When I was asked to write this article for Save The Parish I was surprised: although I am
very much a parish priest, I’ve been quite critical of some of the rhetoric and negativity of the
movement. It is to their credit that they have asked me to write something about a diocese
which is doing things rather differently, to see an example of what is actually working rather
well, albeit with many of the same challenges facing others.
St Edmundsbury and Ipswich is a largely rural, relatively new diocese being just over a
century old, and without the historic reserves that neighbouring more established dioceses
enjoy. For many years reserves were built up and then shored up by the selling off of
parsonages, often in contexts where parishes were able to pay their share and there was no
real justification for the cuts. “Shortage of clergy” was given as the prevailing motivation at
the time, an anxiety shared across the wider church.
This all changed six years ago, when we had a change of leadership with the arrival of a
new Bishop. He announced soon after he arrived that the policy of cutting clergy posts to
meet our shortfall in parish share was a plan for decline, and not for flourishing. Instead, for
the past five years, our diocese has sought to counter a chronic annual deficit of around half
a million through increasing giving and encouraging growth. You’d be hard-pressed to find a
diocese which didn’t claim to want to do the same, but these claims come to nothing if
combined with cutting clergy numbers. Although more clergy doesn’t always mean more
growth, it is abundantly clear that cutting clergy leads to decline, and long term sustainable
growth will only be a possibility with well-trained clergy who have the space and capacity to
lead churches in mission.
And it worked. Year on year our deficit was being reduced, through cutting central costs and
increasing giving from a number of sources. “Can’t pay” parishes were distinguished from
“won’t pay”, with the former given support to increase rather than chastisement. The culture
of the diocese has been gradually changing from one where “they” were seen as the enemy,
to one where the challenges are shared. There is more openness and transparency in
strategic decisions, and the diocesan synod actually feels informative and consultative. 2020
was going to be the year when our budget would break even for the first time, but covid put
paid to that. Here the national church did step in with a 600k grant, paying for the equivalent
of around 10 stipendiary priests, and our parish share collection remained remarkably high
despite the situation. In 2021 it was even higher.
The biggest difference to my mind is the decision to stop cutting clergy numbers. The effect
on clergy morale, and levels of trust between parishes and the wider diocese is
remarkable. It helps that we have a genuinely supportive senior team. Where some clergy
in other dioceses were getting grumpy phone calls about where they were livestreaming
from, we received regular calls from our bishops and archdeacons checking on our
wellbeing. The knowledge that clergy and parish churches are valued, and seen as
essential to the thriving of the Kingdom of God in Suffolk, is still cited often by clergy even
today, especially as we see other dioceses facing the same problems going down a very
different (but sadly well worn) path.
Lest I be accused of painting too rosy a picture, we still face a tremendous challenge, and
sometimes we do have to cut posts where they become unsustainable. I write as a rural
dean and an honorary canon, and I am sure not everyone in my diocese would agree with
my evaluation, nor would I say I am always on board with every decision that is made. Many
supporters of the parish might not agree with everything we are doing, not least our two SDF
funded projects (and a third on the way!) which are already bearing modest fruit.
Things are not perfect and we aren’t seeing significant financial growth across the board, but it feels as though we have at least a fighting chance of the Church continuing to bless our county for many years to come.
Rev. Canon Tiffer Robinson
Rural Dean of Lavenham
Rector of Rattlesden, Hitcham, Brettenham and Thorpe Morieux
Froghole · 4 May 2022 at 11:13 am
Many thanks. I attended services across most of your deanery in 2017-18, and was relieved that there were no likely closures (although I was/am concerned about Bradfield Combust and Little Whelnetham – where I did not get to attend a rare service until 2019).
There are other areas of concern in Suffolk, such as the Saints and Stourhead benefices, where worship provision has reduced, or a number of parishes in the Breckland (Ampton, Cavenham, Herringswell, etc.). There are also churches like Lindsey, Poslingford, Sternfield, Wixoe, etc., where worship has practically disappeared, although there are some where there are promising signs of it coming back (Tannington, Thorington, Walpole, etc. and after an especially long interval at Walpole, where there was a substantial congregation on Easter Sunday).
So the picture is mixed.
However, I am ambivalent about the doctrine that more stipendiaries = more attendees. We had more stipendiaries in the past and it made not a whit of difference to the trajectory of decline (and some stipendiaries were so bad they may have advanced the decline). Moreover, the CPS is indexed linked, meaning that the relative burden of stipendiaries on the parish share will grow significantly just as the fall off in attendance accelerates (as the last generation of regular attendees dies off). The longer the war continues, the higher prices will rise, and the greater the burden of indexation will become upon the system.
Of course, a large portion of those funding the CPS will not have the benefit of indexation or rent-free accommodation, and their real incomes will be falling rapidly, especially if they are (like most people of working age) on dismal defined contribution pensions or if they are on fixed annuities. Increased giving cannot therefore be taken as a given, especially if clergy and laity are ‘not in it together’.
What each parish really does need is a point person who can co-ordinate worship, undertake visiting and do the bread and butter stuff (such as posting accurate details of service times online and on notice boards ahead of time), which so many parishes, especially in rural areas, still fail to do. Such a person need not necessarily be in orders, although it helps if s/he is, and such a person most certainly does not need to be a stipendiary. Eds & Ips is not so bad at this (although there are ‘difficult’ areas), but other dioceses (Lincoln, York, most of Wales) are often pretty unsatisfactory in this regard.
Once more, of course, we come back to the bleak fact that the Commissioners have taken all of the cream, the parish share functioning as a regressive tax, and seem to want to hoard that cream, disbursing it on only a relatively few pet projects.
Tiffer Robinson · 6 May 2022 at 5:25 pm
Hi Froghole – I am intrigued as to whether I met you as you did so, but just to clarify: I have been clear that more clergy doesn’t always mean less decline, but fewer clergy always means more decline. Focal ministry is being put in place here along precisely the lines you describe.
Bradfield Combust is sadly struggling, but little Welnetham has been a chapel of ease for a long time now and there’s no suggestion of that changing. There was another church earmarked for closure in the deanery that is now seeing a resurgence. Our diocese is generally very opposed to closing churches, and I cannot remember the last time one did close formally (or transfer into alternative care I should say)
Froghole · 11 May 2022 at 3:09 pm
Many thanks indeed for that. For me, the most important thing is that there is at least something going on, and that it should be going on at regular and predictable intervals. Also, that it should be well-advertised. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and there are now many benefices where, because a benefice need now only have one service, many/all churches have been reduced to de facto festival status. This inevitably puts them on the slide, stipendiary or no stipendiary.
I am glad to read of the diocese’s policy on closures. However, I am not wholly confident about everything. Ipswich St Helen and Sibton are also in a rather ambiguous state, with no worship being advertised for some time. Ditto Stowlangtoft, and when I last attended a service there (Easter Day, 2017) there was about one or two services a year, but I have not since seen any worship advertised. It is now under the care of the CCT, but has yet to be vested formally in them. Bizarrely, it is next to Langham, which despite being down a track and in fields, has had much more worship provision. Trimley St Mary, which had been neglected for a number of years, was sold for commercial use about 3 years’ ago (although there is a Remembrance Sunday service lasting a few minutes once a year, as the war memorial is in the nave, which I have attended, and it was confirmed to me by the Pastoral Division that this should continue).
A number of churches have slipped into something rather less than festival use: I have mentioned Ampton, Cavenham, Herringswell, Lindsey and Poslingford, but there are also churches like Little Blakenham, old Melton or Wantisden which have gone much the same way. Of course, some churches are used only in the summer months: Carlton, Hessett, etc.
In terms of closures, the real damage was done under the late John Waine (who retired to Grundisburgh), who also closed a good many churches in Essex. The following have been lost since the Pastoral Measure 1968: Akenham (CCT; monthly summer worship), Badley (CCT; annual service), Benacre (private trust; worship is extremely rare), Braiseworth (house), Bungay St Mary (CCT; ‘event’ in advent, but no actual worship); Chilton (CCT one or two services p/a), Claydon (CCT, one or two services p/a), Debach (house), Ellough (services extremely rarely), Hengrave (private weddings), Icklingham All Saints (CCT; no worship), Ickworth (private trust; one carol service), Ipswich St Lawrence (civic use), Ipswich St Mary at Quay (CCT; now used for regular worship), Ipswich St Nicholas (conference centre; occasional worship), Ipswich St Peter (arts centre; ostensible worship by another denomination), Ipswich St Stephen (commercial), Knettishall (house; a bit of Norwich in Suffolk), Little Livermere (dem.), Little Stonham (CCT; annual service), Little Wenham (CCT; annual service, possibly now discontinued), Mickfield (now part house since recent sale, chancel remaining; regular worship), Newton (part CCT), Redgrave (CCT; monthly summer worship), Rickinghall Superior (CCT; annual service ostensibly discontinued), Rishangles (house), Sapiston (CCT, formerly several services p/a, but this seems to have fallen away), Shipmeadow (house), South Elmham All Saints & St Nicholas (CCT, no worship), Southolt (private trust; some worship, though fading), Stratford St Andrew (house), Sudbury St Peter (CCT, no worship), Thwaite (TBD; structural issues), Ubbeston (house), Wangford by Lakenheath (US denomination, but now perhaps closed, as it had a congregation of 4), Washbrook (CCT; annual service, possibly discontinued), Wattisham (civic; poor repair), and Wordwell (CCT; annual service). Stoven was unusual, in that it was brought back out of closure after local protests, but it remains weak. I have attended services at almost every church in the county (including that part of Lothingland in Norwich), together with the units listed above (where possible), as part of a wider pilgrimage around the country.
Many thanks again!
Kevin Frost · 22 May 2022 at 8:36 am
I regularly cut the grass around my loved ones graves at Bradfield combust church after losing both parents and uncle as recent as two years ago. Have spoken to the new rector already and was told it is to close within five years. What I wasn’t expecting and accepting is the state the graveyard has already been left in . The grass ,3ft high, not even able to walk from front gate I struggled to cut a pathway . For anyone wishing to visit our graves ,many very elderly or anyone elses, its near impossible and dangerous.
I find this totally disrespectful from the church to just abandon it when I’m still trying to come to terms with losing so many so quickly .
Sort this out please, this is neither ethical or acceptable.
Emma Thompson · 24 May 2022 at 6:33 am
Thank you Tiffer for making the time to write for STP’s website. We hear a lot about ‘TINA’ (‘There Is No Alternative’) to clergy cuts. However, as you point out, in fact ‘TITA’ (There Is This Alternative) which, as you say, shores up happiness and trust.
There are other Bishops who believe in keeping up parish clergy numbers too: e.g. please.watch these YouTube videos from the Bishop of Peterborough YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8C0r-amP84 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_TSiIe2SM8 which reflect his understanding that cutting clergy leads to a reduction in attendance and giving.
The two London Dioceses have also actively embraced the ‘one priest for one parish’ principle and have seen growth: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/01/09/sunday-church-service-attendance-almost-halves-30-years-figures/.
It is good to hear from clergy in the undervalued rural church. The rural church punches above its weight in terms of attendance and giving (despite that the opposite is sometimes claimed by managers, on the basis of a now-discredited ‘cost per head’ calculation which was designed to make it look as if rural ministry is a huge drain on resources – although those resources come from the parishes in the first place and should not be described by managers as ‘investment’). Of course there are more clergy ‘per head’ in rural areas, because they are less populated. However, rural churches, with 17% by population, have 40% of bums on pews on a Sunday and 50% at Christmas. It would be reckless to risk losing those existing worshippers and their contributions; but parish amalgamations and closures do so.
Stephen Brian · 30 May 2022 at 12:47 pm
I agree with Tiffer’s analysis of what has been going on at Eds and Ips recently. I retired from that diocese almost two years ago where I looked after an 8-parish, very rural benefice for thirteen years. The current diocesan bishop was very supportive of parish ministry. The total population of my benefice was less than two thousand souls, which made it very difficult to raise sufficient funds to support a full-time priest and eight church buildings, even though the eight parishes made it a full-time job. The bishop was sympathetic to my parting plea and has installed another full-time priest, even though there may be some reorganisation in the future.