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.

Categories: Essays


Froghole · 17 May 2022 at 9:32 am

Many thanks for this.

In 2016 I drafted a bill for the disestablishment and disendowment of the Church. The outlines of the bill were as follows:

1. Take £6bn from the Commissioners (they now have £10.1bn, up from £2.6bn in 1998). Give the £6bn to a national religious buildings agency, being an emanation of DCMS.

2. Transfer title to all pre-1829 parish and cathedral foundations, plus certain Grade I and II* post-1829 foundations to the agency (all parishes and cathedrals in Wales were, by way of comparison, transferred to the representative body in 1921; all French parish churches were transferred to communes, and ‘major churches’ to central government, in 1905-07).

3. The Church, in return for this large up-front premium, gets a perpetual free right of use to the vested stock. The reach of the Church is therefore guaranteed in perpetuity. PCCs and incumbents are liberated from the burden of the buildings, no longer have to worry quite so much about the future, and can concentrate on pastoralia and mission. The £6bn dowry neutralises the cost to the taxpayer. The agency can procure labour and materials for maintenance at discounts which PCCs will never generate (because it will have great bargaining power and generates economies of scale). The bigger the risk pool, the lower the premium. Also, the capital appropriated from the parishes via parish share since 1995-98 would, in effect, be returned to the parishes in maintenance costs.

4. The Commissioners are then ‘compensated’ by transferring to them all diocesan (and parochial) assets. The dioceses would effectively cease to exist as administrative and financial agencies (although there might need to be a transitional period). The Commissioners, then, would have the economies of scale to run the Church, which 42 dioceses will never generate.

I was reminded of that hackneyed quote of Lampedusa: ‘everything must change so that everything remains the same’.

The corollary is that, just as incumbents, PCCs and congregations would be liberated from the millstone which is the buildings (the cost of which is rising significantly with inflation just as the real incomes of most attendees falls), so bishops would be liberated from the burden of having to act as amateur CEOs, and can concentrate on the core task of being pastors to the pastors.

Incumbents did not train to become adjuncts to the heritage business. Similarly, bishops have not spent much of their working lives in ministry to become administrators and businessmen.

I sometimes leaf through old editions of the Clergy List, Crockfords, or Whitaker’s Almanack. The last gives details of clergy numbers. Here are the 1915 numbers compared with those of the most recent edition I have to hand, from 2016 (in brackets). Allowances need to be made for the formation of new sees since then, like Blackburn or Guildford, and the adjustment of boundaries, so the comparison doesn’t always work, but the differentials are perhaps indicative:

Bath & Wells: 628 (197)
Birmingham: 341 (163)
Bradford: not applicable (87, at the time of abolition)
Bristol: 284 (104)
Canterbury: 462 (133)
Carlisle: 386 (124)
Chelmsford: no data (264)
Chester: 467 (224)
Chichester: 565 (275)
Durham: 499 (165)
Ely: 429 (127)
Exeter: 801 (206)
Gloucester: 410 (125)
Hereford: 433 (90)
Lichfield: 833 (292)
Lincoln: 703 (147)
Liverpool: 441 (206)
London: 1,576 (530)
Manchester: 924 (224)
Newcastle: 321 (116)
Norwich: 1,094 (182)
Oxford: 1,008 (391)
Peterborough: 734 (137)
Ripon: no data (121, at the time of abolition)
Rochester: 409 (200)
St Albans: 420 (239)
St Edmundsbury & Ipswich: 511 (133)
Salisbury: 717 (192)
Sheffield: 255 (145)
Sodor & Man: 52 (15)
Southwark: no data (346)
Southwell: 706 (135)
Truro: 347 (94)
Wakefield: 285 (135, at the time of abolition)
Winchester: 1,021 (170)
Worcester: 656 (113)
York: 448 less curates (199)

The numbers in brackets will have fallen since then.

The bishops of over a century ago generally did far more for, and with their clergy, than now, and yet they had vastly more clergy to supervise.

There is, obviously, something profoundly wrong with episcopal timetables and priorities if bishops have far fewer clergy to supervise, and yet seem incapable of effecting supervision.

Two examples, at random, based on my travels. In 2010 Whatlington church (East Sussex) burnt down. There was no communication from the then bishop of Chichester. However, the then bishop of Lewes left a message on the then incumbent’s answering machine expressing regret over the fire (in fairness, however, the present bishop of Chichester re-dedicated the church in person in 2013). I recently spoke to a priest in north Lincolnshire. Her husband had died. Two years later the then bishop of Lincoln sent her a message expressing his condolences, only he got the name of her husband wrong. I could give you a number of other examples.

    Froghole · 17 May 2022 at 10:43 am

    Also, I am wondering if you ever have an annual open air service at South Huish (St Andrew’s)? I appreciate it’s a ruin and with the FFC but, as far as I am aware, it remains consecrated.

    I only ask because they were having annual (sometimes twice yearly) services in the semi-ruins at Revelstoke (CCT), at least until recently, as well as at the ruins of various other places around the country (e.g., Lancaut and Liddington, Gloucestershire; Llanwarne, Herefordshire; Sutton Veny, Wiltshire; Arlesford and Pitsea, Essex; Knaptoft and Ulverscroft, Leicestershire; Denton, Huntingdonshire; Mongewell, Oxfordshire; Albury, Surrey; Islington, West Raynham and Wiggenhall St Peter, Norfolk, etc., etc.).

    Many thanks.

me Canon Tony Macpherson · 22 May 2022 at 9:27 pm

Have you seen the proposal a church simplified and renewed I have a copy

me Canon Tony Macpherson · 22 May 2022 at 9:28 pm

Have you seen the proposal a church simplified and renewed I have a copy and a map

Chris Beeson (Rev) · 20 June 2022 at 8:32 am

I don’t think this is an issue about structures and titles. As a retired priest in a parish in interregnum, I’ve been surprised and delighted by the pastoral ministry of our diocesan bishop – he asked to join us for a Maundy Thursday supper and Eucharist with a very small congregation, and washed our feet. I have the odd theological difference with him, but this was one part of a Spirit-filled ministry to a struggling parish.

The problem goes to the heart of where the western church, and specifically the CofE, is at present, trying to find a way of expressing and sharing faith, but unable to discover the language and gestures to carry the message. Honesty in faith is seen as a danger to its acceptance, and we fall back on concepts and vocabulary that we can neither explain nor support. As a result, we suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’, and fill our days with business to justify ourselves.

I have a sweatshirt that reads, ‘Jesus is coming. Look busy!’ Few catch the irony.

Georges Staelens · 20 June 2022 at 6:48 pm

Dioceses should be small, made up of maximum 5 parishes, et the bishop should be the rector of one of them. A first among equals. It is not centralisation, but discentralisation, that would help.

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