THE next Bishop of Salisbury will be the Dean of Gloucester, the Very Revd Stephen Lake. The move means a return to the diocese where he grew up and came to faith through the Scout movement.
On Thursday, he spoke of bringing the experience of running a multi-million-pound organisation at Gloucester to a diocese that warned, in its Statement of Need, that the next Bishop would have to make “tough and potentially unpopular decisions about finance and deployment”.
In December 2020, it was announced that Gloucester Cathedral had raised £1 million within six months to ensure that it remained open and fully operational during the Coronavirus pandemic (News, 21 May 2021).
Dean Lake, who succeeds the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, grew up in Poole. After training for ministry at the Anglo-Catholic Chichester Theological College (closed in 1994), he was ordained priest in 1989, serving his curacy at Sherborne Abbey with Castleton and Lillington. He was Priest-in-Charge and then Vicar of St Aldhelm’s with St Francis, Branksome, in Poole, from 1992, and appointed Rural Dean of Poole in 2000. In 2001, he was appointed Sub Dean of St Albans, spending a decade at the cathedral before taking up his present post as Dean of Gloucester in 2011.
He did not grow up in a Christian family, he said on Thursday, but joined the Scouts in Poole, in the parishes of St Peter, Parkstone and St Osmund with St Mary, Branksea. The founder of the Scouts, Lord Baden-Powell, was married at St Peter’s. “That didn’t mean anything to me then,” he recalled. “I just went to Cubs and Scouts. But it was through the ministry of the parish clergy, linking with their Scout group, that I became a server, discovered my own personal faith in Jesus Christ, and have given my whole life to it.”
Dean Lake’s publications include several that explore children’s ministry, including Reconnecting With Confirmation (Books, 8 April 2011), Let the Children Come to Communion (Books, 18 May 2007; News, 10 February 2006), and Welcoming Marriage: A practical and pastoral guide to the new legislation (Books, 17 April 2009).
Child average Sunday attendance in Salisbury diocese fell by 27 per cent to 1900 between 2014 and 2019.
It was important to “really listen” to children and young people, he said. “Especially as we come out of the times that we have had — they have had such a difficult time. . . I was found by good parish ministry, faithful clergy present, seeking out the children and young people to help the Church to grow, and I want to be doing that.” His first port of call after the announcement of his appointment was at the Diocesan Education Centre in Wilton.
Although attendance in the diocese is in decline, matching the trend across the Church, attendance per capita, at 2.3 per cent, is the fourth highest, and the ratio of clergy to people the second highest. Ninety-per-cent of Salisbury’s parishes are rural, most of which are in benefices of up to 15 churches. Half of the population lives in seven per cent of its parishes.
In 2017, it was awarded Strategic Development Funding of almost £1.3 million for its four-year “Rural Hope” programme, which seeks to “drive numerical and spiritual growth in churches through identifying, enthusing and equipping rural leaders of the future, and resourcing those who now minister in rural contexts”. The diocese has reported that it has become “increasingly difficult to attract clergy to rural benefices”, with an impact on ministry provision.
On Thursday, Dean Lake spoke of his desire to “get around as much as possible and to really try and listen to the folk who are in these places. In many ways, it’s the Christians in these smaller communities that are leading their communities. . . The Church has really made the difference and stepped up locally, so I will want that to continue and to encourage it, and to have sustainable worshipping communities just everywhere that we can be.”
The Statement of Need noted that the pandemic had “accelerated and exacerbated the (already pressing) challenges of declining and ageing congregations and the challenge of meeting the parish share with public worship suspended”.
It also referred to “the urgent need to address in a strategic way the future of some of our historic church buildings, especially where they are becoming impossible to sustain, despite the heroic efforts of volunteers”. The next bishop would need to be “resilient and will build trust to make the tough and potentially unpopular decisions about finance and deployment required to equip us for our current and future challenges”.
It was anticipated that the operational deficit would grow to £1.9 million in 2021. The diocesan strategy to close the gap depended, the Statement said, on “a limited reduction in stipendiary clergy and increasing parish-share contributions”. A reduction of four posts was agreed in 2021, with a further five to be cut this year.
Concerns about the future of the parish system were set out by several of the lay candidates from Salisbury who stood for election to the General Synod last year. Three were elected on the Save the Parish platform (News, 22 October 2021). Gill Verschoyle spoke of her concern about the growing size of benefices, shrinking numbers of clergy, and “the danger of more and more parish churches being closed, ripping out the heart from their communities”.
Dean Lake said on Thursday that questions of finance and deployment were “serious issues, and so we will want to take them seriously. That’s not glib in any sense — these things are serious because they are difficult.
“However, wherever I’ve been and served in the Church, there has always been financial issues to challenge us. Certainly in my current role — by everybody working together and being committed to each other — we’ve been able to solve many of those problems that in many ways are those questions that never go away.
“One of the things that I can bring to this role is that by being a dean and running a multi-million pound organisation in Gloucester Cathedral . . . [I am] able to bring some experience to these difficult questions.”
Asked about the Living in Love and Faith programme, he said: “I want to be as welcoming and as inclusive as we can be, but I think the process is really going to be very important: if barriers are set up before any listening is done then we don’t grow as the people of God.” Among his priorities would be “placing the needs of the vulnerable really high on our diocesan agenda”.
In 2020, it was agreed that the process should begin for the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey to be linked to the diocese of Salisbury (News, 14 February 2020). Once the process is complete, Dean Lake will become Bishop for the Channel Islands.
Dean Lake is a Church Commissioner and lead dean for safeguarding. He is married to Carol, and they have three adult children. It is expected that he will be consecrated Bishop after Easter and enthroned in Salisbury Cathedral late in the summer.
Gillian Clarke, chair of the House of Laity and a diocesan representative on the Crown Nominations Commission, said that he “radiated warmth, good humour, and an engaging confidence that together, in our churches and communities, we can achieve great things. I was struck by his boldness, his vision, and his passion for sharing God’s love with all people everywhere.”