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There is an alternative

The Church should invest in parishes and ministry if it wants to reach a new audience

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

TINA. This was Mrs Thatcher’s favourite acronym, which found itself scrawled across memos daring to argue against key parts of her programme for government. There Is No Alternative. TINA packs a powerful punch because it forces on opponents the obligation not just to oppose a particular set of policies but to advocate a concrete set of alternative proposals, which must themselves stand up to scrutiny.

The Church of England’s leadership has relied on TINA quite heavily in recent years. When churches are forced to merge, and merge again, and priests are compelled to minister to ever more unwieldy numbers of parishes, plaintive fingers point to depressing budgets and the humble folk at the bottom are told “There is no alternative.” 

When parishes look in horror at the size of the tribute money demanded from their dioceses, and then at the age and wealth of the loyal faithful who will have to find that money, central church accountants shake their head sadly and mutter, “There is no alternative.”

The denuding of parishes of their resources began in 1976 with the appropriation of all parish endowments and land (pledged over generations for the upkeep of the ministry in those parishes), and has continued with the dioceses and national church commissioners getting their sticky paws on the proceeds of parsonages when sold (they were, of course, built and paid for at the expense of parishes). 

These parishes now look plaintively at the money and assets that once were theirs as their appropriators make ever more exorbitant demands on those parishes with a hearty sigh that “There is no alternative.” 

When the Diocese of Leicester plans the almost total destruction of the parish system, merging all their little parishes into vast mega-parishes, with a greatly reduced number of priests (and some free lay leaders) dished out like GPs in a Blairite GP surgery, they point to a £1.36 million shortfall (in the Covid year of all years), sigh, and say “There is no alternative.”

But there is. Frankly there is the money to make a heck of a lot of difference. And it has been woefully, almost criminally, mis-spent. If I were to tell you that the Church of England earmarked £176 million to be spent exclusively on shiny new projects intended to bring in 89,375 new disciples, would you necessarily think this was the same church forced to destroy its parochial system for lack of funds? 

I fear the national church isn’t listening

If I told you that this money was explicitly forbidden from being spent on rural churches, would you take TINA quite so phlegmatically? And now a report has just come out assessing the success of this project and revealing that, after eight years of Strategic Development Funding there had been a grand total of 12,704 “new disciples witnessed” a slightly weasel term, which seems to include people attending newly-built church cafés rather than boring old-fashioned metrics like “communicants”. A budget of £176 million and 12,704 new disciples witnessed. That’s £13,800 a person.

My friends, there is an alternative. We know what leads to growth. They church’s own 2016 report, Going Deeper tells us: “An increase in clergy is associated with the likelihood of growth, while a decrease in clergy is associated, on average, to a decline in attendance.”

But I fear the national church isn’t listening. The archbishops have just announced the budget for the church for the next three years. They promise that they have learned the lessons of the catastrophic failure of their Strategic Development Fund plan. 

They promise that it will be more broadly spread across churchmanships, where the previous fund went almost exclusively to charismatic evangelical projects; that it can be spent in rural areas (alleluia) and it can be spent on pre-existing projects. 

But. But, but, but … it has to fit with the central church’s current Vision and Strategy (a document which has never been passed or approved by any representative body of the church and is filled with tiresome elements that will have the church chasing its own tail for years). 

Furthermore, it can only be spent with the approval of, and at the application of, dioceses (some of which, like Leicester, have already promised that they will not use it to support parochial ministry). It is top-down, it is centre-led, it is vastly expensive and it will fail again, and all the while churches will be closed and merged and the fading faithful few will be told that “There is no alternative.”

But there is. Archbishops, before this is finalised, hear me. Devolve this down to parish level. 55 per cent of parishes fell into deficit during the Covid pandemic. Clear those deficits, it would only cost £12 million but it would have a disproportionate impact. Relieve struggling parishes of some of their parish share and let them focus their time and energy on ministry. 

And, above all, spend that money on putting priests in parishes.

TIA: There Is an Alternative.

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