BACKGROUND:

The Church in Wales is a Province within The Anglican Communion. It became disestablished from the Church of England in 1920. 

In 2012 The Church in Wales commissioned a Review of the CiW.  It was chaired by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Former Bishop of Oxford, and is generally referred to as The Harries Report.   The report made many recommendations, one of them being: 

  • Replacing parishes with larger “ministry areas”, each containing around 25 parishes, which would mirror the catchment areas of secondary schools, where possible. They would be served by a team of clergy and laypeople.

 The report said that small parishes were no longer sustainable, with some priests having to serve as many as 10 parishes, “with all the extra attendance at meetings and administration this involves”.

However, the Church of England has its own report, ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, which postdates the Harries Report.  ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ rightly notes that amalgamating parishes leads to their decline.

CHANGES IN WALES:

The church I attend is a small rural church within the Diocese of St. Asaph, in N. Wales. The majority of churches in the CiW are rural. We number about 10 for a normal Sunday service.  

In 2015, our P.C.C. was abolished and we amalgamated with 14 other churches to become a much larger Mission Area/Super-Parish. 

The Mission Area (‘MA’) is led by a Mission Area Leader (‘MAL’), and is supposedly supported by 1 full-time stipendiary Cleric and one part-time non-stipendiary, although this is not often achieved. Each church now has a Church Council, that has none of the decision-making abilities that the P.C.C. used to have.

Each church sends an appointed representative to the quarterly Mission Area Conference.  It is this conference that now makes the decisions for the churches that used to be made by the church’s own P.C.C. Often, decisions are made regarding a church by someone who has never visited the particular church and has no understanding of how it operates locally and the people involved. Such is the power of the MA.  

Prior to becoming a MA, we had a service every Sunday. We now have one a month, usually taken by a retired Cleric.  Perhaps one of the saddest things to come out of MA’s is that clergy no longer have any local knowledge of the individual churches and the many loyal and faithful characters within. Pastoral care is a thing of the past.  Recently a lifelong member of our congregation passed away, someone who until failing health prevailed, attended church regularly.  In the past, he had served the church well: Sidesman, PCC member, bell ringer, (just the one!) and helped to cut the grass in the churchyard.  In his 80’s, he was a farmer who was well known, liked and a respected member of the community, his family having many connections with the church.   When it came to his funeral, our Mission Area Leader, had no idea of who he was and had to ask for details.  This is a common story throughout the MA.

LAY LEADERSHIP:

Another recommendation of the Harries Report was to train lay people to play a greater part in church leadership.  This too is not working.  Many feel forced into becoming Lay Readers to save their church.  We are told that if we do not have a Lay Reader amongst us, then we will not have regular services. The training is sadly lacking that of a fully trained Clergy, and it shows.  The congregation often do not attend if a “proper vicar” is not taking the service.  This reflects in attendance figures.

In 2015 prior to becoming a MA, churches had far better attendance figures, some seeing an increase in attendance.  One church in the MA had 35 regular attendants on a Sunday, last Sunday it had 8.  Attendance figures for the past six years in the MA make sad reading.  Most church notice boards in the MA no longer have names of a priest, they are largely anonymous

Everything now revolves around finance. Nothing happens without it being financially evaluated. Finance is the beginning and the end to all matters ecclesiastical. MA meetings are largely taken up with finance. Churches like mine are being squeezed by the Diocese for more and more money.  We could afford the upkeep if it was not for the crippling Quotas, (parish share) we have to pay.

Many churches are finding it hard to find people to take up positions such as Wardens or Treasurers.  The demands put on them by the MA are onerous and the amount of meetings/training/paperwork ever increasing.  People just want to look after their own church, not be part of a super parish.

Now our beautiful, iconic church has been told it is to be made redundant.  A neighbouring church told to close.  This will leave a large rural area without any pastoral care.  Incredibly, the neighbouring church, a Grade 1 Listed building with much history, has been told by the Diocese that, “the needs of a worshipping community are better met by the warm, accessible and flexible Chapel.” The chapel is Welsh Methodist.    

In the past, closure would have been the decision of the P.C.C. it would have involved many months of discussion and involved people from the local community. It would have been handled sensitively by the parish vicar.  Now it is a dictate from The Bishop’s office. No consultation has taken place. A recent review of the MA and the churches within it, was shambolic in procedure & content.  We were informed of the closure by way of an e-mail, sent out by mistake by the Diocesan office, with no apology ever being received.  Noone from the Diocese has ever been to talk to us. This would never have happened were we still a parish, and not part of a large anonymous Super Parish.

The few clergies we have to find MA means they are now Administrators, not Ministers and many are taking early retirement because of the onerous amount of paperwork. Retired clergy have a look of despair and are thankful they are no longer involved.

The stories of Super Parish failure are many.

CHURCH OF ENGLAND DIOCESES, LOOK AND LEARN:

Since the Harries Report and implementation of MA’s, the CiW has declined; it is now in crisis.

The Church of England’s green paper GS2222 stated in paragraph 35 that ‘anecdotal evidence’ suggested that the Super-Parish model had not worked well, but that there is an absence of hard data.

The evidence in Wales is easy to find. There is no excuse for the absence of ‘hard data’.  The Church of England must look at the evidence from the other side of Offa’s Dyke.  Here is just one sad example of a church being auctioned off

https://www.medievalists.net/2022/01/medieval-church-in-wales-to-be-auctioned/

They must visit and speak to the people in Wales, they must study the figures and look at the facts and avoid going down the same disastrous road if they do not wish to kill local community spirit and personal relationships, dry up donations and see church closures and sales which proclaim loud and clear their failure to keep the flame of Christianity alive.


2 Comments

Froghole · 31 January 2022 at 12:59 pm

Many thanks for this. Elsewhere on this site I have droned on about a scheme I have for a national religious buildings agency, which would entail the nationalisation of the whole stock of pre-1829 foundations, the partial disendowment of the Church (for the purposes of funding future upkeep), with the Church gaining a perpetual right of use in exchange.

That scheme was primarily intended for England, but I also had the other three countries in mind. Dreadful though things are in much of Wales (where the worshipping community is now <20k, mostly elderly), they are worse still in Scotland. The Radical Action Plan passed by the General Assembly in 2019 is now eviscerating medieval foundations at a terrific rate, as any glance at the Kirk's property site will reveal.

I have attended services in several hundred churches in Wales, chiefly in the dioceses of Llandaff, Monmouth and S&B, but I have also attended some services in the other three dioceses. To be honest, the CiW often seems to be just as strong, or weak, as much of the CofE in south-eastern Wales, and it is really in the centre and west of the country where things have become especially, though not universally, attenuated.

There are some basic things which could be done, such as advertising services more clearly and accurately. There is a province-wide website, as you will know, but many benefices are not making use of it for the purpose of providing service times. This is also a problem in England, although there have been some improvements (but also, it has to be said, some reversals).

It is often hard to determine whether a church in Wales is or is not still functioning. There is no quasi-judicial closure process, as in England (this is despite the fact that the Church in Wales received income from local taxation before 1868/1920, and has since received government grants). One month a church may be functioning; the next month it may have been closed forever. I have been struck painfully by the rising tide of closures in certain places, especially Brecknockshire, the Usk valley in Monmouthshire, much of Pembrokeshire, the boundaries of Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire (liminal churches are very frequently vulnerable) and, above all, in Anglesey. Nor has the RB published 'tables of destinations' as the Pastoral Division of the Church Commissioners used to (available until about 2012/13). Many of these closures are for delightful buildings, and their loss is heartbreaking – all the more so, because with the collapse of nonconformity, there is the realisation that the cause of Christianity will be snuffed out forever in the community affected. There is the safety valve of the FFC (established by Ivor Bulmer Thomas to provide Welsh cover), but it is a very small charity (with only 1.5 FTEs) and receives a pitiable £50k p/a from Cadw; as such, there is only so much it can do, relative to the scale of the problem, and a good deal of its attentions are devoted to units in England.

I take your point about the attenuation of provision. In my experience, it is as often the case as not that the fewer services there are, the fewer attendees there will be. Many people will not travel outside their own parish, so telling someone that there is a group service a number of miles off will not often aid mission, and as churchgoing is essentially a matter of habit, the fewer services there are, the more likely that established habits will be lost: this was the great lesson of lockdown.

Moreover, if a group is only having a single service a week, my instinctive reaction is that the incumbent is not working nearly hard enough. If I, as a layman working long hours, can attend services at between 11 and 15 churches (on average) a week, then a stipendiary can have many, many more services than one a week. The less the clergy are seen to be making the effort (i.e., the less provision there is), the less people will come; often, it's a two-way street.

To have a single service in a benefice with more than about 8-10 churches is effectively to reduce all of them to 'festival' status. In practice it is even worse than that: often one or two churches are used fairly regularly, and the rest become de facto festival churches but, in reality, can sometimes be used even less than festival churches (i.e., they will have fewer than 6 services p/a), meaning that they will struggle to prove public benefit for the purpose of receiving maintenance grants, and they will also struggle to cover insurance costs. This, then, makes them prime candidates for closure. The risk is all the greater in Wales (as in SW England) because ancient settlement patterns have often dictated that parish populations are scattered and, therefore, that churches are often quite isolated. In much of mid-Wales, for example, nucleated settlements are rare.

I mentioned my national scheme. As you will know, the CiW lost all of its pre-1662 endowments a century ago. This meant that it was left with the liability (the stock of buildings) without any means of support, in the form of tithe or glebe (granted that tithes were not paid reliably, especially during episodes like the 1887-88 tithe war, and after 1891 increasingly penurious landlords, to whom the liability transferred, struggled to meet their payments). Whilst I appreciate that A. G. Edwards raised significant funds in 1920-21, they did fall short of the targets projected.

Nonetheless, by the end of 2020 the RB had £804m, of which £477m is liquid, a gain of about £20m in the preceding year, but it provided only £6.3m in assistance to the dioceses, and none to the parishes. The pension liabilities are £237m (the scheme remains a relatively expensive DB affair), so the £807m is a nett amount. 82% of the designated fund, which accounts for £322m of the £477m represents the fixed assets of churches and parsonage houses (i.e., £264m).

That means the overall liquidity of the CiW is approximately £505m, and I have no doubt that this amount will have grown significantly since the end of 2020 on the back of rapid returns on investments. If the RB accrued £20m in 2020, to reach £804m, I suspect it will now have accrued another £25-30m in 2021, meaning that the liquid funds will be approaching £530m.

If the CiW lost, say, £300m-350m as an appropriated amount, then it could still cover its pension liabilities. The appropriated amount would be transferred to a national – UK wide – agency of the state, which would also have title to the churches. The agency would cover all of the prospective maintenance costs, and as the £300-350m could form part of a wider fund (I have suggested about £6bn taken from the Church Commissioners), the CiW would benefit from being part of a larger risk pool; its erstwhile buildings could free-ride on English endowments, which is surely only right, as the CiW lost its episcopal and capitular assets after 1840 to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and I am not aware (I may be wrong) that they received any part-payment in exchange for those expropriated assets after 1920-21. What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.

The £6bn, by the way, represents an approximate equivalent of the capital growth enjoyed by the Church Commissioners since 1998, when they started to free-ride on the back of increased parish share subventions. The £6bn appropriated from the Church Commissioners would effectively return to the parishes, in maintenance costs, the sums appropriated from them.

In this way, therefore, the CiW could retain its presence everywhere, in perpetuity, as there would be a default state guarantee. Its use of the buildings would be free, in exchange for the large up-front premium. Incumbents and PCCs would be liberated from the burden of maintenance costs and could concentrate on their core functions. They would no longer be vulnerable to peremptory closure by capricious bishops and archdeacons in revenge for shortfalls in diocesan contributions. The agency would achieve economies of scale in the procurement of labour and materials (the cost of which is now rising rapidly with inflation) – economies of scale that PCCs will never achieve.

PCCs would then be able to determine whether they can provide contributions to the dioceses in exchange for clergy, but they could not be held to ransom, as before. Cases like Whitson, which you cite, and with which I am familiar, would then become a thing of the past (incidentally, Whitson, along with Nash and part of Christchurch, formed part of the Eton College Goldcliff estate, and had alternate patronage rights to the church with the Llandaff chapter until an exchange with the bishop in 1910; did anyone think of tapping the College for support before closure?).

I am in favour of a degree of devolution, but my fundamental difference of opinion with STP is the presumption that if parishes are allowed to retain their own funds, they will be able to support themselves, and to grow. This may be true in a few places (especially more affluent and thickly populated places), and it might well have been true of some less affluent and thinly populated places until 30-40 years' ago, but it is radically implausible for the great majority of parishes, especially the great majority of rural parishes. I think that if the parishes are liberated from the burden and risk of the buildings, then they can grow, because they will be able to take more risks with the money they do have; because they will not be subject to the caprice of diocesan authorities, and that will – hopefully – permit growth, or else will slow shrinkage. But they will have to cast off the buildings first (so that they can gain the secure use of them forever).

Many thanks again.

Emma Thompson · 7 April 2022 at 6:18 pm

Re the ‘too many meetings’ argument – see the following extract from the above essay: “The [Harries] report said that small parishes were no longer sustainable, with some priests having to serve as many as 10 parishes, “with all the extra attendance at meetings and administration this involves”.” N.B. Churches faced with this argument should note that PCC meetings are not required to be chaired by the parish vicar. The incumbent is ex-officio chair of every PCC in the benefice, but it is entirely reasonable and proper for meetings to be chaired by the local lay vice-chair. The clergy are not required to be present at every meeting. (See the 2020 Church Representation Rules, Section A, Rule M2(4)? https://www.churchofengland.org/about/leadership-and-governance/legal-services/church-representation-rules/part-9#sn1)
Please also note that it would not, for example, be within rule M2(4) for any outside clergy (such as an archdeacon) to announce that they were coming to chair your PCC meeting. They cannot impose themselves on your meeting.

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