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General Synod digest: Mission in Revision report

16 July 2021

Dr Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner

Dr Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner

THE General Synod voted on Monday to welcome and commend the consultation paper Mission in Revision: A review of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, and to invite the Archbishops’ Council, the Legislative Committee, and the Church Commissioners to bring forward draft legislation for consideration no later than July 2022.

The Measure empowers bishops and diocesan teams to carry out pastoral reorganisation, which can include creating, uniting, altering, or dissolving parishes, benefices, deaneries, and archdeaconries; closing church buildings for public worship, or setting up new structures such as team and group ministries.

It has long been criticised as unwieldy and in need of reform and simplification. A Green Paper from the Church Commissioners says that the pandemic has only emphasised the need for review as parishes struggle with increased social, demographic, and financial pressures.

In a Church historically committed to a presence in every community, it notes, the ratio of clergy to people is now one to 5528. The paper finds clergy spending more and more of their time on governance, fabric, and compliance; ageing volunteers and declining numbers willing to serve as church officers; the burden on volunteers of increasingly complicated and specialised compliance; and financial pressures on the parish share.

Changing the pattern of ministry is “a sensitive process”, it says, requiring time and effort to manage change with communities. “There are those that find the beauty, particularly the English parish church aesthetic, to be an important and intrinsic part of mission. Their argument would be that the building itself is a symbol and speaks of God, even when it is no longer used primarily as a place of worship.

“The Church of England has 45 per cent of the Grade I listed buildings in the country. Many clergy find managing these buildings a burden and a struggle, but there are also many who find they help with mission by creating opportunities for outreach and community engagement, and by creating buildings which can be used more flexibly and easily by local groups.”

The Third Church Estates Commissioner, Dr Eve Poole, described the consultation as a “a labour of love” and the paper as “deliberately capacious . . . the Master’s dissertation and not the Wikipedia entry. We took our task of simplification at face value.”

Many speakers paid tribute to Dr Poole and to Wendy Matthews, Head of Pastoral and Closed Churches for the Church Commissioners.

The Revd Julian Hollywell (Derby) drew a comparison between church buildings in rural areas and “vast Victorian temples like beached whales in a post-industrial landscape”. In one of his own parishes, a new community had formed: “If we were to leave a crumbling building, their mission value would not be diminished. It isn’t either/or. It’s both/and.”

Pastoral reorganisation raised all sort of anxieties for an anxious Church, the Archdeacon of St Helens and Warrington, the Ven. Simon Fisher (Liverpool), said. He wanted to see plain language around it. On the basis of the experience of Wigan, where seven new parishes had been created from the existing 28, he suggested a trial period before any pastoral reorganisation.

Canon David Brooke (Durham) also contributed experience of Wigan: “A massive reorganisation that stretched our resources to the limit.”

Canon Joyce Jones (Leeds) addressed the binary “open” or “closed” situation, suggesting a helpful interim state. More speedy processes were needed.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), approved of primary and secondary legislation and boundary working, and advocated getting rid of the number of different pastoral reorganisations: “Seven different ones is stupid.” All those things would help, but there was still a worry that it didn’t necessarily join up with a mixed ecology.

Emily Bagg (Portsmouth) acknowledged pastoral reorganisation to have been the right thing for the parish, but it had caused “deep harm to my husband, which led him to deeply question his calling”. Pastoral reorganisation was “a juggernaut that could not be stopped, even by the pandemic”. The tax implications of compensation had left the couple paying almost £20,000 on taxation at source. There had to be a better way, she said.

Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons (Leeds) referred to the dilemma of the Epiphany, Gipton: a 20th-century, Grade I listed building on a Leeds estate, with a “wow factor” but no community ownership of the building. Closing it would be the nuclear option. “If we are to retain responsibility for the nation’s treasures, it needs to be shared wider than the parish.”

Legislation must be in step with the imaginative ways of being a mission-shaped diocese, and that was not the case at present, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said. She declared it “ludicrous” that such endeavours could be stopped by one or two people, and pleaded for trust and joined-up thinking.

Martin Kingston (Gloucester) said that geographical flexibility and lay and clergy involvement was paramount. “Emily Bagg has highlighted the human face of getting it right. It needs to feel like something driven by local priorities: centrally only when some important principle or point of law is involved.”

Wendy Coombey (Hereford) urged conversation with the Government and with partners, so as not to jeopardise the mission activity of the Church, especially as it had emerged during the pandemic.

The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, emphasised the importance of keeping the ecclesiastical exemption, which would need detailed and long-term conversation with the Government and Treasury. She looked forward to “building up trust”.

Philip Blinkhorn (Manchester) said that all the current processes were built around occasional cases. It was no good continuing like that. “In Manchester, we are looking at multiple closures over a ten-year period. Some were failing before the pandemic: in the most egregious case, the PCC decided to close and hand the keys back to the diocese.”

Canon Simon Talbott (Ely) called for “a robust set of codes of practice, and HR and pastoral support for dispossessed clergy and families”.

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), wanted to ensure that there were enough checks and balances, but without putting blockages in place, and nothing that would undermine trust.

The Revd Michael Read (Manchester) knew from experience how hard it was for PCCs to make these decisions. There needed to be a period between decision and closure, with advance reports before any announcement went to the community.

Jay Greene (Winchester) urged members to come to their own conclusions and respond to the consultation.

The Revd Mark Lucas (Peterborough) said that the diversity of ecclesiastical expressions was one of the C of E’s great strengths, maintained in part by the patronage system: he was concerned that the report could be read as seeing it as a hindrance, and patronage would be abolished.

The motion was carried by 278-2, with seven recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod

a) welcome the consultation paper Mission in Revision: A Review of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 (GS 2222);

b) commend it for discussion; and

c) invite the Archbishops’ Council, the Legislative Reform Committee and the Church Commissioners to bring forward draft legislation for consideration by the Synod no later than July 2022.

An eight-week formal consultation period follows.

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