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Instead of closure, churches might be allowed to ‘lie fallow’

23 June 2023

Poorly attended churches offered a lifeline


POORLY attended churches that might have been earmarked for closure could be granted a “breathing space” under proposals for new legislation to replace the Mission and Pastoral Measure (2011), set to come before the General Synod next month.

The draft proposals, published on Thursday, follow a wave of anxious, often angry, responses to an earlier consultation paper (News, 2 July 2021), branded a “Church Closures Charter” by some campaigners (News, 28 January 2022). The backlash prompted the Church Commissioners to slow the timetable for legislation.

The new report containing the proposals states: “People showed very clearly . . . how much they care about their church buildings, both listed and unlisted, and there was much support for retaining them in use whenever possible, so they could fulfil their role in creating a sense of neighbourhood, place and parish, even if they are not used at present for regular worship.”

Noting the “administrative and compliance burden” on a dwindling number of volunteers, it acknowledges a desire to avoid “premature decision-making” and to “maintain hope”.

“People would like to see some kind of ‘breathing spaces’ in order to hold and stabilise a parish church community when it is fragile, and enable the church and community to remain open to new opportunities for witness and service as circumstances change,” the authors write.

“We have called this the ‘fallow’ time — drawing on the theological idea of Jubilee, a period of rest and recuperation to enable people to regroup and move forward again once the time is right.”

The report speaks of an “extensive consultation”, including contributions from a General Synod Reference Group”, many of whom “repeatedly raised trust issues as their primary concern”. It calls for a “cultural change in how the Measure is perceived and operated”, suggesting that its application “needs to be seen primarily as a pastoral exercise by all involved, where all voices are heard, and conversations take place in a way that seeks to build trust and good relationships”.

The existing 2011 Mission and Pastoral Measure (MPM) enables bishops and diocesan teams to carry out “pastoral reorganisation”, which can include creating, uniting, altering, or dissolving parishes, benefices, deaneries, and archdeaconries; closing church buildings for public worship; or setting up new structures such as team and group ministries. It is possible for clergy to be dispossessed of their office under the Measure, and compensation is payable in certain circumstances.

Draft proposals are published, after consultation, and people can make written submissions in favour of, or against, the proposals, which are then heard by the Church Commissioners’ Mission, Pastoral and Church Property Committee (MPCPC).

It is this committee, chaired by the Third Church Estates Commissioner, initially Dr Eve Poole, now Canon Flora Winfield, that has carried out the review. The proposals were endorsed by the House of Bishops last month.

The core of these remains what was set out in 2021: a “refreshed legal architecture” in which the various legal instruments under which pastoral reorganisation can take place would be simplified into two main types — orders and schemes — and the consultation processes streamlined.

The revised proposals contain evidence of a new concern to offer reassurance, both in the introduction of the “fallow” concept and a call for greater sensitivity, including “greater recognition of the power structures and dynamics that play out in MPM conversations, which unless exercised with care can damage trust and pastoral relations”.

The “overwhelming consensus” of the consultation, it says, “was that how the MPM processes are completed often matters as much as, or sometimes more than, what change is enacted. If the processes are done poorly trust can be damaged and the outcomes can be detrimental for everyone involved.” During a Synod debate on the proposals in 2021, Emily Bagg, from Portsmouth, whose clergy husband had been dispossessed, described “deep harm to my husband, which led him to deeply question his calling” (News, 16 July 2021).

The report includes a “theological preface” by the Bishop of Ramsbury, Dr Andrew Rumsey, who has written two books on place (Parish, Books, 21 July 2017 and English Grounds, Books, 11 March 2022). In a reflection on the parish system and inherited buildings, he observes: “fidelity to the places and people it exists to serve remains at the heart of the Church of England’s continuing establishment”. But, he adds: “All ecclesiastical structures must change and grow according to the unfolding guidance and ministry of the Holy Spirit.”

He calls on dioceses and national church institutions to “reflect carefully on the burden of governance that can fall so heavily on small communities: particularly on local volunteers who are, in many places, heroically keeping their church open against considerable odds.

“Under pressure and paucity of resources it becomes all too easy to foreclose the future of our built heritage, yet in avoiding this we can be schooled by our buildings themselves — many of which have extraordinarily long memories and have seen countless seasons of varying yield.

“If an increasing number of these find their future resilience or viability called into question — through a combination of material challenges, congregational decline and dearth of officers and clergy — then we must provide options that do not flog what is weary but allow for its sabbath rest. This is the logic behind the idea of a fallow or ‘jubilee’ period for church buildings that could allow the common ground between church and neighbourhood to recover its fertility and wait upon future growth.”

The report itself notes that, once a church is closed and disposed of, “it’s rarely possible to reclaim it for ministry” but states that more work needs to be done on how the “fallow” concept might work in practice, “as the legal issues are complex”.

The extent of the pressure on a shrinking number of volunteers is evident in another section of the report, which explores possible temporary governance models for church buildings given that it is “increasingly difficult in some areas for PCCs to fulfil their legal duties and functions”. Four possible models are set out: Proxy PCC, authorised administrator, temporary holding body, and joint councils. In 2021, the diocese of York reported that about 40 per cent of its parishes had only one churchwarden in post, and half were unable to find separate volunteers for the posts of warden, secretary, and treasurer.

The report acknowledges that changes to who has a right to be consulted on reorganisation are “one the most sensitive areas of change in the Measure”. It argues that its proposed approach will offer greater transparency and clarity.

A key aim is to “enable more straightforward matters to be dealt with more simply”. Such matters would be dealt with by “orders” rather than “schemes”. The wider public would have no right to make representations, only the “interested parties” [parish clergy, PCC, the patron(s), the area or rural dean, the deanery lay chair and the archdeacon] and in some cases members of the electoral roll. Such representations would either be considered by the bishop/Diocesan Mission and Pastoral Committee (DMPC) or the MPCPC.

For matters dealt with by schemes, anyone would have the right to make representations, which would be heard by the MPCPC.

Ministry provision (such as the structure of benefices, teams, and group ministries) would mainly be dealt with by orders while matters relating to changes in parishes, parish boundaries or parish property and most church building matters would generally be categorised as “schemes”. Schemes would also be retained for matters in which dispossession was a possibility.

The report recommends that consultation processes are modernised by allowing “modern electronic methods for communication”, such as the use of websites and social media to publicise potential changes, “rather than posting physical church door notices, or there being a need to publish notices in newspapers”. But it acknowledges that “it will still be important to consider those who may not have ready access to digital technology and to make sure that congregation members who do not use email can engage.”

If the proposals are approved, they will be implemented against a backdrop of large-scale structural reorganisation in many dioceses, some of which is being funded by grants from the Church Commissioners, via the Archbishops’ Council (Features,10 September 2021). The report notes that some of the members of the General Synod Reference Group were “concerned about dioceses who had undertaken large-scale changes to their deanery structures, and there was confusion about what is and is not permissible under the MPM”.

While the report acknowledges some strengths of the existing system, it lists a number of weaknesses, including the fact that parish clergy and PCCs had “little sense of agency” in the decision-making. It notes that “there can be a lack of specific and dedicated support and advice for parishes and local clergy . . . which can make individuals and parish communities feel they are at a disadvantage in the process.” This effect can be magnified in poorer or more marginalised communities (Features, 3 September 2021).

In 2020, a report by the Church Buildings Council concluded that the greatest reduction in the Church of England’s church-building stock since the 16th century was under way, with almost 2000 church closures taking place since 1969, about ten per cent of the estate. Churches in the most deprived parishes were much more likely to close, it concluded.

The 2021 consultation paper that provoked the backlash warned that 12 dioceses were planning a “light number of closures” (fewer than five), nine were planning a medium level six to12), but five dioceses were planning a much larger number of closures (up to 40) within the next two to five years.

If the motion put before the Synod is approved when it meets in York at the start of July, then a new Measure and secondary legislation would be brought forward to the Synod in 2024.

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