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Clergy posts are a priority, says Truro bishop

15 March 2024

Diocese rejects Save the Parish’s claims about recruitment

PR4Photos (Paul Richards)

New priests in Truro diocese, ordained at Petertide 2023, with the then Bishop, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen (back left)

New priests in Truro diocese, ordained at Petertide 2023, with the then Bishop, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen (back left)

INCREASING the number of stipendiary priests in the diocese of Truro is the “top operational priority”, the Acting Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Hugh Nelson, who is the Bishop of St Germans, said this week.

His comments followed claims by the campaign group Save the Parish Cornwall (STP) that the number of stipendiary priests in the diocese had fallen to 38, and that there were 19 vacancies to be filled. The group says that the diocese is “struggling to recruit new priests to undertake the unrealistic roles proposed by the restructuring plans — in particular ‘oversight ministers’ . . . in giant benefices”.

A diocesan spokeswoman said this week that there were 58 stipendiary clergy in post at the end of last month, including incumbent-status clergy, assistant curates, and archdeacons. In addition, eight new appointments had been made in the past three months. The plan was to increase the number of stipendiary clergy to about 85, “dependent on clergy being attracted to our posts”.

Defending the direction of travel, one of the clergy explained that he had chosen to come the diocese precisely because of its “ambitious” changes to patterns of ministry.

Recently appointed as Rural Dean of East Wivelshire, the Revd Michael Johnson said that the diocese had realised that “simply using up any financial reserves to maintain the same old patterns of ministry was offering no new vision for any realistic hope of turning things around.”

Numbers of stipendiary clergy have been falling in Truro for decades: from 118 in 2001, to 81 in January 2019, and 70 in January 2023. In a blog post last month (“Penpushers outnumber priests in diocese of Truro”), Save the Parish Cornwall said that the diocesan central office employed 40 lay people. The diocese says that the figure stands at 35 in the 2024 budget. Central costs were reduced by £250,000 in 2023.

“All dioceses in the Church of England are having difficulty filling the number of posts available and we know from feedback that dioceses with active Save the Parish groups struggle more than others because clergy are wary of coming into an area where they will be harassed,” a press release issued in response to the blog said.

On Tuesday, Bishop Nelson said that there were no plans to close churches or establish more resource churches, and that the diocese was investing in supporting its many small rural churches, in the care of buildings and other matters. It was a “real challenge to recruit clergy at the moment”, he said. But the diocese was one of the few in the country that had made a clear, public commitment to ending the decline in stipendiary clergy numbers, and this was “our top operational priority”. The Diocesan Secretary, Canon Simon Cade, said that this would cost the diocesan board of finance “a lot: parishes can’t just afford that themselves.”

Last year, the diocesan synod approved a plan to spend £22 million of diocesan reserves over the next ten years; £10 million is to be used to keep the Mission and Ministry Fund (the parish share) call as low as possible, in an effort to protect stipendiary posts. It was projected that, by this January, between 78 and 83 stipendiary clergy would be in post (News, 2 June 2023).

Diocesan assets grew from £33 million in 2001 to £113 million in 2021. Of the £22 million, £3 million has been earmarked for work with children and young people, £3 million for the Church’s Net Zero 2030 target, and £2 million for supporting parishes in their responsibility for church buildings.

The diocese’s commitment to increasing stipendiary numbers follows the two-year “On the Way” process, in which Truro’s 12 deaneries were asked to draw up plans, for approval by Bishop’s Council, for a “fruitful and sustainable” future (News, 2 June 2023).

The process was launched in 2019, against a backdrop of stark statistics. Average Sunday attendance fell from 13,000 in 2001 to fewer than 6000 in 2021, while the number of children fell from 1200 to just over 400. The diocese had an operating budget deficit of £1.4 million, and the then Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, warned that it was “unsustainable” for the cost of ministry in deaneries to be outstripping their MMF contributions.

Reductions in the number of stipendiary clergy in some deaneries were a key factor in STP’s criticisms, in addition to pastoral reorganisation (one deanery now has a single benefice of 23 churches and two stipendiary clergy), and the expansion of communion by extension. It has raised concerns about the move to employ the many lay positions set out in the deanery plans via Community Interest Companies. It has called for a moratorium on implementation of the plans, arguing that “many regular worshippers feel inadequately consulted and not at all convinced of the wisdom of the plans.”

It says that clergy in the diocese “fear for their jobs so will not speak publicly”. An anonymous priest who contributed to its dossier of testimonies said of On the Way: “a gun was put to people’s heads. It was a divisive thing, with people being
turned against each other. People were told ‘it’s only you’ (that’s making a
fuss).”

STP is also critical of the diocesan-wide move to a model of oversight ministry, which, it argues, “removes ordained clergy from day-to-day contact with their parishioners and creates a top-heavy bureaucracy”. It says that clergy in the diocese are retiring early or taking up posts elsewhere rather than agree to the model. Published last year, the diocese’s ten-year Plan for Change and Renewal (News, 2 June 2023) forecasts that, by the end of the period, “the majority of church communities are led by Local Ministers (both lay and ordained), with stipendiary priests in oversight roles.”

Before his departure last year, Bishop Mounstephen told the diocesan synod that “almost all the ordained clergy in this room are already exercising oversight ministry in one form or another . . . but we haven’t been as intentional about it as we should have been.” He acknowledged that, with a lack of training in place, “people have accidentally moved into oversight roles, and some have suffered in that process.” Commenting on the number of vacancies last year — more than was expected — Bishop Nelson acknowledged that some clergy did not want to take on the oversight post (News, 2 June 2023).

This week, clergy defended the On the Way process, and the move to new patterns of ministry.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist, Truro, the Revd William Harwood, said: “In order for the church to be fruitful there needs to be a concerted effort to connect with children and young people. This means we need to have a different focus in terms of our models of ministry and services. . .

“Oversight ministry, where it is coupled with effective local leadership, can provide better accountability and support. It must, however, not come at the expense of local believers’ knowing they are cared for. It is working very well in my context but I realise this is not the case in all deaneries.”

The Revd Jeffrey Terry, a self-supporting associate priest in the Camel-Allen benefice, chairs the implementation team in the Bodmin and Trigg Minor deanery. The deanery had chosen not to cut the number of stipendiary clergy, he said, and had used Lowest Income Communities Funding (LICF), and some mission funding from the diocese, to help to maintain one full-time post in each benefice. In his own benefice, LICF was also being use to fund an ordained parish nurse to spent two days a week in the most impoverished urban areas of the deanery.

“I have little time for those who criticise the low numbers of filled clergy posts, as if these are being deliberately kept at a low level, when the converse is true,” he said. “Cornwall is somewhat out on a limb geographically, and there is probably a reluctance on the part of some to relocate here from other parts of the nation. Many people entering ministry are looking to work in more heavily populated areas, where they feel they can make a bigger difference.

“It is a simple fact that Cornwall has many small rural churches with increasingly elderly congregations, and, whilst the diocese is struggling to reverse this trend so far as possible, there are limits to what can realistically be done.

“A simplistic approach of asserting that there ought to be a parish priest in every parish bears no relationship to the practical reality of how to achieve this. Unless the Church Commissioners decide to take a radically different view of how to spend national church resources, dioceses such as Truro, acting alone, can only do so much.”

This week, a diocesan spokeswoman said that the diocese received more applications for pioneer and oversight posts than for “traditionally organised” posts. It has recently announced the appointment of three oversight ministers, two of whom have just completed curacies in the dioceses. It has pushed back against Save the Parish’s description of the new appointments as “inexperienced”.

In a diocesan press release this month, the Revd Laura Bushell Hawke, Oversight Minister of Saltash, Landrake with St Erney and Botus Fleming, and the Tamar Benefice, in the East Wivelshire deanery, said that working on “On the Way” as a curate was “part of the reason I wanted to stay here. I am excited to see new patterns of ministry developing. This is a diocese that is not frightened to try something new and discover where God is at work inside and outside of our buildings.

“This really feels positive for the future of the Church in the East Wivelshire Deanery and I’m truly delighted to be a part of it.

The East Wivelshire plan entails a transition from five benefices with five incumbents, to three benefices with three incumbents plus a full time Rural Dean, a house-for-duty priest and a pioneer post. One of two new Christians Against Poverty coaches is in place and three school-chaplain posts are planned. Mrs Bushell Hawke said on Wednesday that the plan would “provide us with better resources so we can respond to the needs of our parishes” and that groups from across the parishes were already meeting to share ideas and support one another. “I’ve been in the deanery for over ten years, and this type of collaboration across parish boundaries hadn’t been seen here before On The Way,” she said.

This week, Mr Johnson, who has joined the deanery from Oxford diocese, where one of his posts was a deanery creative-mission enabler, said that he had been attracted by “a very ambitious new way of structuring what we do in mission and ministry, which not only values the clergy, but values and nurtures and supports the gifts and talents of a much wider pool of people. . . Any church which relies too heavily on its clergy alone is inevitably limiting any opportunities for growth.”

He described how, in his previous diocese, an “almost disused church” had been turned into an arts- and theatre-performance space used seven days a week, while another church building, open only twice a week, had been turned into a “vibrant café space”, attracting hundreds of people. The church had become “re-engaged in its local community . . . and no longer sees Sunday services as the only thing they can offer, nor indeed necessarily the most important thing they can offer, but is trying to reengage with ordinary people, whether they are churchgoers or not”.

In the course of visiting his deanery’s 32 churches, he was starting to identify areas that could be built on, such as a craft fair that “packed the church out” three days a year. There were opportunities to work with theatre companies, musicians, and artists, and to house in church both a children’s library and cafés that had been lost during the pandemic, he reported.

“If the Church is willing to be a place where all kinds of people engage then it can actually make opportunities for the Church that were not previously there and conversations can start and relationships are built and Sunday worship is not the only thing that we are offering to people.”

Church buildings needed to be made more comfortable, he suggested. The previous Sunday, a service had been held in a school rather than the church, which was “simply cold”. The Church needed to be “bold in terms of allowing the inside of our buildings to be reordered, where necessary”.

East Wivelshire’s deanery plan reported that recorded attendance by children in 2019 never exceeded single figures, “and in many cases was only one or two”.

Asked about On the Way this week, one of the diocese’s lay representatives on the General Synod, Nicolas Herian, said: “Any plan which seeks to grow the Church, particularly among our youth within the diocese of Truro, is to be encouraged.”

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