*** DEBUG END ***

No churchwardens and vacant PCC posts: an investigation into the church volunteering crisis

15 March 2024

Elections no longer contested, empty pews — Madeleine Davies investigates


IT WAS John Betjeman who (in “Septuagesima”, Poems in the Porch, SPCK, 1954) wrote:

Let’s praise the man who goes to light
The church stove on an icy night.
Let’s praise that hard-worked he or she

The Treasurer of the P.C.C.
Let’s praise the cleaner of the aisles,
The nave and candlesticks and tiles. . .

But such individuals — and not least those willing to take on the legal and practical responsibilities of a churchwarden — are now a rarer breed than they were in his time, and the strain is being felt.

In the General Synod last month, Robert Perry, a Truro member of the House of Laity, asked the Archbishops’ Council whether it might consider any changes to the Churchwardens Measure 2001 “which would assist those parishes unable to find two parishioners willing to undertake the duties and responsibilities of this role” (of churchwarden).

The written reply (“No”) had, he noted in a supplementary question, “the merit of brevity, and the demerit of opacity”. In Truro — a “very rural diocese, with a large number of very small, isolated parishes” — 87 of the 212 parishes had one churchwarden and 12 had none.

The situation in Truro is far from unique. In 2021, the diocese of York reported that about 40 per cent of its parishes had only one churchwarden, and half were unable to find separate volunteers for warden, secretary, and treasurer.

The recent Church Buildings Commission survey in the diocese of Norwich discovered that about 100 churches had no recorded churchwardens. In one rural benefice, there were 19 churches, placing “great pressure” on the incumbent, who had three churches with no PCC members, leaving her with sole responsibility for them.

The Church Times wrote to every diocese last month in an attempt to quantify the extent of the recruitment challenge. Those that replied reported that between one quarter and 40 per cent of parishes had only one churchwarden, while between five and 21 per cent had none. One reported that 22 per cent of its parishes were missing one or more people in key positions this January.

“Anecdotally, I’d suggest 50 to 60 per cent of our parishes are struggling to fill PCC posts,” a diocesan secretary in a rural diocese said. “It simply is getting harder. Congregations are getting smaller and older, the burden and responsibility seems to be getting more onerous — just dealing with banks seems to be a major headache for many PCCs — and there has been a general decline in the pool of available volunteers in general in the last few years.”

But, he reported, given that a huge number of parishes had weekly attendance in single digits, there was also a positive story to be told about the majority of parishes — more than 200 — that had two churchwardens.

Against a national backdrop of volunteering in decline, the Church remains blessed with a remarkably dedicated lay army.


WHILE the Church Times survey heard about recruitment challenges in urban dioceses, Canon Perry’s report has echoes in other, largely rural, areas.

Last year, the diocese of Norwich published its Church Buildings Commission’s report. The diocese has 640 church buildings — the second largest number in the country — and the third lowest ratio of population per church (1451). Of the 640, 90 per cent are Grade I or II* listed.

Its conclusions were stark. The existing system of support for church buildings “relies heavily on the goodwill and energy of a dwindling number of increasingly elderly volunteers, members of congregations who will eventually — within the next 10 years or so — no longer be able to sustain their efforts,” the authors wrote. They had frequently been told “We can’t go on like this,” and “Something has to be done.”

MATTHEW CLEMENTSMatthew Clements, currently the hon. treasurer of the PCC at St Edburg’s, Bicester, inspects a repair

While 75 per cent of respondents to a church survey said that the PCC had enough members to function effectively, the Commission heard that it was “difficult to find people to take up churchwarden or PCC roles”. About 100 churches had no recorded churchwardens, and the authors were told of “many instances where formal roles are carried out on an informal basis because individuals do not want the responsibility of the formal role.”

Elderly churchwardens, in particular, feared that “failure to maintain their church building will mean its closure and abandonment, or that failure to contribute their parish share will mean the loss of their clergy”.

Meanwhile, incumbents — stretched ever more thinly — lived with the fear that the responsibility for maintaining a church with no PCC might fall to them personally: an area of the law that “needed clarifying”. When asked whether they would be happy to give up their position if there was someone else to take it on, 78 per cent of churchwardens agreed.

A survey of the public highlighted that, while most people valued church buildings as an important part of the landscape, there was “little public understanding” of who owned or cared for them, but, rather, “an assumption that the Church of England owns the churches and not PCCs, and that they will always be there as they have for hundreds of years”.

“Unless wider communities of interest than PCCs themselves are engaged in caring for the buildings, then for an increasing number of vulnerable churches the future is limited to say the least, or bleak if one is pessimistic,” the Commission warned.


THIS push for greater community engagement, also recommended in the 2017 Taylor Review of the Church’s buildings (News, 22 December 2017), is taking place against a challenging landscape for those seeking volunteers. A recent Theos report (News, 29 September 2023) found that many charities, faith groups, and community projects reported the loss of a “significant number of their previous volunteers since the pandemic, due to a combination of changed working patterns, retirement, economic pressures, and a difference in the ‘offer’ that volunteers are now looking for after the pandemic”.

The June 2023 Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) barometer, designed as a “temperature check” for the sector, found six in ten (63 per cent) of small charity respondents referring to volunteer recruitment as a significant organisational concern.

One respondent observed: “Following the pandemic, [people’s] priorities have changed, and we are losing volunteers to travelling, spending time with family, etc.” The number of people undertaking regular formal volunteering fell from 11 million in 2019 to seven million in 2021.

And, over a longer period, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS’s) Community Life Survey reports that the proportion of the adult population volunteering in a formal setting at least once a month fell from 27 to 16 per cent between 2013 and 2021.

For the Church, and the sector as a whole, this reflects broader societal shifts. The most common reasons given to the DCMS survey for not volunteering were work commitments: “I do other things with my spare time”; and childcare. In the past 40 years, the proportion of women aged 25 to 54 in paid employment rose from 57 per cent to 78 per cent.

As of 2022, 36 per cent of the Church’s worshipping community was aged 70 and above. The average age is 61, and, while this might once have meant a large pool of potential volunteers among the retired (the diocese of Lichfield estimates that 68 per cent of its churchwardens are above state retirement age), many have other demands on their time.

A 2017 YouGov poll commissioned by Age UK found that 40 per cent of grandparents over the age of 50 had provided regular childcare for their grandchildren. The majority — 89 per cent — did so at least once a week. Against a backdrop of rising life expectancy, and women having their first child later, some of these — the so-called “sandwich generation”, numbering 1.3 million people, according to the Government — are also caring for elderly parents, numbering 1.3 million people.

The age of retirement is also rising. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reports that, in 1975, more than half of the male population left paid work between the ages of 62 and 66: a proportion that has fallen to just three in ten.


THE Priest-in-Charge of the Batley benefice in West Yorkshire, in the diocese of Leeds, the Revd Jonathan Bish, is familiar with this landscape. Two of the four parishes in the benefice only have one churchwarden; two churchwardens are also serving as safeguarding officers; and one is also a PCC secretary. One treasurer is 85.

“We have a situation where more or less all the jobs are being done, but more is falling on fewer people,” Fr Bish says. “The area as a whole is not a prosperous area, and so you don’t necessarily have the retired professionals you get in lots of places who are the backbone of our volunteers. The other thing that makes it harder is that people are less likely to know those people, and be able to ask friends ‘Can you just step in and do bit of accounting for the church?’”


Diocesan responses to the Church Times survey suggested that blunt statistics about empty offices could conceal more informal arrangements. In the diocese of Salisbury, for example, “in many of our parishes people are doing the work of a churchwarden, they just don’t want the title”. In one parish, the churchwarden had formally stepped down, but shared out some duties with the PCC, and carried on with some of them himself.

In Batley, some people are serving as deputy wardens, while people who have stepped down may continue to support their successor. Fr Bish also cautions against the idea that the small congregations cannot measure up to what is asked of them.

In one of his churches, with a Sunday congregation of 12 to 15 people, “the accounts are always beautifully presented and ready to go in January; the parish share is always paid by the of October; the building is maintained properly; they have a group that does work on church every Monday.”

But he is also conscious that, in some areas, PCCs are struggling. Under its Barnabas Project — which last year secured £3.9 million from the Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment Board (News, 28 March 2023) — the diocese of Leeds is offering help with governance, including support in moving to new models such as joint councils.

While dioceses emphasise the importance of local decision-making, Fr Bish wonders whether it would be helpful to have leadership from the top, when it comes to such potentially contentious changes.


ACROSS the Church of England, wider societal shifts have occurred in parallel with what the diocese of Sheffield’s strategy refers to as a “four-headed beast”: falling attendance; significant financial shortfalls in most parishes; problems presented by buildings and structures (leaving clergy, lay leaders, and congregations “overwhelmed by compliance, safeguarding, and administrative demands”); and a heavy dependence on the “magnificent contribution of older members” (Features, 10 September 2021).

In many places, churches are seeking volunteers from a shrinking pool. In the diocese of Norwich, the average usual Sunday congregation for a church is 23, but 267 churches have fewer than 12 worshippers. Almost half (47 per cent) of the worshipping community are over-70s. At one drop-in session, the Commission was told of a PCC in which all members were in their eighties or nineties, with no apparent successors.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges. Average weekly attendance has fallen by almost one quarter since 2019. In the diocese of Hereford, a 2022 presentation on the diocesan vision for the 2020s reported that, of 404 churches, only 17 had usual Sunday attendance of more than 50, while 250 had fewer than 20 people. Outside urban areas, the average Anglican is aged 72. While seeking to avoid mass closures, the diocese has warned that it cannot “continue to heat, light, insure and maintain our 404 churches with the responsibility for this resting on a small number of faithful members”.


IN MANY dioceses, changes in governance are being offered as part of the solution. A new model of ministry is “not a magic wand”, Exeter’s “Lightening the load” resource acknowledges. But “there may be ways of doing things differently out there which you can inhabit more easily, enabling you to be more Mary than Martha, and more apostles in God’s mission than curators of buildings.” Both joint councils and pastoral reorganisation to create a “one parish, one PCC” model are offered for consideration.

For the diocese of Worcester, the solution to vacant officer posts is “fewer formal governing bodies rather than more officers”.

“We are seeking to use joint councils to encourage formal governance to be shared, with local churches focusing recruitment on encouraging the local community to care for their church and its life in less formal ways,” a spokesperson says.

“Our aspiration is to return to one governing body per incumbent, the way the system was designed to work. We are actively seeking to join benefices together in ways that enable them to collaborate, realise the joy of working together and economies of scale whilst continuing to support and encourage the expression of church at its most local level. Such inter-benefice collaboration is important for the life of the churches and essential for clergy well-being.”

The Archdeacon of Dudley, the Ven. Nikki Groarke, acknowledges that pastoral reorganisation is complex, and will take time to implement: many schemes are yet to receive a ruling from the Church Commissioners.

In the mean time, she reports, the diocese is being “imaginative about how we work, as if we were with the new structures . . . but being really aware we have to go through proper consultation, and there are certain things we can’t do until we have been through proper consultation.” One example is holding several PCC meetings in the same place at the same time, with the incumbent present.

“What we absolutely are not trying to do is close churches,” she emphasises. “We are trying to simplify the responsibilities of officers and of clergy so they can do what is really needed to keep churches open and thriving, without being bogged down in lots of admin that is meant for bigger units.”

She hopes to engender a culture in which “backroom functions” are undertaken in a group of churches, and believes that, locally, people appreciate the rationale: “They know it doesn’t make sense to do the same thing for a church of 200 as you would for a church of 20.”

The diocese has also appointed a Dean of Smaller Churches, the Revd Alison Maddocks, to “build expertise, share good practice, and support incumbents” in the 118 churches that have fewer than 20 active members: a constituency that represents 45 per cent of all its churches and 15 per cent of active members.

Her work includes helping to establish “Churches Held in Local Leadership”. After cutting the number of stipendiary posts by 15, the diocese, in common with others adopting the “focal ministry” approach, is seeking to “enable clergy to be more episcopal”, working across larger areas.

When it comes to finding lay people to take on such local leadership, Archdeacon Groarke reports that “the way we see it is that people are mostly there doing it anyway. . .

“We are not magicking up new people from nowhere. I can think of a few places where we know that there is a really excellent LLM or churchwarden who, everyone knows, is the go-to person in the village. It’s honouring that, but also making sure that lines of accountability with their benefice incumbent are clear and that there is a good understanding about what they can and can’t do, and they get appropriate training for what they can do, and they are doing it legally and safely.”


FOR some, reorganisation and changes to governance are a cause for alarm. In response to the Church Times survey, one bishop in the Canterbury province reported “a growing appetite” for mergers, joint councils, and pluralities, particularly in a rural context”, but acknowledged “a lot of resistance, even when the parish is clearly struggling”.

“As a principle it is hard to see how this parish reorganisation actually saves the churches anything,” says Matthew Clements, the author of Rotas, Rules and Rectors: How to thrive being a churchwarden (Books, 22 March 2019), who has served as a churchwarden for 13 years in two different dioceses, and is currently the PCC treasurer at St Edburg’s, Bicester.

“Presumably it saves the diocese on costs of clergy, but the same work is still required to be done in each church building, whether it is rotas, building maintenance, social events, or putting the bins out. All these jobs are currently done by, or organised by, volunteers, and in my view the C of E has a history of, all too often, taking volunteers for granted.”

He raises questions about representation on joint councils, and the “complicated set-up” treasurers may have to negotiate with regard to finances, the approval of expenditure, and restricted funds.

The advice from Save the Parish in its “Parish Pack” is to “steer well clear of Group Ministries, Team Ministries, and combined or united PCCs”. For most church members and clergy, it says, “the ideal is one priest, one church building, one congregation, in control of their own property, income and destiny”.

It lists joint councils as a “current threat”, and a “potential slippery slope”, warning that, depending on how the scheme is drawn up, “if you need money for something for your church which is not covered by a restricted fund, you will have to ask the JCC, who may reject your request as being lower priority than expenditure at another church in the new grouping.”

It regards “Transforming Wigan”, a seven-year SDF-supported programme, as a cautionary tale. The project — unprecedented in the Church of England — entailed the grouping of 33 churches in a single benefice, involved reducing 29 parishes to seven, in which the respective PCCs operated in partnership with a joint council (News, 29 September). Existing PCCs were dissolved, and new PCC representatives were elected for the seven new parishes.

An independent evaluation recorded a “mixed response” on whether this simplified governance. It proved difficult to recruit people to the new warden and treasurer positions, while those in office spoke of the “increased burdens of their roles and responsibilities now that they were representing more than one church”.

Among the challenges described were long PCC meetings at which there was “only the opportunity to consider administrative and financial issues” and individual churches’ having to wait for approval on financial decisions. A strong “emotional connection” to the old parishes remained strong. But some felt that the answer was further rationalisation: down to two parishes, or even one.


WHILE joint councils have existed for some time, the revised Church Representation Rules, which came into effect in 2020, have simplified the process for establishing them. Annual meetings of “connected parishes” (parishes that belong to the same benefice, benefices held in plurality, or in the areas of the same group ministry) can now vote for a scheme establishing a joint council.

There are various ways in which schemes can be designed. A scheme could transfer all the property, rights, liabilities, and functions of the individual PCCs to the joint council. If a scheme does that, the individual PCCs go into abeyance, and no separate PCC meetings are held: the joint council does everything. Alternatively, a scheme establishing a joint council may transfer only certain property, rights, liabilities, and functions — as specified in the scheme — of the individual PCCs to the joint council.

DIOCESE OF WORCESTERThe Archdeacon of Dudley, the Ven. Nikki Groarke

Some clergy report a positive experience. The Revd Joe Knight arrived as Priest-in-Charge of the rural Seven Towers Benefice in the diocese of Gloucester in 2022. It comprises five parishes, six churches, and seven open churchyards, covering nearly ten small villages with a population of about 3000.

The parishes had already been working together more closely for several years, he says, most people worshipping together on a Sunday — travelling from church to church every week. There was resistance to forming one parish, however, “and this is understandable . . . people want to protect that sense of local identity.”

While each parish had a PCC, two were struggling to fill offices, and there was a sense that, “in the next few years, change is going to come, whether we like it or not.” Without a functioning PCC, parishes could face closure or merger.

The possibility of a joint council came from the Archdeacon. The idea appealed, Mr Knight says, because it meant that parish boundaries would remain, and local identity could be nurtured. The goal was to “share our governance, but protect and safeguard the things that we hold dear”.

Over the course of a year, a core group went through the possibilities “with a fine toothcomb”, considering the various scenarios that could arise. Mr Knight describes devising the framework as “like planting a garden” rather than “building a space rocket, where you need to know every single bolt and every eventuality and solution”. With a garden, he suggests, “you prepare well, but, once you plant, you respond to what emerges, which might be a surprise.” A consultation took place, and a number of meetings.

The creation of the joint council had to pass by two-thirds among the electoral roll of each parish; an anonymous postal voting system was put in place. In the end, just seven people opposed the decision. After approval at the Bishop’s Council, it officially came into being on 1 January.

Today, each parish is represented on the joint council, with two churchwardens for each. In total, it comprises 15 people. Meanwhile, many former PCC members have continued to meet as “local parish teams” working on local projects. A new position of “benefice warden” has also been created to support churchwardens, practically and pastorally.

Joint councils “will not solve all the challenges we face”, Mr Knight says. “But they do provide a framework to face them in a more resilient, more optimistic way.” There can be a perception, he says, that joint councils are “another way for the C of E to manage decline”. In his experience, however, they are a “great opportunity to put mission and ministry back into the hands of local people”.

In situations where most of the time of the churchgoers is spent thinking about finance, governance, and buildings, they can, he says, “free up everyone’s time to start dreaming; to ask what could we be doing together to be God’s people in our village?”


ALTHOUGH diocesan strategies evince an awareness of the burdens on falling numbers of older volunteers, many are also predicated on growing responsibility for lay people: strategies framed as a rejection of clericalism and a call to release and liberate the laity, but set against a backdrop of financial deficits and cuts to stipendiary posts.

Figures provided to the Synod state that, at the end of 2022, there were about 6500 stipendiary clergy in full- and part-time posts paid for by dioceses. A central goal of the Renewal and Reform programme was to secure a “stable pool” of 7600 clergy in full-time posts (News, 23 September 2016).

Setting out the diocese’s “shared local ministry” strategy, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, warns that a “Victorian” model of church — one in which “the vicar would do almost everything” — is “increasingly leaving our vicars tired, overstretched, and liable to burn out”. But it is also, he argues, “a crying waste of the gifts and passions that together we share. . . We need a better way: one that draws on the rich talents, abilities, and skills that our church members have.”

Some question the language of “volunteers” as appropriate in a church context. The diocese of Lichfield refers instead to “the community of disciples who aren’t paid for their work”, noting that “we are talking about the living-out of vocations, regardless of whether or not people are being paid to directly enable that work.”

The diocese of Hereford, which has diagnosed an “excessive reliance on clergy in many places”, has set a goal of training and commissioning at least 200 new voluntary or lay leaders, “to support our stipendiary clergy to increase our ministry on offer”. With a deficit of £1 million (only ten benefices currently cover the cost of their incumbent), and plans for pastoral reorganisation that will mean a reduction in the number of stipendiary incumbencies from 72 to 55, it has set of a goal of training two self-supporting ministers and three lay leaders for every stipend removed.

Around the Church, a growing number of dioceses, from Sheffield to Truro, are moving to a model of “oversight” and “focal” ministry, in which stipendiary clergy are taking on responsibility for larger areas, and lay people are being asked to play a greater part in leading churches. In Truro, the diocesan plan for change and renewal includes a goal to increase the number of churchwardens from 358 to 500 over the next ten years.

At a national level, goals for the 2020s include 10,000 new Christian communities, and recruiting 27,000 new volunteers to help double the number of children and young active disciples.

Many have voiced scepticism about whether such goals are realistic. Fr Bish fears that they reflect a Church “completely out of touch with the reality of the volunteer landscape”.


FOR the Revd Andy Bond, Assistant Curate of St Francis’s, Mackworth, the recruitment question is secondary to one of mission: “In order to have people to serve in roles, we have got to be making new disciples of Jesus.”

VERITY RAMSDENMembers of the choir at Holy Trinity and St Constantine, Wetheral, including Nic and Verity Ramsden (far left)

St Francis’s is a church-revitalisation plant in the HTB network on an estate on the edge of Derby with a population of about 10,000. Before his arrival, three and a half years ago, the congregation numbered between 12 and 20. There were no churchwardens, a treasurer “borrowed” from another church, and a “tired PCC”.

Mr Bond came with about 30 to 40 adults, plus children, from St Werburgh’s, planted with a £1.26 million SDF grant in Derby in 2017 (News, 15 September 2017), and, today, the worshipping community numbers 150 adults, 50 children, and 20 young people. About one third of the adults have come to faith or returned to churchgoing faith, he says.

Many of these now serve in the church. One of the current churchwardens was part of the first local family that came to faith through online Alpha in 2020. A volunteer youth leader came to church for the first time in January 2022. Others serve on teams such as welcome, hospitality, production, worship, prayer ministry, and Bible readings. In total, the church has about 80 adults serving on a team at least once a month. All key PCC offices are filled by people aged from their twenties to eighties.

“We don’t want to see people come to living faith in Jesus to fulfil church roles,” Mr Bond says. “We want that for God’s glory, for their lives now and for eternity, plus we want them fulfilling God’s purpose for their lives out in the world. But part of that will be being a member of a local congregation, and that involves serving Jesus by serving his Church.

“As has often been said, people often belong before they believe before they become/behave. We ask people to serve in basic roles like welcome very quickly, and, for many, this helps them belong and feel part of St Francis’s.

“Our only hope is Jesus, and, in order to have people serve in roles, we have got to be making new disciples of Jesus, otherwise we will simply burn people out — which, sadly, many churches have been good at over the years.”

C of E governance also requires good communication, he says. “We must admit, it is all pretty complex and confusing, with language not used elsewhere, with hundreds of years of history.”

He has created a short, two-sided introduction to the C of E for new people, sent out periodically. Asked for the advice that he would pass on to others, he recommends prayer and encouragement: “Make sure you celebrate and thank people regularly. . . Look for character first: you can teach people how to do stuff.”


WHILE many of the Church’s volunteers are retired, some are juggling their contribution with full-time work. When Verity Ramsden and her husband, Nic, arrived in Wetheral, a village near Carlisle in Cumbria, three years ago, they got involved almost straight away. “I am the sort of person who is very bad at saying no,” she says. “I’ve always had loads of hobbies. My parents have always been on loads of committees and clubs, and it’s in my DNA. I actually have to fight that urge to volunteer all the time.”

Having both been involved in choirs throughout their lives, the couple have helped to establish and grow a choir, led by Mrs Ramsden as director of music, while Mr Ramsden is now a churchwarden, a position shared with another member of the congregation. He is also president of the local Rotary Club, a member of the village-hall committee, and on the advisory board for two charities. She is vice-chair of the local theatre, the Green Room, where she acts, writes, and directs, while also running the weekly church e-newsletter, and sitting on various committees of the UK National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

DIOCESE OF WORCESTERThe Dean of Small Churches in the diocese of Worcester, the Revd Alison Maddocks

This lifestyle is not necessarily typical for a couple working full-time in their thirties, she acknowledges. “We live quite a ‘baby-boomer lifestyle’, in that we are religious, we join societies, we go to church. . . Most people our age are time-poor, and stressed beyond belief and commuting. We are very lucky to be able to have the time to dedicate to this, and we really do care about these things. When people like us — young, enthusiastic people — turn up, there is a tendency for people to want to nab us, and it’s very hard to say no.”

There are, she says, challenges to juggling these numerous commitments. There can be a presumption “that everyone is retired”, and training and meetings are scheduled during working hours. But this is getting better, she reports.

When it comes to solutions to the volunteer crisis, she describes herself as “wary” about combining PCCs, having spoken to a clergy friend in the Church in Wales. “You end up with bigger roles that are harder to fill, and don’t have that local connection and knowledge of people and buildings,” she says. “People care about their local patch much more than they care about the wider patch. . . People are parochial in both the good and bad sense of the word.”

She feels that, on issues such as environmental sustainability, the national Church should be “taking much more action to tell us what we should be doing, and help fund it. . . If the Church is serious about meeting its carbon commitments, they need to almost take it out of the hands of PCCs and implement a strategy.”

She also recommends more information about what different positions require: “People are scared about what they are letting themselves in for, so they don’t commit.”

Surveying the broader volunteering landscape, she feels “quite despondent”, she admits, noting a “huge shift in our society over the last 50-odd years”. Shifts in working patterns, commuting, and people being less connected to where they grew up have happened “without us actually thinking about the implications”, she suggests.

“We are starting to get to the point where the people who have always done that sort of thing, who were doing it in the ’70s, are still doing it, but they are getting to the end of their lives and are not being replaced. . . How are are we going to keep making places feel like communities?”

She wonders whether “even the nicest village in the country will start to just feel like a cold, informal commuter settlement, where people live and run their own lives, but nobody has the time or the inclination to actually do something outside the home for the wider community. I really do worry.”


MANY dioceses have embarked on significant structural reforms, but the Church Times also learned about a raft of initiatives designed to help those seeking to fill PCCs vacancies, and those considering stepping up. In the diocese of Chichester, for example, the parish adviser on finance, stewardship, and governance, Sarah Rogers, runs training sessions for treasurers throughout the year, both online and in-person.

The diocese of Winchester provided a long list of initiatives, including a series of videos featuring current churchwardens talking about their work — descriptions which parishes can use to articulate clearly what each job entails; and a “parish portal” to help parishes keep track of their officers, parish share payments, and fee returns. It also retains an external HR consultant to support parishes with HR-related issues.

The diocese of Sheffield has established “Mission Support” with the help of a grant from the Archbishops’ Council, with a pledge to “release parishes as far as possible from current constraints”, including the demands of buildings, administration, and compliance. At a national level, the Archbishops’ Council announced last year that dioceses would be allocated £2.8 million to employ church-buildings support officers (CBSOs) to advise on the upkeep of buildings (News, 9 November 2023).

Mr Clements agrees with Mrs Ramsden that lack of clear information remains an issue: it was what inspired his own book, which is close to selling out its print run. “In many cases, people are unwilling to accept the responsibility because they do not understand the role,” he says. “It is neither comprehensively described nor clearly limited in scope. All they hear are the horror stories, the difficulties. . .

“At first glance, the job may appear to require nothing more than attendance at a service or two every week, as so much of the job is done ‘behind the scenes’. In consequence, there are often churchwardens who survive a single year, and then quietly disappear; these are the people who should never be a churchwarden in the first place, because they had only a limited knowledge of what the churchwarden does.

“I feel the right people are often dissuaded from standing for election; they may have been on a PCC and have heard a churchwarden report on various issues of complexity, variety, and effort; as they cannot see a limited scope for their responsibilities and the time involved, their intelligence warns them not to stand for election.”

While aware that many dioceses do offer training, his sense, from time spent on an online forum, is that the training is “either inadequate, or else has just not reached enough of the right people”. Gaps in knowledge also pertain to the clergy, he suggests, including the Church Representation Rules, how to chair a meeting, and “the limits of their authority. Worse, even fewer understood — or cared — how a busy churchwarden felt after a 12-hour working day.”


THE landscape for volunteering — within and beyond the Church — is undoubtedly challenging, but there is much that should encourage its leaders. Given the prevalence of Sheffield’s “four-headed beast”, it is a testament to the dedication of an army of lay volunteers that the C of E’s thousands of parish churches continue to function.

In the diocese of Norwich, they include Margaret Henderson, churchwarden of All Saints’, Lessingham, and a member of the recent Commission, who looks after the church with her husband, who opens the church each day and takes on many maintenance tasks. Both are in their eighties.

In the diocese of Exeter, the Bishop of Plymouth, the Rt Revd James Grier, points out that the diocese now has about 80 Anna Chaplains and Anna Friends, and more are training all the time (News, 12 July 2019). “We don’t have a volunteer crisis: we have a crisis of vision,” he says. “Yes, it’s hard finding people to fill rotas or some roles, but give them a vision, and they respond.”

And in Wetheral, Mrs Ramsden reports that, while her extensive commitments mean “going from one meeting to another meeting”, she and her husband are happy with their choices. “Nic and I would both say that we have got so much out of getting involved in our church community. When we moved to Wetheral, it was so important for getting to know people. We’ve made wonderful friends of various different ages, we’ve really been welcomed wholeheartedly into the heart of the community. It’s brought us so much joy, and really enriched our lives.”

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)