10 March 2022
The Empty House
by J.R. Thomas
It is well known in English polite circles, and no doubt in Scottish and Welsh ones too, that on no account should conversation at dinner venture onto the subjects of politics, sex, and religion. (Exclusions are allowed for conversation and in particular, jokes, that manage to combine all three, as for instance: “The Bishop was just leaving the brothel when he saw the Prime Minister coming in… “.) Rules are there to be broken, but whilst sex is often well ventilated at the supper table, as it were, Brexit has reinforced the dangers of subjects political, at least for those who do not want fighting and bread buns being hurled. But religion? Does anybody even consider religion a fit subject for debate in groups of consenting adults?
The answer to that question is usually “no”, and a cynic would add, especially if there is a clergyperson amongst those present. Churchgoing has become a truly minority activity, other than Christmas (bottle of claret and off to Midnight Mass) and possibly Easter. And, of course, for rites of passage ceremonials, the old hatching, matching, and dispatching markers, though the matching business has mostly fled from churches to the local stately home, or barn refurbishment. Religion used to be a core tune of the English rhythms of life, but the church organ has fallen both literally and figuratively silent.
So the current metamorphosis of the Church of England is going almost unnoticed except by its own members; just occasionally the very restrained and polite civil war going on gets noted in the “Telegraph” or the “Times”. The Church has a problem similar to department stores; falling footfall, an uncertainty as to what the offering actually is, and of course, lack of income. Not that the CofE is actually poor; it remains a major rural and urban landowner, with large investment funds ethically invested through the Church Commissioners. But its outgoings are an ever-increasing burden; the costs of all those crumbling historic buildings, and the salaries of rectors and other clergy persons, to say nothing of ever growing lists of other officials. Then there are pensions; the clergy profile is aging but its ministers tend to live a long time, an advertisement for the life religious it is true, but a great burden when it comes to pensions.
The church is still run on the parish system, each urban or rural parish having its own church, tending in the countryside to be ancient buildings, but in urban areas masterpieces of Victorian architecture. Parishes are grouped in dioceses, each reporting to a Bishop, usually with a cathedral as his base. But the Bishop historically had little control over his clergy; parish appointments came with a rector’s (or vicar’s) freehold; once appointed he had a job for life or until he decided to retire (very bad behaviour excepted). (Quick aside; in the 1930’s a rector near me was very badly behaved, usually with maids and servants. It took a long time to get him out from his living, his church. When finally the Bishop succeeded in defrocking him the rector sought alternative employment and ended up working as a lion tamer in a circus; alas, at Skegness he was attacked by his lion and died as a result. The whole saga sold many newspapers in the 1930’s.) Since 1945 the CofE has suffered ever falling numbers of the faithful, as congregations and their giving receded slowly, and then rapidly, but costs just continued to climb. The answer was to merge parishes; not literally, but by asking one clergyman to cover more and more parishes (my local rector looks after seven parishes and one redundant church). That helped, by reducing costs and increasing income from selling surplus clergy houses, but the trend of falling income and rising costs has continued.
The current Archbishop of Canterbury was, prior to his taking the dog collar, a senior executive in Shell Oil. It somewhat appropriately has fallen to him to take this programme to its next stage; to make the only remaining significant economies possible – by offloading somehow the cost of all those churches. Many are little used, not least because it is difficult to run more than a couple of services each Sunday, so in combined parishes many rural churches might only see a service once a month. Which of course dissuades attendance and so down the numbers, and the donations, go again.
The Archbishop has been floating the idea that the parish structure will have to go. The rector’s freehold is well on its way out because new appointments are often of “priests-in-charge” who serve at their Bishop’s pleasure and have no right to remain in the parish. That makes it easier to move clergy around and to effectively leave parishes without a nominated clergyperson at all. To keep up the spiritual standards and the Church’s social role, there has already been a great deal of centralisation; many non-clergy staff have been employed to take the mission forward and, like any business, to provide “support” and “regulatory management”. A new management class has appeared – non-diocesan bishops – effectively assistant bishops, to take on some of the administrative burden. The CofE tends to move at glacial speeds when reforming but this one has come down the mountainside quite quickly; it has not yet been approved by, indeed no final proposals have yet been put to, the General Synod, the governing body of Bishops, clergy and laity. But the Archbishop is tending to behave as though this is all a foregone conclusion, as is the second Archbishop of the land, he of York, Stephen Cottrell, who to some extent began this process in his previous role, as Bishop of Chelmsford.
But there is one little obstacle, admittedly probably more in the rural parishes than the urban ones. The faithful in the pews do not want it. They are very attached to their local church, to the concept of “their” vicar (or rector) and do not want more control from a distant “head office”. The laity in those pews have to find each year their parish subvention, an amount payable to the diocese to meet central costs. What that means is a bit vague but if the church tower falls down the diocese might reinstate it, and may give grants for other needs, and pay the local clergyperson, and meet his or her reasonable expenses, and provide a rectory or vicarage. (Church buildings tend to in practice to attract great help and generosity from not just the faithful but local non-church going locals.). But if there is no dedicated clergy person, if the diocese slowly withdraws its support for the life of the church locally, then it is more than likely that local giving will also diminish, or dry up altogether unless for the direct maintenance of the church building.
The danger now is that of the law of diminishing returns cancelling local church life altogether. There comes a point when a struggling business gets to the point that it needs to consider whether it is offering what the customer wants. Stephen Cotterill’s predecessor at York, John Sentamu, was a man who cared little for bureaucracy and systems; what he loved was to be out in the local parishes talking, preaching, listening, bringing a Christian perspective to life. He was hugely popular in the north; maybe it is time for the church to be really bold and try his approach.