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Synod hears about the pain of pastoral reorganisation

12 July 2021

YouTube/Church of England

Emily Bagg, describing the effect on her husband of being dispossessed

Emily Bagg, describing the effect on her husband of being dispossessed

PASTORAL reorganisation was “a juggernaut that could not be stopped even by the pandemic”, a distressed lay member told the General Synod on Monday. Her clergy husband had been dispossessed.

The Synod was debating the proposal to reform and simplify of the complex legal systems and processes contained in the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011. The Measure enables 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 considered unwieldy. A Green Paper from the Church Commissioners acknowledges that the pandemic has only emphasised the need for a review, as parishes struggle with increased social, demographic, and financial pressures.

In a Church historically committed to be a presence in every community, the paper notes that the ratio of clergy to people is now one to 5528. It recognises that clergy spend more and more time on governance, fabric, and compliance; volunteers and those willing to serve as church officers are ageing and coming forward in declining numbers; and the burden on volunteers has increased, with complicated and specialised compliance, and financial pressures on the parish share.

Changing the pattern of ministry is “a sensitive process”, the paper 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 1 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 Estates Commissioner, Eve Poole, described the consultation as “a labour of love” and the paper as “deliberately capacious . . . the Masters dissertation and not the Wikipedia entry. We took our task of simplification at face value.”

In the subsequent debate on the paper, there were 17 speakers, including three bishops, but none more powerful than Emily Bagg, from Portsmouth.

She 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 financial arrangements for compensation offered to her husband had left the couple paying almost £20,000 in taxation at source. There had to be a better way, she said.

She spoke early in the debate, expressing the personal cost of church closures. Clergy speakers recounted their experiences: the Revd Julian Holloway (Derby) drew a comparison between church buildings in rural areas and “vast Victorian temples like beached whales in a post-industrial landscape”. Within 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.”

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.”

Martin Kingston (Gloucester) said that the review was desperately needed. 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.”

Legislation must be in step with the imaginative ways of being a mission-shaped diocese, and that wasn’t 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.

Many speakers referred to the need for more government help. Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons (Leeds) cited the dilemma of the Epiphany Church, 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, she said. “If we are to retain responsibility for the nation’s treasures, it needs to be shared wider than the parish.”

An eight-week formal consultation period follows, after which legislation for a new Measure will be drafted by early 2022.

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