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