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Liverpool diocese begins restructuring

09 May 2024

Eleven churches united to form new St Helens parish


St Helens Parish Church on Merseyside, in the new Church St Helens parish, on Merseyside

St Helens Parish Church on Merseyside, in the new Church St Helens parish, on Merseyside

IN THE first of a series of pastoral reorganisations set to reduce drastically the number of parishes in the diocese of Liverpool, the new larger parish of Church St Helens came into being on 1 May, bringing together 11 of the 19 churches in the deanery.

The St Helens deanery, along with West Derby, was the first to embark on the diocese’s Fit for Mission programme, which began in 2022 and is set to run until 2028. Over the course of the period, cohorts of deaneries will spend two years planning and consulting on changes, culminating in PCCs’ voting on parish reorganisation.

The aim is that, by 2028, 80 per cent of parishes will have joined new and larger parishes. Diocesan documentation refers to a “working assumption” that each of the new and larger parishes will bring together at least eight existing parishes, up to a maximum of 15. The number of parishes in the diocese could fall from 250 to 25, or fewer. Each will have one rector supported by associate lay and ordained leaders, some paid, some self-supporting.

In St Helens, eight of the churches in the deanery chose not to join the Fit for Mission programme. Creation of the new parish follows approval of a draft scheme by the Church Commissioners. A diocesan press release said that the new structure would entail “closer collaboration, increasing clergy support, and centralising administration services, to free up more time to focus on mission and ministry”.

The parish has one Team Rector, Canon Christine Daniel, and nine Team Vicars (six of whom are full-time), in addition to four curates. Each member of the team will remain at their existing churches, “but work more closely together to support wider mission and ministry”.

A new PCC, representing all 11 churches, is to “act as trustees to the larger parish and handle governance matters”, while an employed team of four part-time staff will offer support services for buildings, finances, and administration.

The past two years had “at times been complex and challenging”, Canon Daniel said last week. But the process had “empowered us to make our own decisions about the future of life in our parish. . . We believe this legal change will continue to foster strong working relationships and collegiality between all of us, and strength our wider mission, which is to renew hope.”

Proposals to close one building and do further “feasibility work” on four others have been approved by the deanery synod, following consultation with PCCs.

In 2022, the Church Commissioners awarded Liverpool a strategic transformation fund grant of £7.5 million: the largest grant of its kind allocated to date. The diocese reports that 70 per cent of its churches are in “sustained decline”. In the past 30 years, attendance in the diocese has declined by 65 per cent.

Diocesan guidance about Fit for Mission suggests that it “might be the last chance we have to make a step change in the focus of clergy and lay to grow. If decline continues then as a diocese we will be looking at clergy cuts.” The diocese has the lowest assets per capita of any in the Church, leaving its churches “increasingly financially vulnerable”.

A larger parish will “enable us to simplify decision-making, create better support services, and free people up from cranking the many handles of the institution of the Church of England, and instead focus on taking the good news of Jesus to a lost and broken world”, a document responding to “frequently asked questions” argues. The parish boundary and individual charitable status is “a barrier to collaboration”.

There are no plans to reduce the number of stipendiary clergy as part of Fit for Mission, but, in common with other dioceses, Liverpool is encouraging the appointment of “focal leaders” for churches, who may or may not be ordained, under the oversight of a priest. Each parish will have a rector.

A scoping document states that, in larger parishes, “amalgamation of services, and some changes to service times, together with closure or change-of-use of some of the many church buildings is inevitable going forward, and is a nettle that has to be grasped by the Rector, leadership team, and PCC from the outset.”

Another summary document says that caring for buildings that were “built for another age”, is “a strain on finances and on time-poor volunteers, who don’t have specialist building management skills”.

The funding from the Church Commissioners is being used to fund a range of diocesan posts, including a buildings strategy manager, who will support a locally appointed “right buildings team” for each deanery, given the task of making a “best-option proposal about which buildings the larger parish needs for its future mission and ministry”.

While no church can be forced to participate in Fit for Mission, the FAQ warns that, for those that don’t, “there won’t be any access to the support services or wider resources provided under Fit for Mission. . . That could be a tough, vulnerable, and exposed place to be.”

“Viability” is a key theme of this document, which warns that “where there are unviable buildings and/or unviable congregations and worshipping communities there can’t be any blank cheque that says they can be sustained for ever.”

Churches that join the new, larger parishes will each have their own fund, to which all money given to the church will be credited. They will be expected to balance income and expenditure.

Alongside fewer parishes, Fit for Mission aims to create hundreds of newly planted worship communities, delivering “less bureaucracy, more mission”, with an emphasis on lay leadership supported by the “Cultivate” local missional leadership programme. Last year, the diocese reported that, in St Helens, more than 113 people had already engaged with Cultivate. Among the overall targets for 2028 are the planting of 100-200 new worshipping communities led by local missional leadership teams, with up to 4500 worshippers.

Rollout of the Fit for Mission programme follows Transforming Wigan, a seven-year project supported by the Church Commissioners that entailed the grouping of 33 churches in a single benefice, reducing the number of parishes from 29 to seven (News, 29 September 2023).

An independent evaluation published last year reported the creation of 29 new worshipping communities, but recorded that the project had not halted an overall decline in attendance. The churches’ financial deficit had increased eight-fold, linked to the “considerable upset and dissatisfaction” caused by the reconfiguration.

The Fit for Mission FAQ sets out the “lessons learned” from the Wigan experience and the differences going forward. It was a mistake, it says, not to reduce the number of parishes in Wigan more drastically: “Having more than one parish is still far too complex in terms of coordination and they are looking to reduce down much further . . . parish structures with lots of layers don’t work.”

Another lesson, it says, is that “clergy and other leaders work better in teams than when isolated.” Clergy in Wigan “say that they would not go back to the previous ways of working.” There are “plenty of lay people ready to be excited by the possibilities God has for them,” and “many opportunities to connect with people who aren’t connected with church,” it says.

The scoping document argues that Transforming Wigan was “under-resourced”, and records that, “by not dealing with the buildings issue head-on, we put a significant drain on missional activity”. Last year, it was reported that as many as 19 of the 31 church buildings in the Wigan benefice could close after a review warned of reserves “under pressure or exhausted” and parishes that were “no longer financially viable” (News, 6 October 2023).

The scoping document also observes that: “People identify closely with their church and their leader. They feel the loss — or threatened loss — acutely. The provision of high quality and available pastoral care is vital.” Among the Fit for Mission targets is the addition of 25 permanent deacons, “growing the ministry of missional outreach and pastoral care”.

“However positive the overall case for change, change always comes with a cost,” the scoping document says. “And the cost is real, not just perceived, and cannot be fully mitigated.”

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