Over the last hundred years, the Churches have been in decline in Western Europe. In Ireland the numbers of Catholics attending Mass has been in freefall for many years. In England, the number of church worshippers has declined steadily throughout the last century.
Try as we may to keep our spirits up by telling ourselves that people come to church on Thursdays, we know that the Church packs far less of a punch in our communities today than it did in our grandparents’ day.
We can massage the figures and say that modern worshippers come once a month, rather than once a week, so ‘the number of people with whom the Church is in contact is much higher than the bare statistics would suggest.’ However you put it, though, no amount of spin-doctoring can portray the commitment of monthly worshippers as on a par with weekly worshippers.
It has to be admitted that some clergy have worked their socks off to accelerate the decline. We erect hoops for people to jump through before their children can be baptized, ensuring that only the most determined are allowed to interrupt the smooth pattern of ecclesiastical activity in our parishes. We make it difficult to get married in church, and seem to take a particularly perverse delight in finding reasons why a prospective bride may not be married in the church of her choice.
Large tracts of England, in some cases whole rural deaneries, offer nothing but communion services on a Sunday morning. I know that Parish and People used to make a big thing about ‘The Lord’s service for The Lord’s people on The Lord’s Day’, but that is exactly what it has become. Outsiders wouldn’t dream of coming near one of our churches for a communion service, probably because they fear embarrassment at not knowing what to do, and they fear feeling awkward if they do not take communion, or rejection if they try and it is discovered that they have not been confirmed. We recoil in horror at the thought that the Church might become a sect, but are curiously blind to the fact that it has already become one. Some Churches are growing, but it is easy to sneer at successful Churches because their very existence shows up our own inadequacies.
In the midst of all this contraction and decline, there is of course one bright spot. The number of dignitaries has grown steadily throughout the last century – as has the number of diocesan staff. The Church behaves like one of the ineffective, failing and bloated bureaucracies that Margaret Thatcher abolished. It is an organization like the Gas Board, the GPO and British Railways of old – run for the benefit of its staff rather than its customers (and prospective customers).
There is a classic principle that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’. You might be forgiven for thinking that as the number of institutions decreases, the number of confirmations decreases and the number of clergy decreases, that the workload of the supporting bureaucracy might decrease too. Not so, the reverse is the case.
As the number of worshippers, clergy and parishes decreases, more and more staff appear in diocesan offices. Their costs are added to the diocesan quota which is levied, like a Council tax charge, on the declining number of parishes and their declining number of worshippers. The questions have to be asked, ‘Do we really need all these functions to be performed? Can we afford them?’
Very soon, two dioceses (Bradford and Truro) will drop below the significant figure of 100 clergy. That makes each of them about the size of an Archdeaconry in, say, the Diocese of Chelmsford.
Parishes in the Diocese of Bradford already enjoy the highest quota charges in the Northern Province and it is not hard to see why. Each diocese has one diocesan secretary, for instance. In other dioceses the costs of a diocesan secretary can be spread over three or four times as many parishes or worshippers than is the case in Bradford.
Concern about costs is not just idle speculation on my part. About half the English dioceses are running unsustainable deficits. The case for cutting our coat according to our cloth is no longer theoretical – it is now a practical necessity.
Time, motion and money
There must be scope for dioceses sharing costs. Some are already doing so, but real savings may require more radical surgery. The Church of Ireland has been uniting dioceses for a very long time. Some of the united dioceses combine a number of former dioceses (though most of the cathedrals seem to survive as cathedrals). This sometimes results in virtually every clergyman being a canon just to make the numbers up, but it does cut down on diocesan administration. More unions are in prospect but the idea has barely got on to the agenda this side of the water.
It really would be worthwhile for the Archbishops’ Council to call in some management consultants to consider whether it makes sense to devolve so many functions to forty three separate offices, all headed up by people on large salaries (they may not be large in secular terms but they compare very favourably indeed to clergy stipends).
One gets the distinct impression that there are far too many empire builders in the Church of England, both clerical and lay. Far too much of our dwindling energy seems to go into maintenance rather than mission.
Axes and Trees
Basically we need a fresh mindset. Tinkering will not deliver the kind of progress the Church needs. Recent cuts at Church House have been achieved by a combination of cutting posts at the bottom of the hierarchy (which doesn’t save that much) and offering early retirement to a few. Quality is easily degraded across the board, but nobody seems to have asked the penetrating questions about whether whole departments are really necessary.
What, for instance, has the Council for Christian Unity achieved in the last ten years? How much has it cost? What has the Board for Social Responsibility achieved in the last ten years? It has certainly incensed whole swathes of the Church and one of its members recently called for its abolition. As they say, there is no smoke without a fire, but who will address these issues? Who will take a view on what we actually need (not what it is nice to have, but what we need)?
What the Church needs is for someone to formulate a strategy to have a lean administration and concentrate on getting as much manpower as possible at the sharp end – in the parishes? Will the Archbishops’ Council grasp the nettle and help us put our house in order, or do we have to drift on for a few more years until the bailiffs come and do it for us?
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.