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Cornwall figures defended as Truro responds to campaigners  

22 March 2024

THE campaigning group Save the Parish Cornwall has defended its calculations concerning the ratio of parish priests to administrators and office staff in the diocese of Truro.

In recent weeks, the group and the diocese have disputed the numbers (News, 15 March). Martin Saunders, a lay member of the diocesan synod and a chartered accountant, said this week that his figures had been checked by the diocese in early February.

They had confirmed that, as of 31 December, there were 39 “full-time stipendiary parish incumbents” in post, and 19 vacancies. The 2024 diocesan budget had forecast that 40.6 full-time-equivalent lay staff would be employed at the diocesan office. The numbers were referred to in a blog published by Save the Parish Cornwall last month: “Penpushers outnumber priests”.

In response, the diocese of Truro said that the numbers were “incorrect”, and said that there were, in total, 58 stipendiary clergy in post at the end of February: 40 incumbent-status stipendiary parish clergy, two archdeacons, and 16 stipendiary curates. A spokeswoman said this week that the number for the end of March was likely to be 61 in total: 46 incumbent-status clergy and 13 curates. She confirmed that, in 2024, parishes would contribute about £600,000 to Church House costs through MMF (parish share).

In a letter to the Church Times this week, Mr Saunders writes that curates are “usually excluded from clergy numbers”, and that archdeacons do not have “direct parish responsibilities”.

Neil Wallis, of Save the Parish Cornwall, said on Monday that the group’s concern was about how many paid stipendiary priests there were “actually out in parishes”. “Our concern is absolutely straightforward,” he said. “We believe that the Church is better for having priests in parishes.” He was critical of the diocese’s response, which had suggested that the campaign group had been “dishonest”.

The diocese reports that there are currently about 20 vacancies. The spokeswoman said that there were plans “in hand to recruit to them all as soon as we can advertise, interview, and appoint. We are well below where we need to be, and we know that.” The goal is to have 85 stipendiary clergy in post.

Mr Wallis said that this was “music to our ears”. Save the Parish has suggested that “better use of funds could support 100 clergy, small clusters of, on average, three churches, led by ministers who are properly trained in the pastoral skills necessary to be an effective parish priest.” It argues that the large vacancy rate is related to the diocese’s move to a model of oversight ministry, and also to the departure of clergy unwilling to take on such positions (News, 2 June 2023).

Save the Parish has called for an immediate moratorium on “On the Way”, the deanery planning programme that has resulted in restructuring in the diocese, including a fall in stipendiary clergy posts in some deaneries (News, 2 June 2023). Mr Wallis reports that communion by extension is becoming “routine across large areas of Cornwall”.

In its response to Save the Parish’s blog post — which suggested that curates appointed to oversight positions were “inexperienced” — the diocese said that the campaign group was “hitting out” at clergy in the diocese. “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,” it said.

Mr Wallis said that claims of harassment were “almost laughable. Our whole raison d’être is to be in favour of priests in parishes. . . What we are deeply worried about is this oversight-ministry idea. . . We are not in favour of laypeople being brought in to act effectively as social workers, when the job of a priest is much wider than that.”

He also questioned claims about the difficulty of recruiting to Cornwall, arguing that people were “desperate” to live in the region. “Parish priesthood matters — and the drive to move away from that, and from the ancient parish system that nurtures it, diminishes the Church,” he said.

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