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Session 1: In Conversation- The Rev’d Canon Giles Fraser & the Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell

ABY: Good afternoon sisters and brothers. Thanks so much for allowing me to come, I sort of invited myself; I saw you were meeting here and I managed to rearrange my diary so I could be here today. I said to Marcus I just want to come, and I’d love to have an opportunity to say ‘hello’ but I chiefly wanted to come and just try to demonstrate, pretty much what Marcus has just said, that I believe we all want the same thing.

I have never had a proper job: I was ordained as a priest when I was 25, I started training when I was 22. I have given my life to the service of the Gospel through the Church of England and I have had the very great privilege, when I was a parish priest, of seeing that church grow, and seeing people come to contemplate Jesus Christ, and see the church make a difference in that community that we served, and seeing people discover their patience for ministry in themselves.

So, I absolutely believe in parish ministry. I want the Church in every locality to thrive, I absolutely believe that the best way to save the parish is to grow the Church, the best way to grow the Church is the preach the Gospel, and the best way to preach the Gospel is to live a life which is centred on Christ. And although you may have some misgivings about of the so-called vision and strategy of the Church of England, I am not going to apologise for saying that I have believed that what really matters in our Church is a spiritual and theological renewal around that life in Christ. If we led more Christ-like lives, then we would see our churches flourish.

Of course, there are loads of other questions and I’m sure that’s what we’ll focus on. Of course, there are; yes, I’m the Archbishop, but I come to you as a brother in Christ, wanting to share the Gospel, and wanting to serve the Church. And I despair when we are at each other’s throats; of course we will disagree, of course we will, and we must disagree robustly but also graciously, My hope in being here today is that we can start having a conservation we should have had on 4th of August, but have a much better conversation, because we need each other’s insights and critiques, because we face huge challenges in the Church at the moment, and those challenges affect not just the Church of England, but the whole of Europe. The tectonic plates of our culture have shifted; the moorings of our culture in Christian tradition have been unloosed. And that’s why it has to be a theological as well as a spiritual movement.

What is the Christian narrative? How does it shape lives? How does it shape the world? And how is it lived out in our parishes and chaplaincies and other expressions of local church? I believe we want the same thing; I think there will be some disagreement about how we get there, I hope that we will come to learn how much we need each other, and start valuing and appreciating one another.

Some people said to me “you’ve come into the lion’s den”, it doesn’t actually feel like that to me – many of you are friends, people I know well, I will make some new friends – it doesn’t feel like that to me. If I did have an analogy in my mind it was a bit more like, when I was a parish priest we had a summer fete each year, and there was a stocks in the vicarage garden, and people would take it in turns for people to throw wet sponges at them, and the vicar always had to do a half-hour slot, and that was when you made the most money. So, if you’ve got some wet sponges, throw them away, and I will do my best to answer you honestly, believing that together we can revive our Church.

GF: So, Archbishop, thank you for coming. We’ve got thousands of supporters, we had to stop people coming today, because we haven’t got enough seats. There is a strong feeling about what we’re talking about today, and if you’re somebody in a small village church in Lincolnshire, struggling to keep the roof on, it’s a hard job to do. But you just said something that sort of bothered me, a little bit bothered me, you said ‘if we lived more Christ-like lives, we would see our parishes flourish.’ Now, I think if you are a church in a place that’s really struggling, and you feel a bit unattended to by the diocese and the powers-that-be, that can sound like ‘it’s your fault – you’re just not being religious enough.’ And actually people are giving very sacrificially, and I think that’s why there’s a real sense of passion and, dare I say, anger about language like that. Because people are trying incredibly hard, and don’t always feel listened to or attended to by the centre. Is that unfair? 

ABY: No, your response is entirely fair, and I could see why people would feel that way. I can only speak for myself, I’ve been a bishop now for 18 years, that’s a long time, and it has always been a priority of my ministry to get alongside and to get to know the parishes myself. I know I have failed, because there are a lot of parishes.

GF: We’ve all failed.

ABY: But I would say I am reasonably confident that when you build good relationships with people, then they won’t hear this as criticism, they’ll hear it as encouragement, because often, I am pointing to the holy lives and holy people in those churches, not just for being in the church but also for helping people. The reality is, many of our parishes are functioning, I can take you to parishes in parts of York, where it is amazing what is happening under local priests’ oversight.

GF: Archbishop, you’re an enigma to me, because we spent, in my old parish, days walking around, and I know the normal people, and I know your passion for the parish, and I understand that, but when you just said a moment ago, the kingdom doesn’t come through strategy documents, one of the things that also puzzles me, one of the things I’ve found alongside that is that you also are associated increasingly so with ‘vision and strategy documents’ which we, in Save the Parish refer to as the ‘Wheel of Death’ and all that sort of stuff, that feels like something done by this sort of half-assed NDA. 

ABY: You can accuse me of many things but not that [laughter]. I should probably carry on being an enigma to you because, what is my field of expertise, if I have one at all? I would say, fundamentally, I am a priest, so the Word and sacrament are the only tools of my trade, I don’t have expertise in anything else. So, this is how I see it: the vision for the Church of England is the most obvious thing one could say about the Church, is to renew our life in Christ. That’s only what every Christian minister has been saying, and doing, from pentecost onwards.

Then we have a number of priorities at the moment that we think are some of the ways in which we  – it isn’t a top-down thing, with strategies coming from the top – we invite the dioceses and parishes to comment on, but we think that focusing on children, families, young people, schools – I mean, the Gneeral Synod of the Church of England has passed so many motions, I was actually looking at this yesterday, so many motions saying we want to put more resources into children and young people, families, schools. But they’ve never been acted on.

The General Synod in the Church of England has passed many, many motions over the years, asking for resource to be put into work with children, families and young people, and of course schools, but often they’ve not been acted upon.  I think one of the misunderstandings about the vision and strategy is that somehow these arrived out of thin air, or indeed they are centrally directed. What I and others are doing is drawing together some of the big themes of our Church and our Synod over many years to say, if we do have some money available – which we do, thank goodness, we have the gift of the money through the Church commissioners – let’s spend it on the things that parishes and dioceses and Synod are asking for.

So in York diocese, we recently did a survey of all our parishes to say, what would you like help on? We’ve got some money at the centre to support you, what would you like us to spend it on? Overwhelmingly, it was on children and young people. “Help us! Help us share the gospel with the next generation, help us to do work with children and families” and that’s what we’re doing.

GF: Because, what we hear quite a lot, is that people want priests, and that priest numbers are being cut – and there is an anxiety that the centre of gravity has shifted away, which is why we think the Parish system needs saving. Clergy numbers are being cut, and parishes are becoming more and more amalgamated and bigger, and that there’s more and more people round the diocesan photocopier, doing jobs that we don’t understand, and this creates a sort of crisis of trust [applause]. 

ABY: First of all, let me be clear, I want there to be more priests. No caveats, no qualifications, I want there to be more priests, I look back to my ten years as Bishop of Chelmsford, which I loved. I poured my heart into that diocese, I can’t tell you how much I love that diocese and those parishes, I still find myself dreaming about them. I’ve been gone two years. But lots of the things we tried to do to revitalise the Church didn’t work, and we were a very poor diocese with no historic reserves, and had to make really painful decisions which nobody wants to make. But if you are responsible as the diocesan bishop for paying the stipend of all the clergy and you just haven’t got the money to do it, all I can tell you is, tough. But please don’t think that anybody who makes these decisions wants to make them.

However, there is one thing that I’m really proud of, that while I was there, the numbers of those coming forward for ordination absolutely rocketed. In my first year there, we ordained thirteen new deacons, in my final year there, we ordained 34 new deacons, and we’d ordained over 30 for four years running. I can tell you, it’s really hard, so most diocese that I know of, certainly up here, and certainly when I was in Chelmsford, we did everything we could to pay for the stipendiary clergy.

GF: I understand the anxiety, and thank goodness I’m not a bishop and I don’t have to worry about it, so that’s what keeps you up at night and I understand it, but one of the things that many people just want you to address a little bit further, is that the centre seems to be growing as the decline in numbers of priests seems to be happening. And that is a-

ABY: Yeah I get it, and I didn’t address that part of the question. So the first thing to say is I get that, and I know you know this but let me remind you, the Church of England isn’t one organisation that’s run from the centre. A lot of people seem to treat it as if it is, I am not in charge of the northern province of the Church of England, I am its pastor. The Church of England is run by the 42 separate diocese, so when people make these claims, I want to say “well, if you look at the diocese you will find, actually, quite a lot of variety from one diocese to another about how much is actually spent at the centre. All I can say is, when I was bishop of Chelmsofrd, we did not spend one penny from parish share on central resource – not one penny. All the money that was spent on central resource was paid for from some of the few historic investments we had, so there was never a call on the parish share, not once.

But then, the other thing to say is, this may sound like an excuse but people need to know how it is, there are some things that, if you want to have a parish, and if you want to have a parish priest, you’re going to need. You’re going to need a housing department of some sort to look after the parsonage houses, otherwise they’re going to fall to the parish; you’re going to need some basic infrastructure, most diocese know that you do actually need an archdeacon, because a diocese can often survive a dodgy bishop but if you get a dodgy archdeacon, it does collapse.

So, in order to have a parish system, you need a certain amount of infrastructure. I think there are some things which are simply essential, if you’re going to be able to run a decent parish, and I think most people get that.

Secondly, there are things which are mandatory. The biggest one is safeguarding, and again I hope people can understand that the Chirch of England has been deeply shamed and humbled by our failures in safeguarding, and so we find ourselves in a position where we have to do this, we have to be compliant, rightly so, to put our house in order.

Then there’s a third category, so there’s the essential things that we just need to run a parish, like we’ve got to have a diocesan registrar, by law, you haven’t got choices over this, you’ve got to have a housing department, you’ve got to have a safeguarding department, if you’ve got schools, you have by law to have a diocesan board of education. And I don’t think anybody is seriously suggesting we get rid of that, because that would lead to the collapse of the parish system.

I think you’re talking about the other things that diocese have, which is a proportion of what’s spent at the centre, and then I think you have to ask legitimate questions-

GF: Eight media officers in the diocese of Oxford, or something like that, this is us going in a slightly different direction.

ABY: I’m not going to comment, Giles.

GF: But you understand why that’s concerning?

ABY: I will speak about the dioceses where I have served, where there is one media officer, and a part time assistant, who’s an intern-type person. And there was a parish in this diocese, last year, I won’t say which one it was because I don’t want the poor parish priest to get anymore adverse publicity, but there was a parish here last year, was proposing to put up a statue of the queen, alongside some other women of the 20th and 21st century; because one of them was deemed to be a vaguely controversial figure, suddenly the Daily Mail were all over them, all over this parish, accusing the vicar of being some sort of ‘woke warrior’, and I can tell you the churchwardens and the parish priest were very glad when a communications officer could go over there, and talk them through, help them deal with what was a little media feeding frenzy. It’s a legitimate question to say “should we have these people?” but it’s not fair to say these people are kind of useless – I know you’re not saying that.

GF: I’m talking about the balance.

ABY: Giles, I’m not disagreeing with you.

GF: Have we got the balance wrong?

ABY: In some dioceses, we might have done. I’m not trying to duck the question, you quoted a number to me, but I don’t know what’s happened in that diocese, but I think I will defend the diocese where I have served, and all of that is under the scrutiny of the Diocesan Synod. The Diocesan Synod every year can scrutinise the accounts, in fact in this diocese we’re doing a review of our central services, for precisely this reason, because- well, you wouldn’t believe me. As a bishop, this is how I’ve tried to be: we serve in this diocese some of the poorest communities in this land, particularly in Middlesborough and some parts of Hull, communities where there is frightening poverty, where parish priests are doing the most amazing work, alongside others in support of that community.

I need to go to that parish, I need to look in the eye an ordinary member of those congregations who’s putting their money into the plate each week, sacrificially – sacrifices much bigger than many millionaires – I need to look them in the eye and say “here in this diocese, we are spending that money that you give us for a single purpose, which is to support the work of the Gospel through the Church”. Mainly parishes, a few chaplaincies as well – I prize chaplaincy, I wish we had more of it – but I need to look them in the eye and say that. That’s my test.

GF: We have 42 dioceses, 120 bishops, something like that? That’s not simpler, humbler and bolder [applause]. 

ABY: Well, you know, I’m the one who came up with the phrase ‘simpler, humbler, bolder’, and that is my own goal, a simpler church, a humbler church and a bolder church. Those words have actually landed quite well, and I am very, very open to discussing those issues. But we need to discuss them, not score points off each other, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a bishop in the Church of England who doesn’t agree with you, but – forgive me for putting it this way – simplification is a very complex matter. You can’t just wake up one day and get rid of the diocese, and as soon as you do, on the 3rd of August this year we’ll have a Save the Diocese movement.

That is what happens, when we tried to create a new diocese of Leeds, everybody ran to the barricades to say “don’t do it!” so, that’s why, we need to talk together about this and find a common line, but I agree with you that I think we should simplify the Church of England, but don’t pretend that that’s an easy thing to do.

GF: My instinct is to push as much of the sort of money and the power down to the ground as much as we can. [applause] But here’s the problem, when you still have parts of the Church of England, where there are things that are called ‘parishes’ but are actually deaneries, the size of deaneries, and you’ve got one person looking after an area that used to be a deanery, that’s not a parish is it? 

ABY: I do know what you mean. The reason, as I understand it, that that has come about, isn’t that somebody thinks it’s a good idea to do that, it’s because there isn’t the resource to push priests into parishes, or there isn’t even a priest available. So, I look at it this way: how are we going to go forward as the Church of England? I think we’ve got several choices, to prevent what you’ve described.

GF: Because you want to prevent that.

ABY: I do, but I think most bishops do.

GF: It feels slightly ideological.

ABY: No, I don’t think it is, I don’t think any bishop wants that, so how do you prevent it? Well, one answer would be to close churches, which is something I know you yourself have argued for in the past, just close the churches. I don’t agree with that, but that could be one answer, so there’s one church left, and one vicar. I think that’s a recipe for “last person out, switch out the lights”.

Another solution, which is one we’re doing, is making the parishes bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, so that’s what, not all dioceses, but some dioceses have done. I think there’s a third answer, and the third answer is what I would call ‘do ministry differently’; and I think it’s the ‘do ministry differently’ that the Church has been exploring, with some success and some failure, over the last 10-15 years. So let me tell you one good example of this – I could show you many bad examples – but one good example would be a multi-parish benefice where there’s one stipendiary priest, but in each of the parishes, there’s either what’s called a folkal-minister, or a lay-reader, or a self-supporting priest, and it’s precisely that strategy that we were working on in Chelmsford, which is why we had such a huge increase in vocations. Because I just went on the stump, as it were, and got round saying to deanery meetings, “look the choices are simple. We haven’t got the money to put a vicar into every parish, we just haven’t got it: if you give us the money, that’s what I’ll do, I’ve gotta find the vocations, but we haven’t got the money to do that.”

I don’t want to close churches, okay, I don’t want to close churches, but I don’t want to carry on making parishes bigger and bigger and bigger either. So, I think let’s go down the road of ‘doing ministry differently’, and I don’t think the Church of England has always been very clear about saying “this is what we’re trying to do”, because what it does mean, then, is that yes the job of the parish priest has changed, it’s become a lot more episcopal, which is part of the job anyway. But it’s not that the priest pretending to be in charge of forty churches, charging around; each church has its own ministry, and each priest has more of an oversight than perhaps would have been the case, but, but, receiving the cure of souls which is yours or mine, let’s not be overly romantic about being a parish priest, parish priest has always been about sharing in the episcopacy.

GF: One thing you’re returning to again and again is money, which I understand. But, we’re minted! We’ve got a lot of money! 

ABY: Well, we have got a lot of money, but we haven’t got enough, to fund the whole ministry of the Church of England. If we did start using our money to fund the Church of England, it would run out. It’s not difficult to work this out.

GF: But we all get the situation where all the work done by the centre matters but the money doesn’t seem to be getting down to the parishes.

ABY: I don’t think that’s entirely fair right now because we’ve just announced an unprecedented increase in the money that’s going to be available, and let me be clear that money is available to dioceses and parishes.

GF: But will it be available to all parishes? There has been some talk in some dioceses that small and “failing” parishes will not be allowed to bid for that sort of money?

ABY: No, no, I need to put before this sentence, ‘as I understand it’, because I’m not in charge of how this money is distributed, I’m happy to come in and answer questions but what I’m not prepared to do is come in and be treated like I’m in charge of all this, because I’m not. As I understand it, and again I’ll talk about the York diocese, we’re preparing a bid, our bid is focused on the transformation of the parishes that are struggling the most. That’s what our bid is focused on, particularly in places like Middlesborough and Hull, and places where there’s a lot of rural poverty, particularly some of the coastal strip. So that’s what our bid is focused on.

Now, I can’t tell you what other peoples’ bids are focused on, but we want to try to use some of this money to transform the parishes that are struggling, and that will involve putting priests into parishes. In some places, it’s not rocket science – what we mean by “transforming parishes”, is that we haven’t got the money to pay for those priests, in fact worse than that, we’re struggling to pay for the priests we have got. So, this will be very helpful for us, to, we believe, transform the parishes which are struggling.

We may fail, but that’s what we’re going to try and do. And that’s open to every diocese to apply, and again, I agree with you, I wish there was more money available, and I think we need a big conversation with ourselves, about the whole notion of intergenerational equity. There was this idea – Synod members may be aware of it – that we’ve got a pot of money that this generation handed on intact to the next generation. It’s an honourable principle, but what it misses, is we may end up in a situation where the Church of England itself has collapsed, but we’re very, very wealthy.

So I think intergenerational equity shouldn’t just be seen in economic terms, it should be seen in terms of the ecology and ecosystem of the whole church. Therefore, I think there is an argument to say we could dig into our- but that’s a debate, which I am encouraging, and I’m encouraging Synod members to have this debate, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a bishop who disagreed. Honestly.

Speaking personally, I would like more money to go to the Learning Community Fund, where our poorest parishes need help.

GF: Can I just ask one more question, before we come to the floor: one of the anxieties, and I’m just going to say it straight, is that the way in which the system is designed, at the moment, in terms of distributing money, it favours a particular sort of church, a particular sort of evangelical Christianity, and it is, in a sense, a subtle way of shifting the centre of gravity, theologically, in the Church of England, so we become HTB.

ABY: I’ve never been accused of being an evangelical. I honestly believe, if you actually examined how the money is spent, you will find you are massively exaggerating. Massively. You know, a brilliant young priest that I had the honour of ordaining, very involved in this movement, he would not have served his title on the Denton Estate outside Loughton, an incredibly impoverished bit of West Essex, without an SDF fund grant, that’s how his curacy was paid for.

Loughton was not an HTB church, okay? It’s an Anglo-Catholic church, so, yes, it can be argued that, I can see the fear that you have, and it’s not without some substance, but it simply isn’t fair to say that’s how all the money is spent, but more importantly, that was- you’re a bit out of date, we have definitely changed-

GF: I’m a long way out of date.

ABY: But if you look at, which I think Save the Parish actually welcomed, which I was very heartened to see, welcomed- of course, you also said Fr Marcus, that “we want to see the details”, of course you do, but when the latest round of triennial funding was announced a few weeks ago, notably and significantly an Anglo-Catholic parish in Doncaster, and we went there on purpose to demonstrate, I thought, there’s a bit of a change going on here.

First of all, this money is available to the dioceses, to work out with their parishes and their deaneries, what they need to revitalise their parishes and develop their ministry. If that means, in a rural diocese, you need money for rural churches, great; if that means in an urban diocese, you need money for a- you know, this is much more, now, led by the dioceses and the parishes, not by a central group who may have a particular idea about what a successful and flourishing church looks like.

Though as I say, even then, it wasn’t entirely fair.

GF: So how are we going to sort this trust business out? Because there is an issue, I’ve never known a situation where there has been this lack of trust between the centre and the parishes.

ABY: I know, and I despair of it, I hate it, and there are days when I get up and say, “Lord, why have you called me to be the Archbishop of York? I’m not clever enough, I’m not strong, I’m certainly not holy enough,” because all I can say to you is, I will get things wrong, I will sometimes say the wrong thing, and I will try to apologise when I do, but I am telling you what’s on my heart, that I believe that the way we want to distribute this money now, is not going to be ideologically led. It’s not, or at least if it is, I don’t want to be part of it.

GF: One of the things you’ve said is that actually, there is that subsidiarity where bishops in their own diocese get to run this, and they may be more ideologically led than you.

ABY: I can only speak here for myself and the diocese I serve, but I think there are many examples of where diocese have used that money, such as, we had all these vocations come through, but we couldn’t pay for them, so we put in an SDF funded bid, to pay for curates to put into parishes, where we knew, if we put another priest in there, we can see some growth and transformation. And not everyone worked out well, but many of them did, and that is just as much SDF as a certain resource church.