Parish priests like me operate at the coal face: we baptise; we marry; we bury; we console where we can. This is the work of the Church of England at the micro-level.
Where the Church does not have a compelling presence is at the national level, the macro level. It is here that there has been a complete lack of engagement, of witness, of imagination. As entities, it’s 42 ‘dioceses’ (regional structures) have no practical or spiritual traction or presence.
They are failing institutions… and failing at great cost to the parishes. Without effective national witness, work at the parish level has been made far harder.
The 42-diocesan structure invariably means there is a huge and costly amount of replication. Nowhere is this more apparent than within the marketing and comms teams. Coming from a marketing and communications background myself before being ordained, it became immediately obvious to me how completely inept and immature the diocesan communications teams are. A pack of poodles doing the Bishop’s bidding – and what the Church of England has ended up with is 42 inward-facing communications strategies, all of which are preaching to the diminishing choir.
The salt in the wound, here, is that the parishes are paying for this desperately poor service (Diocesan costs are added into the ‘parish share’ bills for the provision of clergy).
Just go online. Here is the evidence for who owns, and more importantly is contributing to, the current spiritual and religious narrative within the UK:
- On YouTube, a year ago, Richard Dawkins tells a theology student his degree is useless: 659,000 views
- Russell Brand discusses religion on Facebook: 952,000 views
- Stephen Jenkinson talks about the meaning of death: 143,000 views
Now let’s have a look at how the leadership of the country’s main religious organisation, the Church of England, is performing:
- The Archbishop of Canterbury’s address to the Anglican Communion: 4,000 views
- The Bishop of Exeter’s Easter message: 62 views
- The Bishop of Chichester’s Christmas message: 57 views
- The Bishop of Reading (Oxford diocese) talking about COP26: 21 views
- The Bishop of Truro’s ‘driving home for Christmas’ homily: 5 views
It is important to point out that each diocese separately employs paid communications advisers. Google for example ‘Oxford diocese communications’ and you will find that it has a team of five. What is needed, instead, is in effect one national working creative department, whose staff understand how to communicate ideas and strategies at the macro level.
I have been a parish priest for nearly 30 years and, over that time, it has become increasingly obvious that the diocesan structures have become parasitic, feeding off and weakening the parishes. Forty-two dioceses, 112 Bishops, these ‘birds that cannot sing’.
Essay by Revd Peter Owen Jones: Parish priest, author and broadcaster