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Fewer dioceses, specialist bishops: Archbishops’ confidential paper revealed in detail

08 February 2022


Map of the Anglican dioceses in the UK in 1897

Map of the Anglican dioceses in the UK in 1897

A REDUCTION in the number of dioceses, and reforms to the shape of episcopal ministry, are part of the “significant change” to which “God is calling” the Church of England, a paper produced by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London suggests.

In the confidential paper, presented to the College of Bishops in September and seen by the Church Times this week, the three authors write of their conviction that “God is calling us to embrace significant change.” This will entail being prepared to “surrender much that we have held dear, but which we now believe may well now be hindering our mission. . .

“We believe that there will need to be significant changes to how dioceses are structured, the number and nature of them as well as serious consideration being given to the behaviours and ways of working of bishops as we move beyond the events of 2020 and 2021.”

Entitled A consultation document: Bishops and their ministry fit for a new context, the paper draws on a “listening exercise” conducted by a task group commissioned by the Archbishops and the Bishop of London. This task group comprised the vice-chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, Maggie Swinson; the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway; and the chair of the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Mark Sheard. The exercise entailed 80 one-hour interviews with “key stakeholders”, including all 42 diocesan bishops.

Taking this into account, the paper sets out the “initial conclusions” of Archbishops Welby and Cottrell and Bishop Mullally, giving options for change. In making the case for change, they list a number of areas of concern: the fact that the current deployment of bishops and diocesan structures do not reflect current population patterns; that many suffragan bishops do not have specific responsibility for leading mission in a territorial area; concerns about the costs of diocesan offices; and the fact that data on giving as a percentage of income “strongly suggests that the majority of dioceses are not capable of sustaining themselves”.

The paper speaks of a continued commitment to bishops rooted in place: “The norm should be that bishops have responsibility for leading mission in a particular area.” It envisages “significant reform to the role of Suffragans to clarify the post-holders’ roles and responsibilities — with a clear focus on territorial focus”. Noting that most of the Church’s 52 suffragan bishops do not have direct oversight for a distinct area, unlike the 20 area bishops, it warns: “We should not perpetuate Suffragan bishops who are just ‘spare parts’ in the system.”

But after stating that “each major population centre should have an oversight leader with the responsibility for the development of the Church’s mission in that area,” it questions whether such leaders must be bishops, citing archdeacons or area deans as possible alternatives.

The paper also explores the potential to go beyond the geographical model of episcopacy. It cites a recent review of the See of Islington by the Dioceses Commission, which found that such posts “help us avoid the gravitational pull towards ‘business as usual’ and to embrace a new paradigm and culture”. The See was revived after almost a century in 2015, when Dr Ric Thorpe was given a non-territorial bishopric dedicated to church-planting (News, 6 March 2015).

The paper contends that: “The style of missionary bishop is both an historic one in England, and a contemporary one in other parts of the globe. Yet no clear funding mechanism appears to exist within the Church’s current model which requires bishops to operate as Suffragans within a see, and therefore imposes a funding burden on the diocese. . .

“We believe that if one of the core purposes of the episcopacy is to lead and equip the Church for mission, it seems clear that the model of non-territorial missionary bishops should be both endorsed and enabled — and in all probability expanded.”

Another recommendation appears to run counter to this: that all bishops appointed to ensure provision for particular constituencies on the basis of theological conviction — Provisional Episcopal Visitors — should have “episcopal roles in one diocese as well as network responsibilities”.

The rationale given is that: “This would mean having a larger overall number of such colleagues. It would also offer a much more equal access to the experience that would enable them to be considered to be diocesan bishops.” The paper notes the importance of listening to the “lived experience of bishops, in particular female diocesan bishops, as part of this process going forward”.

When it comes to the 26 Lords Spiritual, the paper suggests that reform of the House of Lords is “inevitable at some stage”, concluding that: “The Church should seek to shape at least the elements of reform that will impinge on the Lords Spiritual from within before they are imposed. In practice we believe this implies both a reduction in number of Lords Spiritual and the attachment of those roles to specific sees rather than by rotational allocation.”

Increasing the number of “non-territorial bishops” could open up the opportunity to develop “non-diocesan episcopal roles to speak into particular issues”, it suggests. “This might be particularly appropriate for bishops who no longer feel called to serve as Diocesans, or who have a very particular passion and knowledge on a particular subject. These roles could also be fixed term. Examples might have been the appointment of a Brexit bishop; or a Covid bishop.”

This would differ from the present framework of “Lead Bishops”, whereby a bishop becomes the policy lead and public spokesperson on a specific topic such as prisons or housing.

The authors write of wanting “actively to welcome episcopal ministry being offered in new ways”. (House for Duty or self-supporting bishops are mentioned.) When it comes to term lengths, “further consideration” is being given to the possibility of setting a seven-year limit on service as a diocesan bishop, and to the possibility of appointing bishops for a fixed term of five years “to inhabit a specific development role”.


THE shape of episcopal ministry is one half of the paper. The other is the diocesan structure. A reduction in the number of dioceses is highly likely, it suggests (“given everything else that is happening, we will be moving to having fewer dioceses over time”). The authors note with concern that 27 of the 42 dioceses are operating on deficit budgets.

Against a backdrop of grassroots concern about reductions to stipendiary posts and the critique of expenditure on central support functions (News, 28 January), the paper suggests that the latter should be kept “as lean as possible to allow as much resource as possible to be focussed on ‘frontline mission and ministry’”.

All three of the options for reform set out are aimed at “allowing resources to be focused on ‘frontline’ staff — parish clergy and chaplains — and providing the benefit of reducing the ‘managerial’ time demands on bishops, in turn freeing them for more missional ministry.” But fewer dioceses “should not necessarily mean fewer bishops”, the paper cautions; “rather, perhaps bishops with more localised, apostolic and pastoral oversight. This might, in turn, require a focus on a reduction in the current differentials of stipend, housing, and public status.”

The first of the three options is “a programme of diocesan combinations where two or three dioceses come together . . . primarily on the basis of geographic adjacency”. It is mentioned that the dioceses of Rochester and Canterbury are “already well-advanced in conversation about closer working together which might lead to a union of two of the most ancient English dioceses”. There are plans to ask the Dioceses Commission to “look closely” at the East of England, the South West and the North East.

In November, a written response to a General Synod question confirmed that the Dioceses Commission had received “no instruction from the Archbishops or diocesan bishops to start developing schemes. Currently, no proposals for boundary reorganisation or for closer diocesan administrative working together have been received from dioceses.”

The second, “more radical” option set out in the paper is the creation of much larger dioceses on a regional level, with dioceses aligned more closely with civic and local authority structures.

The third is “the informal (or semiformal) pooling of back-office functions”. It makes reference to “a huge amount of duplication within a number of central diocesan functions”. But it cautions that, “whilst there has been some experimentation with pooled resources, these experiments have not been regarded as universally successful, and some have been abandoned.”

It is now 11 years since the scheme that led to the creation of the diocese of Leeds, was launched, entailing a major diocesan reorganisation in Yorkshire. Although some evaluation of the process has been undertaken, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has been critical of the failure of the Church to learn lessons from it (News, 29 October 2021).

A paper published last year by the then secretary to the Dioceses Commission, Jonathan Neil-Smith, reported that both staff numbers and staff salary costs had increased between 2015 and 2020, while noting that savings made might have been counterbalanced by additional expenditure in areas such as safeguarding. A reduction in attendance and giving more severe than the national average was also reported, alongside a warning about the use of a “crude yardstick” over a relatively short period of time.

Mr Neil-Smith observed that: “The experience of the last few years suggests that while there may be some scope for greater cross-border co-operation between dioceses, this area is unlikely to deliver huge benefits: if this had been the case, there would have been more energy behind this agenda.”

The Bishops and their ministry paper comes against a wider backdrop of reforms to the Church’s structures, including the governance review set to be debated by the General Synod this week (News, 17 September 2021). This refers to “general confusion . . . about the roles of bishops and about the relationship between them and other parts of the Church. . .

“The fact that bishops are so strongly identified with location potentially makes it more difficult for them to come to a collective, national view and/or be loyal to decisions taken in the national interest.

“Indeed, some have suggested that the nature of the episcopal appointment process may not produce the candidates best equipped for visionary national leadership if such candidates are chosen based on local needs rather than the broader make-up of the House of Bishops.

“On the other hand, it has been put to us that bishops’ closeness to, and understanding of, local activity added to their closeness to (and ability to influence) national activity gives them a unique, ‘bridging’ perspective which is valuable and needs to be nurtured and supported.”

Bishops and their ministry includes reflections on culture, drawing on feedback from the listening exercise that indicates a degree of unhappiness within the current College. There is reference to the importance of creating a culture “within which all bishops feel free to express their views in meetings of the House or College rather than deferring to those perceived as more senior in the ‘hierarchy’.”

The task group also heard that the selection and formation process for bishops was “not robust or transparent and is therefore open to ‘political’ manoeuvring”.

The Archbishops and Bishop of London describe their paper as “a first step in what will be a much longer process”, and refer to a “long-term horizon of around ten years”. A “pragmatic approach” to the implementation of changes should be taken, they suggest, “built, for example around the scheduled retirements of bishops”. Such an approach could help avoid “lengthy, exhaustive legal processes which sap energy and distract from the Church’s missional focus. It will also avoid reputational damage which would occur should the Church appear to be only in the process of managing decline.”

But their paper also conveys a determination to drive through change.

“The structure and culture of the Church of England, and the proliferation of ‘vested interest’ and diversified decision-making power structures make change difficult,” they write. “Yet if we are not prepared to change then fruit cannot be produced — this is a gospel truth.”

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