This post continues my series looking for new ways to conceive of the Church and its role. Here I focus on the management of the Church of England. I have no significant expertise in this matter but I think the direction of travel is clear. We should plan to do it well rather than trying to hold onto a failing system.
The failing system is the idea of having a full-time stipendiary priest in every parish. For 50 years it has been whittled away. As each vicar departed a neighbouring vicar would be asked to take over an extra parish, thus reducing the number of clergy. We wouldn’t have the money to pay as many as we did.
So over the years, what it means to be a parish priest has kept changing, at different rates in different places. I have been a vicar in both inner city and rural parishes, and the jobs were completely different.
It may be unkind to say of all those countless management committees that they have just been muddling along making incremental changes, but looking back over the last fifty years we haven’t adapted well to the changing situation. A new system is well overdue.
A senior clergyperson once suggested to me that the system will not change until the Church runs out of money. Whether or not this is the case, we will end up with a leaner, cheaper system.
There is still inherited wealth, but increasingly the Church of England depends on the Parish Share. This is the money raised by local parishes for central funds, to pay for clergy and other things.
For rich and poor parishes alike, the present system easily becomes a recipe for resentment. Poorer parishes have to put ever-increasing amounts of energy into paying their bills if they are to keep open at all. Many have closed down. The archdeacon can remind them that an annual parish share of, say, £12,000 is less than a quarter of what it costs the national church to provide their vicar; but that doesn’t mean they have the money. If they have to step round the pleading hands of beggars every time they go shopping – as many of us do now – the owners of bishops’ palaces don’t seem the most deserving of financial gifts. At the other end of the spectrum, church officers raising £100,000 for the parish share may well wonder where the money is going. Is it subsidising churches they disapprove of – churches which do, or don’t, approve of gay marriages or evolution? Should they refuse to pay, and declare independence?
Dioceses have to decide how to divide up the parish share bill. In deciding allocations, one factor is the number of people attending the services: the bigger the congregation, the more they are asked to pay. In one of my churches, about 25 years ago, a treasurer calculated that every time a visitor attended a service the diocese increased the parish share by £3.50. Most visitors didn’t put as much as £3.50 on the collection plate. Financially, it was better if they didn’t come.
In other words, the cost of the system is far too high. We need to move towards a much cheaper one.
Every church committee member has their favourite example of unnecessary expenditure, but the big figures are about paying parish clergy. The idea of every parish having its own full-time stipendiary priest is a thing of the past. What should replace them?
I would vote for the principle that decisions should be made at the most local level practicable. This means leaving the parishes to make their own decisions about as many things as possible.
In my experience of rural ministry, every village has somebody who would be good at leading services, provided they aren’t expected to preach or to know anything about the Bible or the Church of England. Most villages have somebody who is good at pastoral care, and would be good at conducting weddings and funerals. Instead of maintaining as many full-time stipendiary clergy as we can afford, and spreading them more and more thinly, we could invest in making sure every village - and in towns, every church - has someone unpaid but trained and authorised to lead the worship.
The training and authorising would need to be done centrally. It would be important to have agreed minimal standards which are based on clearly explained theological principles, while otherwise allowing as much flexibility as possible.
The teaching ministry is another matter. Let’s be realistic about the present situation: most parish clergy haven’t been theologically trained anywhere near well enough to give 52 inspiring and informative 10-minute talks every year for five years. I’ve lost count of how many well-educated people I’ve heard saying that they no longer go to church because they are fed up of listening to drivel.
This is where thorough training is needed, to produce paid specialists. The people so trained should be the public spokespeople for Christianity and the Church. I don’t know how many we need. Maybe a hundred would be enough, though in an earlier post I suggested 500.
The gold standard would be to hold their own in a television debate with Richard Dawkins. A major role would be to provide a diverse range of teaching resources for local parishes - talks that can be read out, videos, audio files, plays, meditations, whatever parish churches say works well for them. The point would be that there are resource providers who are both well trained theologically and authorised by the Church.
We might call these trained theologians ‘bishops’, since not so long ago bishops were expected to perform this role. However it will be important to keep the role completely separate from the job of managing the Church. Otherwise we might end up, as often happens now, with church leaders presenting Christianity as though it was all about attending services.
A change like this would best be carefully planned and introduced gradually. Otherwise something like it will eventually happen anyway, but more chaotically.
It should enable significant reductions in the parish shares. The money would be saved by not paying stipendiary clergy to do all the other things they currently do. I am not saying those other things don’t need to be done. My point is that whether and how they need to be done should be decided locally. Sick visiting, or running a youth club, or being a school governor, doesn’t need to be done by whoever takes the services. Each parish could decide for itself whether these jobs need doing, whether to pay someone to do them, whether to collaborate with the next parish along or buy into a deanery scheme. This would bring the Church of England closer to the practice of the Free Churches, which are often more realistic about how much they can expect one minister to do well.
Of course many other questions will need settling. For the foreseeable future parishes will need professional support from lawyers, architects and others, and the central system will need to make some provision. In general, though, we should be working towards the day when each local church can meet its priorities without undue financial pressure.