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Leicester diocese weighs plans for minster communities

07 October 2021

Bishop Snow insists parishes ‘not under threat’

Diocese of Leicester

A diagram of the three proposed models, used in local conversations, this year

A diagram of the three proposed models, used in local conversations, this year

A NEW diocese-wide framework for ministry, finance, and buildings, under which Leicester’s 234 parishes would be brought into 20 to 25 “minster communities”, will be voted on by the diocesan synod on Saturday.

It comes as the diocese faces what the last chair of the board of finance describes as “a financially unsustainable future”, and prepares to reduce its full-time stipendiary posts by 20 per cent in the next five years.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, insisted this week that the plan presented “no threat” to parishes.

The framework envisages that parishes in minster communities will “collaborate in mission without losing their individual identity”, according to diocesan documents. They will work alongside Fresh Expressions and schools, and share finances “realistically and generously”.  The community will often be resourced from a “Minster Church”. While each church will have an appointed minister, this may be ordained or lay. The “oversight leader” of each minster community may also be lay. The diocese has confirmed that, at a minimum, each minster community will have at least one stipendiary cleric in addition to other clergy, and that “sacramental provision is assured.”

The number of full-time stipendiary posts in the diocese is expected to fall to 80 by 2026, the reduction to be achieved through retirements and moves. In 2020, there were 98 stipendiary clergy and 31 training curates in the diocese. It is expected that, at first, most of the 80 to 90 stipendiary positions budgeted for will be stipendiary clergy, but a diocesan summary explained: “Our aspiration is for increased lay ministry working alongside clergy across the diocese.”

If the new framework is agreed, PCCs will be expected to vote on local arrangements within the next two to three years. Work is under way on using the provision in the Church Representation Rules to create Joint Church Councils. “The legal rights of incumbents and PCCs will be fully respected, while also recognising that ministry in the diocese is shared with the bishop and with the whole people of God,” the Synod paper states.

On Wednesday, a diocesan spokesperson said: “We’re confident that, through a process of continued conversation, the vast majority of incumbents and PCCs will see the benefits of this approach. We know that some parishes will adopt this more quickly than others, and 2026 allows for churches to move at different paces.”

Saturday’s diocesan-synod meeting is the culmination of the “Shaped by God Together” process, which began in September 2020, and has included more than 400 local conversations held in May and June this year.

An explanatory video issued in April stated: “We’ve known for some time — both nationally in the Church of England and in our diocese — that our ways of doing and supporting mission and ministry, our use of our buildings, and our financial models are no longer suited if we want to be a missional Church. . . The world is changing, and church needs to change, too.” The current model of ministry was described as “inadequate and unsustainable”.

The diocese was initially presented with three models of ministry, and the current framework is a hybrid of the first two: the minister-churches model (teams of clergy and associate ministers based in minsters, sent out to support ministry in other congregations, with parish ministry done mainly by volunteers), and the mission-areas model, akin to that adopted in the Church in Wales (groups of churches clustering together across a geographical area).

New models in which parishes are grouped into larger “mission” units are being adopted in several dioceses, supported by centrally funded multi-million-pound Strategic Transformation Fund grants (Features, 10 September). While the new model in the Church in Wales was preceded by a review concluding that the parish system as originally set up was “no longer sustainable”, the paper introducing the Leicester framework insists that the parish will be “central to our life and witness”.

Bishop Snow said this week: “The parish remains the backbone of the Church of England and will remain so in our diocese where our proposed new framework aims to bring them help for some of the onerous burdens they currently bear, for example, help with admin and maintaining buildings, and it presents no threat to them. Rather than removing any of their decision-making responsibilities or powers, it aims to empower parishes to get on with ‘being’ church.”

A diocesan spokesperson said: “We still hold to the Church of England principle of a Christian presence in every community, but it will continue to be the case that not every community will be able to have its own stipendiary vicar.” As for lay leadership: “One of the challenges is that some churches have literally scores of people doing such things, some have none. This framework aims to help churches and other worshipping communities to learn from each other.”

While the paper states that, even were money not an issue, “we’d need to do something like this,” the financial challenge is pressing. This week, Stephen Barney, chair of the Leicester diocesan board of finance from 2008 until this year, said that for the past decade the diocese had spent more than £1 million a year above the funding raised by parishes, in addition to grants of £5 million given directly to many parishes. This had been funded largely by the sale of property, making short-term capital gains but losing investment income of more than £600,000 per year.

The diocese, like many others, faced “a financially unsustainable future”, he said. “This is not because ‘central costs’ are out of control — although cost reductions and job losses, very regrettably, are planned— it is because we have more clergy than we can afford. . .

“I can detect no discernible change to the decline in membership or parish contribution which has been going on for many years, despite these major investments by the diocese. We cannot continue to do this for much longer, because unrestricted reserves will run out within two years.”

The Synod paper speaks of the need to “challenge parishes which have seen growth in unrestricted reserves over many years to contribute more realistically towards the cost of the ministry”, noting that unrestricted funds held by parishes grew by approximately £2 million in 2019-20.

Since 2014, the diocese has received £8.7 million in strategic development funding, including support for Fresh Expressions (it aims for the number to equal “inherited churches” by 2030) (News, 4 October 2019) and £5.3 million towards a £16-million project for church growth in city-centre and market-town locations, with a goal to double the number of worshippers across all forms of church by 2030 (News, 13 July 2018).

Its financial woes have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, parish contributions fell by £429,000 — 9.4 per cent — and overall income was down by 20 per cent. An overall loss of £1.83 million was recorded — even greater than forecast — and the annual report warned of another deficit in 2022 and “further difficult decisions”. The aim is to break even in 2023.

Among the concerns raised in an online Q&A process during the consultation was the danger that pastoral relationships would suffer “if priests are not able to be a sacramental presence within their communities”. It was said that all new churches must be “baptismal and eucharistic”, but that the diocese lacked “diversity of style”, currently. Questions were also asked about how to “grow all of these new leader lay people so quickly” and how the framework would cohere with the parish system.

On Tuesday, Shayne Ardron, an hon. lay canon of Leicester Cathedral and member of the Bishop’s Council, spoke of the need for a “culture change” to a more “Kingdom-focused” outlook. “It’s how can the Church engage with the community around it and enable that to become more of a place of Kingdom in the way we treat one another and behave and what we notice? . . . That’s a huge culture change, because we have always been more church-focused — what the church puts on and what the church does.”

Some of the roles that lay people were called to had not previously been recognised, she said. She had worked with some with “an incredible heart for journeying with people in their faith and discipleship, coming alongside people and helping them through their faith journeys”.

She was also a member of the Bishop’s Council who had reviewed feedback, and acknowledged that responses varied “enormously depending on what kind of parish you came from. . . Some people are very nervous about changes, because they are not sure how it’s going to lie, but it’s where do we gain our strength from? And our strength isn’t from the church structures: our strength is from God.”

The diocesan resourcing-church enabler, the Revd Barry Hill, who is Team Rector in the Harborough Team Ministry, with five parish churches in the “central” Anglican tradition, said: “As we try to lean further into our calling to serve all in our parishes — not just our congregations — this new strategy is full of potential to help us. Overall it feels realistic, visionary and challenging. . .

“I suspect no Christian is ever going to sell everything they own for any ministry model or relational arrangement between churches, but we’ll sacrifice a lot to see the Kingdom grow in breadth and depth.

“Whether this new strategy fulfils its potential is up to us in parishes and the diocese as a whole and how much we are willing to work to keep rejecting the temptations of ecclesial narcissism, false binaries, defensiveness, and zero-sum games. If it works as intended, it will help us be better parish churches. I am hopeful, but not naïve, that this is possible.”

In a short film issued on Monday, Bishop Snow said that it was likely that the framework would be “piloted in one or two areas”. He stressed that the vote of the diocesan synod would be respected. A two-thirds majority was sought and if the vote fell “well short . . . then we will be absolutely clear that that is a rejection of the proposals and we will need to rethink”. The framework offered the opportunity for churches to “grow and flourish”, he said.

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