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Patterns of parish ministry to change under new diocesan plan for Truro

02 June 2023

Madeleine Davies looks at Truro’s response to mission challenges


A view of Truro

A view of Truro

A “SIGNIFICANT change” in patterns of parish ministry, with more clergy serving in oversight positions, is one of the central tenets of a new plan in the diocese of Truro.

Expected to take ten years to implement, the Plan for Change and Renewal — which the diocesan synod voted to take note of last month — forecasts that, by the end of this period, “the majority of church communities are led by Local Ministers (both lay and ordained), with stipendiary priests in oversight roles, leading, enabling and ministering to groups of churches, communities and missional activities of different kinds.”

Last week, the Bishop of St Germans, the Rt Revd Hugh Nelson, suggested that, in the wake of two years of deanery consultations — the “On the Way” process (News, 13 May 2021) — “the vast majority of people think ‘Thank goodness there’s a plan.’” He spoke of plans to release up to £10 million of reserves over the next ten years, to “drive down” the cost of parish share and halt the decades-long decline in stipendiary clergy in the diocese.

While the diocese had once planned to move to a balanced budget in 2023, a diocesan spokesperson said on Wednesday of last week, “Our main ambition is not for a balanced operating budget, but to use the blessings we have received to support the life of the Church, and to do so in a way that is measured, responsible, and sustainable for the long term.”

They explained: “Using reserves to support ministry means that there will be an ongoing overall deficit. Having gained control of costs at both parish and diocesan level, we are now able to do this in a coherent way, based on deanery priorities. . . We have shifted from a deficit that was growing rapidly, with weak control over costs and little agreement about what income we could expect, and where the patterns of ministry were inherited and uneven, to a much more planned approach where the local church has been able to take control.”

On the Way was launched as a response to both financial and mission challenges in the diocese, and asked deaneries to produce plans for a “fruitful and sustainable” future. Average Sunday attendance in Truro fell from 13,000 in 2001 to fewer than 6000 in 2021, while the number of children fell from 1200 to just over 400.

The diocese has the lowest number of children and young people of any diocese.

Although the diocese has significant reserves and endowments of more than £100 million, making it, by population, one of the top ten wealthiest dioceses in the country, the collection rate of the annual parish contributions to the Ministry and Mission Fund (MMF), otherwise known as parish share, is the lowest in the C of E: 66.69 per cent; and, in 2021, Truro reported an operating budget deficit of £1.4 million.

Twelve deanery plans are now in place, and the diocesan plan lists three priorities said to have emerged from this planning process. The first of these is a call “for a reversal in the decline of numbers worshipping in our churches. To achieve this we know that there will need to be significant change in patterns of parish ministry.”

Addressing the synod, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, argued that “almost all the ordained clergy in this room are already exercising oversight ministry in one form or another . . . but we haven’t been as intentional about it as we should have been, and we do absolutely want to be more so in the future.” He acknowledged that, with a lack of training in place, “people have accidentally moved into oversight roles, and some have suffered in that process.”

By the end of 2025, 36 of those people in stipendiary posts are expected to have been trained in an oversight role. This will take place alongside a recruitment drive in response to a large number of unfilled posts in the diocese. There are currently 50 incumbents in place and 68 posts. The annual report of the Board of Finance notes that implementation of the deanery plans has been slower than expected, and that a larger than usual number of vacant clergy posts has been “putting real pressure on local ministry in too many places”.

Last week, Bishop Nelson said that the vacancies reflected a range of factors, including retirement (including earlier than planned), and some clergy not wanting to take on the new oversight role. Recruitment was a challenge in Cornwall, he said, but he was “very hopeful” after a recent open day. The diocesan plan notes that, “for these new patterns of ministry to be credible we will also need to reverse the decline in the number of stipendiary clergy, at least sustaining the number described in deanery plans and where possible increasing the number of both stipendiary clergy and other ministers.”

The latest report from the board of finance states that MMF contributions did not match commitments set out in deanery plans. While the use of reserves will be subject to a diocesan consultation this summer, Bishop Nelson said on Tuesday that as much as £10 million over ten years could be released, and spoke of the hope to use it to “drive down MMF as much as we can”, keeping it at the level set out in deanery plans. Linked to this was a hope to “do everything we can to hold the number of stipendiary clergy at the level that is described in deanery plans”.

Other metrics in the diocesan plan include the commissioning, by 2025, of 105 “local leaders”, who may be lay or ordained; 30 pioneers; and up to 20 people for new positions with children and young people. There is an ambition that, over the next ten years, the number of churchwardens will grow from 358 to more than 500. As in other parts of the country, a large number of offices remain unfilled.

The diocesan plan has two other key priorities: “Reversing the steep decline in the number of children and young people”, and “A significant shift of resourcing towards the mission of the Church in communities experiencing deprivation.” This will entail using Lowest Income Communities Funding, previously used to plug the deficit, for work in deprived communities, with half of the sum supporting stipends in these areas.

An amendment by Vivian Hall, a member of the General Synod and of Trigg Major deanery synod, proposed that the original motion be dismissed until the diocesan plan had gone to every PCC for a consultation process.

“The document needs widely based exposure, as we’re talking about the immediate future of evangelism and mission in Cornwall,” he said. “It should not be limited to a discussion within this body.”

On Tuesday, Martin Saunders, a lay member of the diocesan synod, described the diocesan plan as “totally undemocratic”, as members had not been given enough time to study it. It had not been approved by a vote, but “noted”, he argued. Given that the deanery plans had not been made public, or shared among the deaneries, it was not possible to say whether the diocesan plan was a “true reflection” of them. “It was just ‘take it or leave it,’” he said.

Having previously served as leader of Hertfordshire County Council, he was struck by low levels of understanding of governance and finance within church bodies. The construction of the plan in his own deanery of Pydar had been “top-down”, he said, and references to “oversight ministers” had been added without being discussed in the deanery synod. The diocese, he said, needed more stipendiary clergy, “set apart to help spread the gospel and comfort the sick in mind and body”.

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