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Angela Tilby: The Church is not a business

12 February 2021


The Guild Church of St Margaret Pattens, in the City of London

The Guild Church of St Margaret Pattens, in the City of London

RUMOURS of a cull of parish clergy posts have provoked denials from the Archbishop of York (News, Comment 5 February) and the secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye . But, although there is no overt strategy to reduce the numbers of parish priests, the evidence that dioceses are doing so is out there, and not only in Chelmsford (News, 4 December 2020).

Parish clergy know that their numbers are fewer. Retired and house-for-duty priests struggle to fill the gaps. Meanwhile, there is a continuing growth in diocesan bureaucracy. Although dioceses have lost staff as a result of the pandemic, strategic oversight and non-parochial posts are still being advertised.

All this goes back to 2013, when John Spence was appointed: first to the Archbishops’ Council, and then as chair of the Finance Committee. It was Spence who insisted in 2015 (Reform and Renewal, Resourcing the Future) that the way in which Church Commissioners’ funds were distributed was penalising church growth.

The answer was to distribute funds differently. Dioceses soon found themselves competing with one another for funding. Success depended on promising mission and growth. Implementation often meant merging parishes and suppressing parish posts. For Spence, this was not a problem, because he saw the Church as an organisation, like a business. Success came from generating the right vision and strategy.

But now we are seeing the damage: giving is down; numbers are down. The volunteers who keep parishes going have never seen their job in terms of spreading the Good News of Jesus along with the coffee and doughnuts. To them, the whole vocabulary feels wrong.

Many resent the spending of their parish share on posts that have nothing to do with their real concerns. Although the message has been hammered home that the parish share pays for their own priest, they want to keep him or her, and not fund, for example, a Deanery Mission Enabler, who might well recommend the loss of their vicar.

Clergy are caught between diocesan expectations and local need. Being told to invest in their own well-being by those who work in a diocesan office does not always help. I know parish clergy who have been bullied by archdeacons and others if they failed to promote diocesan priorities.

The Bishops would be more credible as leaders if they listened to the parishes rather than to their appointed experts. The Church is not a business. The volunteers on whom the Church depends will not put up with being messed around for ever. Many have already stopped giving (one reason for the current funding crisis), and, since the pandemic, many won’t come back (hence the drop in numbers).

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