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Angry response to parish reorganisation gives Commissioners pause

21 January 2022

Threat of closure tops list of complaints about parochial plan


A WAVE of anxious, often angry, responses to the consultation on revision to the Mission and Pastoral Measure (News, 2 July 2021) has prompted the Church Commissioners to push back the timetable for producing legislation.

A white paper will now be brought to the General Synod in July, with draft legislation in February 2023, if members approve a programme of work.

Analysis of responses to the consultation, which ran from July to October last year, published with General Synod papers on Friday, describes the strength of feeling provoked by the paper, which set out possible changes to the Measure governing parish reorganisation and the disposal of churches no longer deemed viable as Anglican places of worship.

Among the possibilities suggested in the consultation was giving dioceses responsibility for managing the process, including the consideration of representations that currently come to the Church Commissioners. It also suggested streamlining the current consultation process, including potentially limiting those allowed to make representations. It has been branded a “Church Closers’ Charter” by some campaigners (Comment, 1 October 2021).

“What came across powerfully were messages about the mood in the Church, particularly from lay people and clergy in parishes,” writes Wendy Matthews, head of mission, pastoral and church property for the Church Commissioners, an in introduction to the analysis paper. “Partly because of the context of the pandemic, there was a downbeat feel to many of the responses and General Synod will recognise the strength of feelings that were reported.

“We heard from many respondents, lay and clergy, who are anxious and in many cases angry, about the direction they feel the Church is taking. Many made the case that the loss of stipendiary clergy has a negative effect on the Church’s ability to follow its mission and to be a Christian presence in every place, and they felt frustrated by the consolidation of parishes and benefices, particularly in rural areas, with some fearing that future decision making will solely be driven by financial concerns.

“Many respondents (lay and clergy) said they felt disenfranchised in the decision-making process. Concerns about parish finances were raised, and many want to see much greater levels of direct investment into the mission of the parish. The question of closing church buildings was particularly emotive, with respondents highlighting how they are part of the visible Christian presence in every place and being fearful of what the future will bring and what may be lost.”

In total, 1686 responses were received with most — 1495 — sent by individuals. Of these, the vast majority were lay people, generally regular churchgoers, PCC members, churchwardens, and volunteers. Most raised “significant concerns”, although some ,Ms Matthews reports, were in favour of the measures.

While individuals expressed a “strong desire” for simplification to reduce pressure on parishes, with calls for a reduction in both the number of dioceses and bishops and those working in the National Church Institutions or diocesan offices, many were concerned that simplification of ecclesiastical legislation or processes could “lead to a weakening of the parish system”.

The paper goes on: “What the comments suggested more broadly was that the traditional concepts of Anglican ecclesiology were changing. . . Many made a strong distinction between the work of the ‘dioceses’, i.e. the bishop and the staff team, and the parish. . . The sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was very strong in many of the responses from both clergy and laity.” One respondent hoped that the General Synod would “take on board the scale of exasperation verging on militancy” now prevalent among the laity.

There was, the paper notes, “a lot of concern expressed that the diocesan and national teams did not understand the work of the parish, or its value, and were disconnected from the reality of parish life. Many respondents did not feel that the Church was using its resources well, and that this meant unreasonable pressure was being put on parishes to increase their contributions to parish share.”

It speaks of “a perceived lack of transparency and communication, which was deepening distrust”, and emphasises that “re-establishing relationships and building trust” must be a priority for those leading reforms under the “Emerging Church” programme for the 2020s (News, 13 November 2020).

While acknowledging the depth of feeling, the paper suggests that some responses reflected a lack of understanding. It notes “widespread misunderstandings about how funding flows through the Church and what the various bodies, including the Church Commissioners, can and cannot fund.”

It also seeks to offer reassurance about church closures, noting that the number is currently at its lowest for 50 years and that the number set out in the green paper, which reported that five dioceses were planning up to 40 within the next two to five years was”, was a “worst-case scenario”, which in any case would represent closure of around one to two per cent of 16,000 churches (News, 15 October 2021).

“Closure” was the single word mentioned most in email correspondence — which showed, the paper says, “that people did not want any change which would make it easier to close churches”. Many individual responses came from people attending rural churches who “emphasise the importance of place”, with one referring to “loyalty to locality”. One respondent wrote: “The parish church forms the stable heart and soul of their community within a world which appears fractured and broken, unsafe and alien.”

The responses suggest, the paper says, that “the concept of church building closure is ripe for reconsideration.” There was a lot of support among responses for “alternative models of ownership”. The paper acknowledges that there is “scope to do more work on the underlying theology, for example in relation to the process of mourning that communities go through when a church building closes”.

The consultation paper noted that some dioceses were moving towards a “super-benefice or super-parish type model” (Features, 10 September 2021). Many respondents were concerned about the implications of this for the parish system, the analysis says, and the House of Bishops will have to do more work to understand how these structures relate to each other.

In its response, the English Clergy Association described the creation of such structures as “untried, untested and fraught with danger”. Some respondents compared the changes to those happening in the healthcare system, with patients losing connection with a GP who knew them and their family. Others drew parallels with the Beeching cuts to the railways.

The paper concludes with suggestions for how a revised Measure might evolve. Whatever emerges needs to promote “a more pastoral approach”, facilitating better conversations, it says.

The paper notes how one parish, All Saints’, Hitcham, with just 320 houses, raised more than a half-a-million pounds. The responses have highlighted “the incredible levels of commitment that lay people and clergy have to their parishes, to supporting their communities during Covid, and to maintaining and looking after their church buildings, and their strong desire to see the work of the Church flourish”.

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