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General Synod digest: Strategic Development Funding results to be reviewed for 2024

15 July 2022
Sam Atkins/Church Times

Sir Robert Chote, the former head of the Government’s Office for Budget Responsibility, who had chaired the review team

Sir Robert Chote, the former head of the Government’s Office for Budget Responsibility, who had chaired the review team

Funding schemes

THE General Synod received a presentation about the review of the Church Commissioners’ two additional ministry-funding schemes, which were considered to be generally useful and successful. This was despite one scheme’s falling short of its targets for “new disciples”, the Synod heard on Saturday morning. It took note of the review, but also requested a follow-up report in two years’ time.

Sir Robert Chote, the former head of the Government’s Office for Budget Responsibility, who had chaired the review team, introduced its findings on both the Lowest Income Communities Funding (LICF) and Strategic Development Funding (SDF). LICF is a formula that delivers funding to dioceses on the basis of relative poverty identified in them, while SDF grants are applied for by dioceses to fund church-growth and ministry projects.

The money involved in both was “substantial”, but remained small compared with the Church’s overall spending, he told the Synod. The pandemic had significantly disrupted the two schemes. Dioceses had also been so badly affected by the coronavirus that they had had less capacity to apply for and to deliver these projects.

While both schemes were deemed valuable by the dioceses, the distribution of funds and the tradition of the churches benefiting from them remained highly contentious, Sir Robert continued. This had been expected when the review began, but the team, he said, were surprised at the lack of trust within the Church regarding this.

About 530 new ordained posts had been funded by SDF and LICF, alongside strategic reforms within dioceses, and other projects. “Many people do appear to also have been brought to faith,” Sir Robert said. Although the people deemed to be “new disciples” were fewer than had been expected at the start of the projects, this did not mean that SDF and LICF had failed, he insisted: they were only part-way through the schemes.

His review recommended the continuation of the schemes without tweaking the distribution formula. Innovation funding should be used to trial new ideas, Sir Robert suggested, before the SDF could roll out proven concepts at a wider level. The diocesan peer-review process, however, was not popular and should be re-examined, he said. There should also be help for churches and traditions without a track record of church-growth projects, which could limit the sense that SDF was favouring one faction over others in the C of E. The effectiveness of SDF and LICF would always depend on the action that the Church took in other areas, especially training for missional leaders, he concluded.

Opening the questions, the Revd Marcus Walker (London) said that he did not share Sir Robert’s optimism about the funding. Hundreds of millions of pounds were being spent, but, of the 89,000 new disciples hoped for, only 13,000 had been delivered. Could this money have been better spent on stipendiary ministry in the parishes, he asked.

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, asked what processes there were to adjust and re-examine progress as projects unfolded over time.

Sir Robert said that he had been tasked only with examining the SDF and LICF programmes against their objectives rather than looking at how the money could have been spent elsewhere. Distributing the same money more widely without any focus would probably have been less effective, he said. It was “very difficult to predict, forecast, and measure” these kinds of projects, but agreed that the attempt was important.

The Revd Matthew Beer (Lichfield), who leads an SDF-funded project in Telford, said that he and his colleagues felt “voracious contempt” from diocesan peers, despite having worked hard in difficult areas of the country. Could the communication about the importance of their work be improved, he asked.

Emma Gregory (Bath & Wells) asked whether counting new Christians included those who had moved to the C of E from other denominations, or even from different Anglican parishes.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Northern Suffragans), said that the review had been comparing apples and pears. LICF and SDF were very different (one long-term and one short-term), and he asked which of the two was better at fostering ministry.

Responding, Sir Robert said that the question of communication had been considered, but admitted that there was more to be done on establishing who was responsible for what, especially with SDF, which was often seen as something “done to” local areas by the national Church. When it came to transfer growth, he said, there had been studies in particular contexts and, in most cases, for SDF and LICF projects, this had been taken into account when measuring new disciples. He declined to be drawn on Bishop North’s question, but suggested that some degree of failure had to be built into any experimentation process, or it would not be trying hard enough.

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liverpool), asked whether there should be any diocesan peer-review scheme, and, if so, how the current “unpopular” one could be improved.

Sir Robert said that the current scheme had not shared lessons learned between dioceses very effectively. This should be the focus of any renewed programme.

 

INTRODUCING the take-note debate, the chair of the Church’s Strategic Investment Board, John Spence, said that both schemes had been brought in in 2014, replacing the Darlow formula.

The review had been hugely fruitful, Mr Spence said, and the LICF formula and distribution would be reconsidered during the next triennium. With regard to SDF, the need for better engagement with dioceses and more transparency had been clearly recognised. Quoting the C of E’s Vision and Strategy, he said that the SDF needed also to be simpler, humbler, and bolder.

Of the 69 projects agreed under SDF so far, only six had reached their completion, he noted. It was still too early to draw lasting conclusions about the whole scheme. “The full fruits of the harvest will only be forthcoming as the years go by.” He would be happy to accept the soon-to-be-moved motion from Clive Billenness (Europe) proposing another review in two years’ time.

The Revd Barry Hill (Leicester) praised the concept of resource churches, which, he said, were not excessively focused on numerical growth, but on being healthy communities. While SDF was not perfect, it was helping the Church to reach new places. Vastly more churches had started than closed down in recent years, he suggested, and he urged the Synod to “reject scarcity and live in abundance”.

Fr Walker supported the motion, but asked how this money could be spent while some dioceses were cutting posts because of small deficits. Any subsequent report should count those who had stopped coming to church because of the ending of Darlow funding and the subsequent closing or merging or parishes, he argued.

Abigail Scott (Bristol), a member of a congregation planted from a diocesan resource church, was grateful for the SDF grants that had made this possible, she said. Her church, less than a year old, had already had dozens of people come back to church or join for the first time. It also had a thriving youth group. She urged the Synod to support further investment in this kind of ministry.

Responding, Mr Spence said that he understood the financial plight of dioceses. The laying off of priests, especially in his own diocese, kept him awake at night, but the new funding had been launched against the backdrop of declining attendance for 50 years. SDF could not be responsible for what had happened before 2014, he said. Neither could it be held responsible for the pandemic.

In hindsight, he said, old SDF grants had come with overly precise aims of new Christians. “You cannot predict one new church will result in an exact number of new pilgrims.” Furthermore, SDF amounted to only two per cent of the annual spending of the C of E.

The Revd Tim Bateman (Birmingham) said that SDF had made a huge impact for the gospel in his area. He urged the Church to continue to support city-centre resource churches like his. The initial injection of funding had been multiplied again and again, with four new church-plants and a fifth planned for 2023.

Penny Allen (Lichfield) asked whether the SDF could assess how many people were engaging digitally with church, and whether the funding could be extended for successful projects in poorer dioceses.

The Revd Paul Bradbury (Salisbury), a pioneer minister, said that making new disciples took time. The Church did not have the luxury of providing more funds for more of the same, he argued: any sensible organisation would invest in innovation, some of which would inevitably fail.

Mr Spence paid tribute to the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, for his leadership in creating a diocesan strategy for renewal, often through resource churches such as Gas Street. He also agreed with Mr Bradbury’s call for more innovation and long-term thinking, and told Ms Allen that several projects would be extended with further funding, owing to the effects of Covid.

The Archbishop of York said that Fr Walker had put his finger on a real issue: the question of balance. There was a need to innovate, as carrying on doing the same thing was not the answer. At the same time, parish ministry and clergy must be honoured, and the right balance had not yet been found, he suggested. His own diocese was facing huge financial challenges, and without the new financial regime post-Darlow they would not have been given the resources they needed to transform parish ministry.

The Synod took note of the report.

Mr Billenness then moved his motion, which called for a second review of SDF and LICF to report back in 2024, assessing the progress against the recommendations from the current review. This was standard practice in the audit process, he said. Knowing that the reviewers were coming back sharpened minds everywhere.

Emma Joy Gregory (Bath & Wells), supporting the motion, referred to Fr Walker’s call to reconsider the balance of spending. The Revd Jack Shepherd (Liverpool) also backed a further report in 2024, but asked if whether it could be more rigorously theological. The Revd Matthew Beer (Lichfield) agreed, calling for more stories in a subsequent report.

Roy Faulkner (Leicester) asked that the second review consider the definition of a “new disciple”, which was currently “very woolly and subjective”.

Julie Dziegel (Oxford) asked how much another report would cost and whether two years was too short a timeframe.

The motion was carried:

That his Synod, acknowledging with gratitude the enormous value of the independent review performed by Sir Robert Chote and his colleagues, request the Strategic Investment Board commission a follow-up independent review to determine the extent to which the recommendations of and lessons learned from this review have been implemented, and with what success. The results of such a follow-up review to be made available to General Synod for consideration when it meets in July 2024.

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