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Parishioners fear ‘brutal cuts’ to clergy posts

13 May 2022

Resource-church programme has failed, says group in Truro diocese


Falmouth, Cornwall

Falmouth, Cornwall

“BRUTAL cuts” to clergy posts in the diocese of Truro are on the horizon, a group of concerned parishioners has warned.

The group of eight, from four of the diocese’s 12 deaneries, includes several PCC members and a lay member of the General Synod. They have formed a new branch of Save the Parish, and written to the diocese’s bishops calling for a public audit of the £6 million budget for a resource-church programme.

The group argues that the programme has failed to work, and that funds would be better spent on increasing clergy numbers.

The letter, published last month, states: “The diocese is haemorrhaging funds to support programmes that appear fundamentally flawed. The annual results of each TM [“Transforming Mission” programme] will have been audited and compared with budget.

“We call on you to publish this information which surely should be in the public domain and openly available. The future of our congregations, the use of our churches with formally trained priests practicing in them — indeed our entire way of church life — is at stake.”

This week, the Bishop of St Germans, the Rt Revd Hugh Nelson, defended the “outstanding work” of the resource-church programme and the diocese’s commitment to “grass-roots” deanery planning. He was critical of the group’s decision to publish their intervention on social media before receiving a response from the diocesan bishop.

The debate takes place against financial challenges in the Church of England. Truro has reserves and endowments of more than £100 million, making it, by population, one of the top ten wealthiest dioceses in the country. But the collection rate of the annual parish contributions to the Ministry and Mission Fund (MMF), otherwise known as parish share, is the lowest in the C of E: just 63 per cent in 2020. Contributions fell by 23 per cent — £900,000 — between 2017 and 2020, and just one quarter of parishes paid their contribution in full.

Truro thus has an operating budget deficit of £1.4 million p.a. — and has used a grant from the Church Commissioners’ Lowest Income Communities Funding to plug the gap.

Numbers of stipendiary clergy have been falling for decades. The Board of Finance has expressed concern that “simply reducing the cost of ministry by cutting stipendiary posts (typically by not replacing clergy when they leave posts and by organising ever-larger benefices) does not obviously serve the flourishing of the local church”, but the diocese reported in 2019 that most deanery plans had “focused on reducing stipendiary clergy numbers to drive costs down towards the current MMF payment”.

The 2022 budget, approved last year, included plans to move to a balanced budget in 2023, noting that this would require “significant change” at local level. A background paper stated that 20 clergy houses would be sold by the end of the year, and the number of stipendiary curates reduced to 12 (from 18 in 2020).

The budget also contains a projected decrease in the number of budgeted full-time stipendiary clergy posts, from 60 to 52, while emphasising that this may change depending on what emerges from deanery planning. The budget is predicated on all churches’ paying their parish share in full, and fully covering the cost of ministry in their deanery.

The diocese has named the deanery planning process “On the Way”, and has asked deaneries to produce plans for a “fruitful and sustainable” future against this backdrop. The Save the Parish group has called for a moratorium, saying that it is unpopular and has “resulted in the alienation of many older, long-standing members of congregations”. It reports that it has “already resulted in brutal cuts to clergy with yet more strongly mooted”. In East Wivelshire deanery, it had been proposed that half the stipendiary posts be cut, and all alternative proposals have been “roundly squashed”, it says.

Although the diocese has made a commitment to reduce its central costs by £250,000 in 2023, the Save the Parish group this week pointed out that it was recruiting a “director of change and renewal” on a pro-rata salary of £50,000.

On Tuesday, the Bishop of St Germans, the Rt Revd Hugh Nelson, defended On the Way, describing it as “an intentionally grass-roots led initiative. . . It is not about top-down imposition: indeed, the bishops don’t even see the final plans until they have been approved locally.”

And he defended investment in the “Transforming Mission” programme, which is currently running in five areas in Cornwall and is based on the resource-church model “tailored to fit a Cornish context”. The Church Commissioners are funding 60 per cent of the cost through the Strategic Development Fund (SDF), and the diocese covers the remainder by drawing on reserves.

The project began in Falmouth in 2017, with SDF funding for five years, with a second successful bid extending it to four more areas in 2019: Camborne, Truro, St Austell, and Liskeard. The aims for the Falmouth project were ambitious, including growth in weekly all-age attendance in the town’s five parishes to 520 adults and 130 children by this year. It was hoped that, by this year, the town would be “a resource for church planting and Fresh Expressions across the centre and west of the diocese”.

Aims for Phase 2 included establishing new worshipping communities in each area, and new community outreach hubs. The intention was that, within six years of the start of funding, each Transforming Mission church would be fully self-sufficient. In each of the six areas, the churches have recruited staff, including youth leaders, worship leaders, and operations managers.

The rationale for the Transforming Mission programme, outlined in its 2017 bid for Strategic Development Funding, was that, in the diocese, “none of the larger towns have obviously thriving Anglican congregations at their heart.” It was “widely recognised that simply continuing to appoint parish priests in the traditional model does not lead to the growth of the Church”.

Far from transforming the diocese’s fortunes, however, the Save the Parish group says that there are “clear indications” that Transforming Mission “simply is not working. In Camborne, for example, the Cluster has no apparent success in generating either new worshippers or the avalanche of new funds that were due to come in with them. Yet at the same time, tens of thousands of pounds are being spent on cosmetics e.g. floodlights at the church, while homeless people are living in a nearby carpark in shipping containers. . .

“We believe that resources dedicated to increasing the number of clergy, both stipendiary and non-stipendiary would be an effective alternative strategy.”

The diocese has published some progress reports on TM. In Falmouth, a new church, New Street, launched in 2019, has grown to a regular gathering of between 50 and 80 people and is now based at All Saints’, where the congregation has also grown.

A café, Huddle, closed in 2020, owing to a failure to make enough money to run it as a commercial enterprise, and with the pandemic exacerbating problems; but there are plans to continue to make use of the site. In 2020, Holy Trinity, in St Austell, raised £420,000 to buy a local pub, the Hop & Vine. The TM churches have also rolled out a variety of initiatives locally, including online resources, a parenting course, resources for schools, an afterschool club, and new communities for young adults.

All TM work was “happening in and through local churches, and is an investment in the life and ministry of the parish,” Bishop Nelson said. He noted high levels of deprivation in TM areas, and said that the teams were “actively engaging with such communities”. He pointed out that, with the diocese reporting the lowest number of children and young people engaged in church life of any diocese, the TM churches were doing “outstanding work to connect with that demographic”.

He continued: “Covid hit the life and ministry of TM Churches hard. We are currently working with them, their wider deaneries, and the Church Commissioners to decide how best to reset the work of TM in the post-Covid world. None the less we are very proud of the skill, faith, and creativity of all our TM teams, and look forward to seeing even more fruit coming from their work in the future.”

In a presidential address last year, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, described Save the Parish as “reacting to what I believe to be a non-existing threat” — a central plan to “do away with the parish system” — but agreed that real threats to the system existed. It was “unsustainable” for the cost of ministry in deaneries to be outstripping their MMF contributions, he warned. He cautioned against “letting ‘parish’ become shorthand for ‘traditional’ and ‘unchanging’: that would be a travesty of the reality”, and the belief that “everything depends on the clergy and we look to them to do everything.”

In a response to the STP group received last week, Bishop Mounstephen refused a meeting, referring to the group’s decision to go to the press first. “While we remain committed to listening and dialogue, we are clear that social media is not the right place for that conversation to take place,” Bishop Nelson said.

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