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Bishop of Truro outlines guiding principles for ministry changes in the diocese

02 June 2023

‘It is not a top-down process’


St Senara’s, Zennor, in the deanery of Penwith

St Senara’s, Zennor, in the deanery of Penwith

TRURO’s “On the Way” deanery planning process began in February 2021 when advisers were allocated to each deanery to work closely with the rural dean, to “dream, pray and plan for the future”.

Against a backdrop of shrinking, ageing congregations; a financial deficit; congregations “overwhelmed by financial and practical demands”; and clergy “increasingly stretched by the size and scope of the responsibilities laid on them”, deaneries were asked to produce plans for a “fruitful and sustainable” future.

Over the subsequent months, plans were drawn up, setting out the local context, evidence of consultation, and proposed road-maps for the future, including how parishes would be grouped and ministry organised, and the level of Mission and Ministry Fund (MMF) (the equivalent of parish share) deemed to be realistic. Once approved at deanery synod, they were sent to the Episcopal College for endorsement.

It was repeatedly emphasised that this was not a “top-down process”, although there were some guiding principles, one of which, as outlined in a launch video by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, was that no change was not an option: “The only choice now is whether you — we — want to be part of shaping the change or not. If not, then the change will go ahead, but it will be others who decide what happens.”

Save the Parish Cornwall has published a number of plans online (the diocese has published brief summaries). While there are common themes, including a desire to grow numerically, significant variation has emerged. In some, parish reorganisation is proposed. Kerrier’s plan proposed creating a single united benefice from six benefices (and 23 churches), and a team ministry comprising two ordained posts (a rural dean/team rector and associate team rector with responsibility for pioneering), and five other posts open to lay people — “leads” in social justice, children, young people, families, and pastoral care — in addition to an administrator and finance officer.

East Wivelshire proposed that 19 parishes, grouped into five benefices with five incumbents, become three benefices, each with a “hub” authorised by Bishop Mounstephen to cross parochial boundaries. The retirement of two of the five incumbents was described in the plan as “an opportunity”, given that replacing them was “not affordable”. The hope was that the new structure “frees up resource to develop and deploy a greater diversity of ministry and to welcome and encourage the talents of a wider range of individuals — both lay and ordained”.

Stipendiary clergy posts were to be reduced “progressively”, and clergy were to be “reminded of Special Agreements available to facilitate leaving a post earlier than anticipated”. A reduction in PCCs was also planned, with a move to three joint church councils, which, it was hoped, would “reduce the administrative burden”.

In Pydar, St Gregory’s, North Cornwall, has been established as a BMO (bishop’s mission order), with the cost of the ministry part-funded by King’s Cross Church (KXC), London, and other supporters, and is expected to become sustainable “within a few years” and reach new generations. The leader, the Revd Anna Mason, was previously an assistant curate at KXC.

Other deaneries have opted against reorganisation, including Carnmath North, which expressed a desire to wait for stability in the wake of the pandemic and recent reorganisation. Its provision of five-and-a-half stipendiary clergy was not affordable, the plan noted. It would cost £334,260 in MMF, while an achievable level was £210,000. But the planning team concluded that “significant reductions in clergy cover from such a low base would not be an appropriate response to the serious deprivation being suffered by our communities.” Its plan includes having a stipendiary priest “to be an enabler of evangelism and other pioneering mission
projects to the most deprived areas of the deanery”.

Numbers of stipendiary clergy have been falling in Truro for decades: from 118 in 2001, to 81 in January 2019, to 70 this January. The 2022 budget contained a projected decrease in budgeted full-time stipendiary clergy posts, from 60 to 52, while emphasising that this might change, depending on what emerged from deanery planning. The projection for January 2024 is now to have between 78 and 83 in post, and the bishops have spoken of a commitment to preventing further decline (see story here).

iStockSt Paternus Parish Church, North Petherwin, in the deanery of Trigg Major

The diocese reported in 2019, before On the Way, that most deanery plans had “focused on reducing stipendiary clergy numbers to drive costs down towards the current MMF payment”. This is evident in some of the new plans. In West Wivelshire, a 2019 review had already produced a reduction from six to four full-time clergy working in five “clusters”. In Trigg Major, a deanery plan produced in 2017 had reduced the number of stipendiary clergy posts from four-and-a-half to three, supported by local worship leaders and local pastoral ministers, to meet MMF targets. It had proposed further change, noting “a significant drop in those regularly worshipping and supporting to the day-to-day running of our churches at all levels including the financial one”.

The reduction of stipendiary clergy is among the concerns put forward by the local Save the Parish group, and it has raised questions about access to the sacraments. In an FAQ attached to the East Wivelshire plan, the answer to the question “What will happen if we want Eucharistic services every week?” is that the bishops have agreed to communion by extension: “So for those people who benefit from this spiritual food, it will be more freely available than at present in most parishes.”

The position of the bishops is that the lower number of clergy has been decided locally. A diocesan FAQ document notes: “Where parishes have planned for fewer clergy it is, we think, usually because the income from the churches there cannot support current clergy numbers.” While deaneries had freedom to construct their plans, they did so against a clear message that it was “unsustainable” for the cost of ministry in deaneries to be outstripping MMF contributions. An initial draft of Carnmarth North’s plan went unapproved last year because of the extent of its projected MMF budget deficit. Deanery plans include targets for increasing giving — doubling it per giver in some cases.

Funding has also been made available to deaneries, however. At the beginning of the On the Way process, the seven deaneries that had not received funding through Transforming Mission (TM), an SDF-supported project, were offered “mission funding” matching the diocesan element of the funding allocated to TM, and proportionate to the size of their population. A one-off sum, which can be spent as deaneries discern, it is being “released” to deaneries as part of the implementation process.

In East Wivelshire, the aim is to use this and Lowest Income Communities Funding from the Church Commissioners to recruit CAP debt centre coaches, a part-time pioneer minister, and three school chaplains. Penwith, where the number of stipendiary clergy is to be reduced, has planned the recruitment of a pioneer minister, discipleship co-ordinator, monastic community warden, Kingdom Enterprise/HeartEdge Officer, four part-time children and families workers, a pilgrimage and heritage officer, administrator, and rural poverty officer. The plan envisages “a partnership between ordained and lay people . . . with Focal Ministers identified, trained and licensed to individual parishes”.

The 12 plans illustrate variation in resource across the deaneries (Carnmath North noted that it had one priest per 14,000 people, compared with one per 5500 in other deaneries), and in the extent to which parishes and deaneries have recovered from the impact of the pandemic, which one deanery described as having “caused chaos with parish income streams”. They also point to a desire to focus resources on deprived communities, including Lowest Income Communities Funding, which has previously been used by the diocese to plug its deficit.

They highlight both an aspiration for greater lay involvement and an awareness that many people are already over-stretched. “In many places we acknowledge those already in leadership roles are tired and stretched as often they are fulfilling several roles,” the West Wivelshire plan noted. “It’s envisaged that this will be a county-wide problem and therefore a Diocesan initiative may be required to help recruit and provide on-going support to local leaders.”

The Carnmath North deanery suggested that, if churches were unable to cover key governance roles, “then the future of that church must be questioned and ultimately that church may have to become a festival church or look to the community to form a Trust to run the church building, or even close completely.”

Truro has the oldest worshipping community of any diocese, with very few children and young people. In Kerrier, Usual Sunday Attendance by children in the deanery was 16. Pydar’s plan asks: “If over 90 per cent of those attending church on a Sunday are over the age of sixty, we should be asking whether we have become institutionally ageist”. Among the deaneries’ plans to address this are the recruitment of children and families workers, and chaplains. While the plans speak of a desire to maintain buildings, and the importance of “presence”, the administrative burden is also detailed. “We will need to be bolder in putting people and mission before buildings,” the Pydar plan states. “We also need to make it clear that if ministry ceases in a church building, it ceases to be a ‘church’.”

The extent to which the plans have been owned by worshippers in Truro remains the subject of debate. Save the Parish Cornwall’s extensive blogging has included concerns about the approach to consultation, noting that one deanery plan came with a cover letter stating that, “The Steering Group has adopted this vision believing it to be the way God is asking us to grow, therefore it is important to note that we are not seeking opinions on God’s given vision.”

It argues that the diocese could draw down more from its Stipends Fund Capital Account (the total was £1 million in 2022, and the diocese says that it expects to draw down “significantly larger amounts” in future years), and that central diocesan staffing, numbering 38, should be further reduced. It has expressed concern about a “clear movement away from ordained ministry to lay ministry and lay workers”, arguing that “the Church needs parishes, and parishes need priests.”

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