DESPAIR about the “salami-slicing” of ministry in the Church of England is shared by the Archbishop of York, a gathering of the Save the Parish movement heard on Thursday.
Fielding a series of questions about cuts to stipendiary posts, the distribution of the Church Commissioners’ millions, and deep distrust between the Church’s centre and the parishes, Archbishop Cottrell oscillated between empathy for the concerns expressed, and rebuttals of claims that he deemed unfair or inaccurate. He concluded with a plea that the movement pay better attention to “the whole ecosystem of the Church”.
The gathering, at All Saints’, Pavement, in York, took place on the eve of the General Synod’s meeting this week. It is now almost a year since the founding of Save the Parish, which put up for election to the Synod candidates committed to “resist any further centralisation of power and authority away from parishes and towards dioceses and the central Church” (News, 4 August 2021).
Members have been outspoken in their criticism of the Church’s leadership, and Archbishop Cottrell spoke last year of experiencing “many sleepless nights” over claims that the Church’s leadership was seeking to dismantle the parish system (News, 28 September 2021).
Yet he denied that addressing this week’s gathering felt like entering the lion’s den, comparing it instead to taking up position in the stocks at a church fête: “If you’ve got some wet sponges, throw away.” He had invited himself to the event, he said, in search of “a better conversation”, and as a demonstration of his belief that “we all want the same thing”.
He shared concerns about the amalgamation of parishes and piecemeal cuts to clergy posts, he said. He was also afraid that the Commissioners’ commitment to intergenerational equity could mean that “we may end up where the Church of England itself has collapsed, but we are very, very wealthy”.
But he offered, too, a defence of Vision and Strategy, the roadmap for the Church in the 2020s, which includes a commitment to a “mixed ecology” of different expressions of church, alongside the parish system (News, 27 November 2020).
“I absolutely believe that the best way to save the parish is to grow the Church; the best way to grow the Church is to preach the Gospel; the best way to preach the Gospel is to live a life which is centred on Christ,” he said. “Though you may have some misgivings about some aspects of the so-called Vision and Strategy of the Church of England, I am not going to apologise for saying that . . . what really matters in our Church is a spiritual and theological renewal around that life in Christ. If we led more Christ-like lives, then we would see our churches flourish. . . I despair when we are at each other’s throats.”
The Archbishop’s interrogator was Canon Giles Fraser, Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew, and a member of the Save the Parish steering committee. He spoke of “anxiety that the centre of gravity is shifting away . . . as clergy numbers have been cut and parishes become more and more amalgamated and bigger, and that there are more and more people around the diocesan photocopier doing jobs that we don’t understand, and this creates a sort of crisis of trust.” This generated loud applause.
Questions from the floor included one from a deanery served by three-and-half stipendiary clergy in a diocese where there were now 12 full-time members of a Vision and Strategy department and full-time area deans. A churchwarden described how his group of six churches had been told that they were no longer to fund their house-for-duty priest out of parish share. In another diocese, 22 priests had been “made redundant”.
The Archbishop, who, as Bishop of Chelmsford, announced deep cuts to stipendiary posts (News 9 June 2020), insisted, with “no caveat, no qualifications”, that he wanted more priests. But he asked for more empathy for bishops in poor dioceses without large historic assets having to make “painful decisions. . . Please don’t think that anybody who makes these decisions wants to make them.
“Most of the questions I’m hearing from the floor are coming from a despair, which I understand and share, about what I call a salami-slicing of the ministry of the Church of England. In knockout whist, every time the cards are dealt you get one less. I think that’s how it feels in the Church of England. . .
“All I’m saying is this isn’t some nasty conspiracy from the top. This is because the Church of England has been in decline for a long while. . . So we’ve ended up salami slicing. I want that to stop. . . That’s not the way to save the parish. But, equally, if you want there to be a different sort of episcopate, a different sort of structure to the Church of England, the answer isn’t to cut a bishop here, cut a bishop there: we need to have a plan so that we are looking it as a whole.”
He cautioned against any assumption that restructuring the Church, through reducing the number of dioceses or bishops, was a simple affair. But he noted that the new chair of the Dioceses Commission, Dame Caroline Spelman, had experience of reorganising local government (“Let the reader understand”).
And he agreed with Canon Fraser that simply amalgamating parishes was not the answer to the Church’s woes. And neither was closing churches. His preferred solution was “doing ministry differently”, something that the Church had been “exploring with some success and some failures over the last ten years”. This entailed parish priests’ having “more of an oversight role than perhaps would have been the case.
“All of us have a responsibility for ministry and mission in the Church, and I want us to be a Church where pastoral care is shared — and, indeed, ministry is shared — by everyone,” he said. “The job of the priest . . . is not to do all the ministry but to make sure the ministry is done.”
When it came to claims about a growth in central costs, he sought to emphasise diversity of practice in the dioceses, while defending a certain amount of expenditure. “In order to have a parish system, you need a certain amount of infrastructure.” This included safeguarding, legal services, and diocesan boards of education.
But he acknowledged that, in some dioceses, the balance between centre and parish “might” be wrong. In York, he said, he needed to be able to go to the poorest parishes, where people were giving the equivalent of the widow’s mite, and say: “Here in this diocese we are spending that money that you give us for a single purpose, which is to support the work of the gospel through the Church.”
Areas of agreement were alighted on. While noting that the Church Commissioners had just announced a large increase in the money to be distributed to dioceses (News, 11 May), he echoed calls by the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, for a wider conversation about how the Church’s assets are used (News, 28 May 2021). There was a need for “a big conversation with ourselves about the whole notion of intergenerational equity”, he suggested.
“It’s an honourable principle,” he said, but “I think there is an argument to say we could dig into our money. . . I think you’d be hard pressed to find a bishop who disagrees. . . And, speaking personally, I would like money to go to a low-income communities fund. Our poorest parishes need help.”
The gathering applauded Canon Fraser’s articulation of anxiety that the current distribution of money “favours a particular sort of churchmanship, a particular sort of Evangelical Christianity, and is, in a sense, a subtle way of shifting the centre of gravity theologically in the Church of England so we become HTB” [Holy Trinity, Brompton].
This was a fear “not without some substance”, the Archbishop said. “But it simply isn’t fair or true to say that is how all the money was spent.” He was aware that among those present was a young priest whose curacy in an Anglo-Catholic church in an impoverished area of Essex had been paid for by Strategic Development Fund money. And, in the light of the recent Chote review of the SDF programme, changes had been made, he said (News, 10 March).
The lack of trust between the Centre and parishes was a source of “despair”, he confessed. “I hate it. . . All I can say to you is, I will get things wrong. I will sometimes say the wrong thing, and I am trying to apologise when I do, but I am telling you what’s on my heart. I believe that the way we want to distribute this money is not ideologically led — or, at least, if it is I don’t want to be part of it.”
While emphasising his commitment to the parish, he closed his remarks with a gentle rebuke of the suggestion that all central money should go in this direction. He spoke of of the importance of chaplaincy, recalling how he had visited Sandhurst to confirm young men, ministered to by a chaplain, before they joined the front line of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Many vocations come out of chaplaincy. . . I ordain more people who came to faith through those routes than I do through parish routes. . . The Church is an eco-system, and it will flourish when every bit of it flourishes.”
Save the Parish would be “taken way more seriously” if it went beyond disagreeing with Vision and Strategy to identifying some aspects it could support, he suggested. “Just as I don’t want people to rubbish the Save the Parish movement, and, if I hear it, I will challenge it. I want to say to you: Don’t rubbish this . . . that isn’t fair.”
Concluding the discussion, Canon Fraser agreed that the Save the Parish movement “must not be defined by our anger and our disappointment”, and welcomed the engagement of the Archbishop, who concluded in prayer: “Where we have spoken ill of one another, we ask for opportunities to make amends, and we pledge ourselves in your service to work together for the building of your Kingdom so that Jesus may be made known.”