeter assumes a reduction in the number of stipendiary clergy from around 170 to 130 by the end of 2031. It has operated a network of “mission communities” for a number of years. A 2003 report predicted the consultations currently under way: “Responses to pastoral re-organisation have up till now generally been centred on full-time clergy: to add more parishes to one vicar. . . This approach can’t go on indefinitely. Instead, we set out how to organise the mission of the church around a local mission community — a congregation, a parish or parishes or other Christian groups with enough resources to carry out the task of mission in their area.”

The diocese of Gloucester’s latest annual report refers to “the challenge of a financially and missionally unsustainable pattern of ministry in the diocese and the opportunities presented by the assets of the DBF to effect a significant change in that pattern of ministry”. A commitment was made in 2020 to reducing the ongoing cost of its funding for local ministry by the equivalent of nine clergy posts.

The structural deficit of the DBF was described as “reflective of the missional weakness of the current pattern of ministry which has seen significant decline in engagement with Church over recent decades”. Deanery strategic planning is currently under way to “identify the reshaping of ministry to fit future needs and hopes through retirement and new pioneer ministries”.

In the diocese of Manchester, the total number of stipendiary clergy, including curates, will fall from 201 to 190 by the end of 2022. The Transforming Manchester briefing on proposals to establish 38 mission communities includes a “medium-term projection” of 160 stipendiary posts, including curates and pioneers, by 2025, “to explore whether we have a workable model for local ministry for the diocese as a whole”. The projection is “illustrative” says the diocese. “We could have more.”

It envisages that mission communities will serve populations of about 60,000 people and an average weekly attendance of about 400 people, typically with three stipendiary clergy — acting in an oversight role — at their heart, in to addition curates and pioneer posts.

A diverse leadership team will be responsible for developing new ways of working together in each mission community. Every worshipping community will also have a named focal leader who will provide pastoral care. This may be a stipendiary priest, another ordained person, or a suitably qualified lay person.

The plan is that parishes will start to come together informally from next January. If changes to formal governance structures are required, these would be implemented over the next three years in accordance with the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011. The diocese has recruited full-time stipendiary area deans for each of its seven new deaneries (reduced from 20) to “lead the transformation programme”.

Newcastle diocese has applied to the national Church for “significant funding to help us move to a new model of ministry deployment”.

Norwich diocese is looking to reduce, over the course of the next three years, its licensed stipendiary clergy by ten per cent from pre-pandemic levels, about 15 clergy posts in all. This excludes assistant curates. It is expected that the reduction will be achieved at times of retirement or moves, and will involve some pastoral reorganisation.

The Bishop is looking to create two additional parochial posts in two parishes with high populations and high economic deprivation, and is encouraging lay people to explore whether God is calling them to self-supporting ministry, especially in rural areas, or different types of lay ministry. The DBF has recently had a central-services review, which entailed some redundancies.

Portsmouth diocese reports that it is running a deficit of £1 million a year, requiring it to sell parsonages and draw on its reserves. The population of the diocese increased by 14 per cent from 1989 to 2019, while the number of those attending services fell by 45 per cent, clergy by 38 per cent, and buildings by three per cent.

The new diocesan strategy, to be implemented over the next five to ten years, envisages larger groupings of parishes and churches with shared governance and administration served by ministry teams, including a number of lay people, led by team rectors. A reduction in stipendiary posts is expected by means of “natural moves”.

Through its “On the Way” programme, the diocese of Truro is reviewing the shape of ministry in the diocese, working with deaneries to discern “what it means to be fruitful and sustainable”. A toolkit sets out a number of models, from oversight ministers to festival churches. Next year, its spending will outstrip income by £2 million.

The DBF has drawn on reserves to fund a “Transforming Mission” project in areas across Cornwall, supplemented by strategic-development grants, seeking to develop “a model for the renewal of Anglican Church life across our communities”.

Worcester diocese’s transformation plan includes a reduction in the number of deaneries from 13 to six. Area deans will also parish posts and work with a deanery leadership team of both lay and ordained members. The diocese aims to reduce stipendiary posts by 15 by the end of 2022, 11 of which have already been identified through retirement and other moves. There have also been reductions in diocesan staff and £0.5 million saved from central costs.

Nine “open conversations” have been held across the diocese, attended by more than 1000 people, and 95 per cent of parishes represented. These conversations were designed to discern “how we best organise ministry in our parishes and how we pay for it”. A recorded 79 per cent agreed that “We need considerable change in the structures of how we run the Church.” A new parish-share approach will be adopted in 2021, which means that the share requested from a benefice will be the cost of the ministry in that benefice adjusted by the average incomes of the church’s members.

The diocese of York reports that it plans to spend £1.1 million more than income in its 2021 budget. It warns that the need to cover deficit budgets in the coming years will mean that its realisable unrestricted reserves will have been exhausted by 2027. It is currently carrying out a consultation on reshaping ministry. Options include “larger collaborative units”, focal ministry, and the closure of some churches.

Next week: diocesan strategies, and lessons from Wales.

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