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No ‘big bang’ restructuring of Church of England dioceses, says Commission

03 August 2023

iStock

A map of the dioceses in England in 1801

A map of the dioceses in England in 1801

THERE will be no national restructuring or combining of dioceses for the time being, a consultation on the future of episcopal ministry has concluded.

A confidential paper presented to the College of Bishops in September 2021 by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London had suggested otherwise (News, 11 February 2022). Based on the first phase of churchwide consultation about diocesan and episcopal structures, it stated that the Church must be prepared to “surrender much that we have held dear, but which we now believe may well now be hindering our mission” — by considering, among other things, the amalgamation dioceses.

A second consultation on “bishops and their ministries” has been carried out by the Dioceses Commission, and its conclusions were published in a letter sent on Thursday to all who were consulted. The letter is signed by the chair of the commission, Dame Caroline Spelman, a former Second Church Estates Commissioner, and the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley. He is the lead bishop on the Transforming Effectiveness agenda, which was set up in 2020 to examine how to enhance the national church institutions (NCIs) and reduce operational costs (News, 16 July 2021).

The commission recommends that “no national centrally-led approach to restructuring or combining dioceses” should be taken, and instead promotes “inter-diocesan collaboration”. Recipients are encouraged to join an online workshop about this idea.

The letter says: “Having listened to the responses, the Dioceses Commission has agreed with the Archbishops that there will be no ‘big bang’ or centrally-led approach to restructuring or combining dioceses at this time. This would be a distraction from the mission and ministry that is underway across the country in parishes and dioceses, would absorb hard-pressed leadership time, and would be an additional burden on the already constrained resources of the Church at all levels.”

It continues: “That is not to say that we have heard no voices for change to improve the mission and ministry of the Church. We have heard views that our structures can prevent mission and ministry, and lead to resources being deployed in the wrong places.

“The Dioceses Commission is ready to support any diocese that wants to review its work and structures, including proactively looking at the possibilities for shared vision and closer working with another diocese. But we stress that this must be led locally, not centrally.”

The 2021 paper had noted that 27 of the 42 dioceses were operating on deficit budgets. It also expressed concern that the deployment of bishops and diocesan structures did not reflect current population patterns; that many suffragan bishops did not have specific responsibility for leading mission in a territorial area; the costs of diocesan offices; and the fact that data on giving as a percentage of income “strongly suggests that the majority of dioceses are not capable of sustaining themselves”.

Dame Caroline and Bishop Seeley write that, instead of recommending restructuring, “the Dioceses Commission would very much like to encourage and support inter-diocesan collaboration (though not imposing additional structures), and indeed there was some enthusiasm for this in many of the responses we received. This can be one way in which we can more efficiently deploy resources and raise standards in the service we are providing to our parishes.”

Their letter acknowledges the regions, such as the West Midlands and the eastern dioceses, where collaboration is already taking place — even if only on particular issues, such as net zero, racial justice, ministry training, and education.

“This can be on a regional level between several dioceses, or between just two or three,” it says. “There is evidence that operating at scale, pooling talent, and sharing resourcing can deliver savings as well as increasing breadth and resilience, thus giving the opportunity to deliver more and better services to our parishes. We therefore strongly encourage dioceses to explore inter-diocesan collaboration and to integrate this into their diocesan strategies.”

This, they write, should be “the norm rather than the exception”. An invitation to an online workshop in the autumn follows.

The letter concludes: “You will remember that the consultation also sought your views on the role of suffragan bishops. Those have identified some deeply practical issues of training and management that are being taken forward.”

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