To me as an ordinary parish priest of some twenty-five years ministry, the crux of our management crisis is the dearth of episcopal oversight of their clergy. The one thing vicars need is fraternal help on tap. More regularly than not I struggle to fill Sunday service slots. My setup has three congregations but I cannot begin to imagine what running a multi-parish benefice with say 10 churches would be like. The advice of a senior colleague who is on-side would be helpful too, perhaps even a shoulder to cry on. Someone to come and do a Sunday at the drop of a hat would be good too.
What we have instead are bishops who are overstretched and lost in a sea (or See) of bureaucracy. Our local suffragan is a wonderful, generous man but I wonder how he copes with the scale of his patch, the distances, the driving, the paperwork, etc? If only he was ten miles away rather than twenty-five. If only he could replicate himself.
It strikes me that the potential of episcopal oversight is lost in the long grass of bureaucracy. Their diaries make it almost impossible to get to you in any peripatetic manner and vice-versa. When I was a rural dean I could see that this isolation of the clergy was unhealthy and a recipe for disaster. Burnout is common. Clergy and their families are too often doormats to local bullies, unreasonable demands and wild expectations. Many vicars are overconscientious and will burn the midnight oil or if not careful wreck their marriages with overwork to keep everyone happy.
What we vicars need is a bishop who, like an elder sibling will swoop into our parishes and help sort out nonsense, and if required (safeguarding rules permitting) give us a hug. Bishops should be able to hang around in a parish for a few days, not just a few hours. In my mind, a bishop should be to the vicarage family like a grandparent who says to the vicar and his wife, “You are overworking, so tonight I’ll look after the kids so you two can go off to the cinema.”
The laity from time to time needs saving from us too. An unchecked hapless dysfunctional priestly ministry, or worse still an abuser, can do considerable damage. Much of this can be nipped in the bud if problems are identified early. How can this happen if there is no meaningful share in the cure of souls because the bishop is tied to a desk? Surely there must be a better way to do this where the bishop without being overbearing can keep an eye on things?
I would be surprised if the Machinery of the National Church disagreed with my sketch. However, their solution by default will be to expand the centre and to employ say “wellness officers” or to increase the regularity of ministerial reviews with banks of reviewers, more paperwork and so on. Then the wellness officers will need a PA, an office, and perhaps a deputy wellness officer. Nationally the wellness officers will need training and supervising so they’ll need a wellness officer enabler with his or her own directorate. It’s surprising how many people you need to employ to make the Church humbler and simpler!
For my penny’s worth the counter-intuitive solution requires not only a bonfire of diocesan structures but an episcopal ministry which is vastly downgraded. The clergy need a bishop-to-priest ratio of around 1 to 24. The easiest way to do this is to free up bishops for pastoral care is to have downsized dioceses that are no bigger than an archdeaconry and employ a secretary and treasurer at the most. The role of rural dean and archdeacon can be amalgamated into one post. The primary purpose of such organisation would be the welfare of the clergy, to use St Gregory’s motto, “servant to the servants of God.” Gone would be the need for an army of auxiliaries, councils and committees. The clergy chapter could take on the bulk of diocesan organisation and this would have the benefit of helping the bishop rub shoulder to shoulder with his or her clergy regularly.
As I write this I can hear a clamour of voices shout me down saying “But what about church schools, property management, clergy on-going learning, ordinand selection?” All other denominations in England, including the now larger Roman Catholic Church, operate on zoning the country into half a dozen provinces which are resource hubs. Indeed, most large retail businesses do the same with regional depots. We could run the whole show in six or seven provincial centres (rather than 42 dioceses) each with an Archbishop.
Naturally in this plan, we would have to dislocate the relationship between cathedrals and bishops. We don’t need an excuse for more cathedrals! I think this kind of restructuring would also stop the episcopacy from being seen as a career prize. It would also put a stop to vast projects and initiatives which come with eye-watering budgets and not many years later amount to little fruit.
If I were to make a further plea it would be that we drop 90% of the baggage around the episcopal life, the superlative titles, the focus on deference, purple shirts, larger stipends, and the bigger accommodation. Indeed, the bishop in this model could potentially be a house-for-duty post attractive to a retired priest. Why not?
Priests are happy when they are released to do priestly things. How often have I heard retired clergy celebrate their newfound freedom with, “I’m finally doing what I was ordained to do.” I suspect that there are bishops out there who desire the same.