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Fall in Church of England parishes prompts questions on pastoral reorganisation

08 September 2023

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THE number of parishes in the Church of England fell by 278 between 2016 and 2021, from 12,510 to 12,232, according to analysis published by The Daily Telegraph.

The statistics have prompted discussion about the merits and risks of pastoral reorganisation as a response to falling attendance and the decline in the number of stipendiary clergy. The Telegraph has suggested that the numbers represent an acceleration in recent years: the total number of parishes fell by 1204 between 1960 and 1980, or eight per cent, compared with two per cent in the seven years to 2021.

Dioceses have been amalgamating parishes for many decades. Research published by the Church of England’s Research and Statistics department in 2016 showed that the proportion of parishes in multi-parish benefices grew from 17 per cent in 1960 to 71 per cent in 2011 (News, 5 August 2016). They are not evenly distributed across England; they tend to be clustered in rural areas.

The figures published by the Telegraph do not represent 278 church closures. Under a Pastoral Scheme, the parish may be united with another parish or parishes while the church remains open for worship, after a legal process that requires interested parties to be consulted. The Church Commissioners, to whom appeal can be made, ultimately rule on whether the scheme should go ahead.

This week, the Church of England’s Secretary General, William Nye, said that the number of consecrated churches closed had decreased in each of the past five decades, from 760 between 1969 and 1979 to 209 between 2010 and 2019.

While dioceses and bishops have reiterated their commitment to the parish system, in recent years, dioceses have grouped parishes into informal arrangements such as “Mission and Ministry Areas”, often with additional financial support from the Church Commissioners (News, 1 March 2019). An emergent model entails the designation of stipendiary clergy as “oversight ministers” for these larger areas, with lay or ordained people appointed as “focal leaders” at individual churches (Features, 10 September 2021).

Dioceses have also encouraged parishes already grouped in a benefice to consider becoming a single parish, with one PCC. Among the advantages cited are a simplification of governance, with fewer meetings and fewer church officers, such as chuchwardens, to elect. Benefits to mission have also been cited in terms of time that can be diverted from meetings and administration to outward-looking activities, proponents argue.

Critics argue that the union of parishes can fail to recognise local distinctiveness. While provision can be made to ensure that each church in the new parish is represented on the PCC, some argue that there are risks that smaller churches can have their interests overlooked. Property vested in, or under the management of the PCC, may be transferred to the new PCC. As with other pastoral reorganisation, the creation of a single parish may also be accompanied by changes in the provision and deployment of clergy.

In the diocese of Winchester, in May, three parishes formally became one in Andover. “I don’t believe scale is always a silver bullet or necessarily the best driving rationale, especially around amalgamations of parishes,” the Rector, the Revd Chris Bradish, said this week. “In our case, it was about seeing what was already working well across the parishes and building on that more than trying to find efficiencies. We took almost two years to consult and dialogue on the proposals.”

While acknowledging differentials in size in the churches that form the parish, which include a large resource church, St Mary’s, he described them as “equals and partners in the gospel and brothers and sisters in Christ”. The new PCC includes representatives from across the churches.

“We hope our new structures will help us both hear the voices of individuals as well as align our mission towards the wider opportunities and needs of our town,” he said. “I think in an urban context such as ours, which is very concentric and very defined, it can make sense to go to this level of organisation.”

The 2016 research, Going Deeper, by Dr Fiona Tweedie, found “no statistically significant relationship between the number of churches within a benefice and numerical growth or decline when other factors were taken into account”. But her study showed that an increase in the number of clergy over time was associated with a greater likelihood of an increase in church attendance. A decrease in the number of clergy was associated with a greater likelihood of decline.

On Wednesday, the Revd Marcus Walker, Rector of Great St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, and chair of Save the Parish, highlighted research which links clergy numbers to growth. The data “made sense”, he said: “You are actually able to invest time and energy in people, to know them, to inspire them. . . There’s a virtuous cycle of activity and growth.”

He mentioned the Kerrier deanery in Truro, which has 23 churches and two stipendiary priests. He recognised the rationale for amalgamations — “trying to ensure that priests don’t have a total breakdown needing to do multiple PCCs” — but added the caveat that parishes must retain “their rights over ultimate decisions about closing churches or styles of worship.”

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