Statistical Anxiety

I have long since abandoned deanery synods to their own sad fate. Badly chaired by people considerably one’s junior, and conducted in windswept church halls inaccessible by public transport, they give credence to that apocryphal saying of Jesus in the Gospel according to the Laodiceans: ‘wherever twenty or less are gathered together in search of an agenda, be not in the midst of them.’

My esteemed assistant Fr Francis Gardom takes a different line. His noble service as duty priest for parishes in a wide radius who for some reason (sickness or interregnum) need his services has made him more tolerant of the Church of England.

Francis returned the other day from one of these purgatorial gatherings. The clergy were very despondent, he reported – anxious to a person about falling numbers and increasing quota.

Could things be that bad? I asked myself.

I know that our good friend Digby Anderson has recently co-edited a slim volume Called to Account in which he claims (with attendant evidence) that things are worse than anybody will admit. But here? In dear old Southwark? – where Dean Slee only recently had an outing on Radio Four to claim (like King Edward VII) that congregations were numerous and in good heart wherever he went. Surely not!

‘It would be naïve to mistake numbers for absolute truths,’ says Robbie Low in the most substantial of the brief essays in Digby’s book. But supposing they must count for something, I turned to the Diocesan Year Book, which is shameless in its revelations.

There are three hundred parishes in the Diocese of Southwark, administered in twenty-eight deaneries, arranged in six archdeaconries and three episcopal areas (the Bishop of Southwark, like the residing bishops of the Episcopal Church, has no area of his own). Of those three hundred parishes 142 have electoral rolls of less than 100 and only 43 have electoral rolls over 200.

The import of these shocking figures becomes clearer when you examine individual deaneries.

One deanery, scheduled to have eight stipendiary clergy (two livings are presently vacant), has only 358 on its electoral rolls, and Usual Sunday Attendance figures of rather less than two thirds of that figure. Working on electoral rolls, the deanery in question costs £272,000 pa in clergy salaries alone (or £760 pa per member – £14.60 per member per week). (The figures based on USA would, of course be more.) Add to those figures the £12,000 pa need to keep a modestly sized church heated, lighted, watertight and insured, and you see the extent of the problem. A considerable saving could be made by reducing the establishment to one church and two clergypersons, whilst paying the remaining six for doing nothing! My Roman opposite number, incidentally, tells me that 250 communicants per Sunday would hardly warrant one priest in the Archdiocese of Southwark.

Then there is the top-heavy administration.

Six archdeacons and four bishops is luxury indeed – if that is the sort of thing you want to luxuriate in. Coming in at a total salary bill of around £225,000 + housing + expenses, they must cost about £1,500 per parish per year. Three ‘Area Mission teams’ absorb another £650,000 (or £2,120 per parish). Then there is the secretarial back-up for all these potentates and the lay diocesan staff itself. I estimate that that comes in at around another £700,000. Or £2,350 pa per parish.

(All these are modest estimates. I recently had the entire lay staff of the Diocese of Europe around my supper table. A wag remarked at the time that if I proposed to do the same with the staff of the Diocese of Southwark I would need to hire a marquee.)

Small wonder then, with congregations declining by 19% over the last ten years and quota increasing by 9.5% year on year (and so doubling in eight) that clergy morale is low. The poor parish clergyperson is further afflicted by the very rhetoric of this gubernatorial class, with its constant talk of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’ in a climate where the only thing which grows is itself.

What to do? There are not many options left.

A radical programme of church closures would be a first step. The CofE is prodigal in its built resources. Congregations of sixty or seventy, meeting in buildings designed to hold four or five hundred, is a madness which we can no longer afford. Some of the buildings, of course, are heritage buildings of some distinction. It is high time that our increasingly secular state took responsibility for them.

Then, starting from the top downwards, we need to shed clergy. One stipendiary priest to every seventy-five communicants is not working. Despite recent statistical reports to the contrary, small is not beautiful; small is expensive and depressing. Of course, on a percentage graph small churches (where one person, as often as not, represents 2 %) will seem to grow faster than larger ones. But anyone who has ministered in a large decaying building with fewer than fifty worshippers will tell you that it is an illusion.

And we need to see that those in ‘management’ roles in the Church have the necessary and relevant experience. With the advent of Tom Wright to Durham the occupants of the top three jobs in the Church of England will have a total of eleven years’ parochial experience between them. Unfortunately all that is David Hope’s.

And last of all we need to establish and maintain standards of doctrine and orthodoxy. Impassioned debates in the General Synod on the translation of ‘ek’ in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed are a nonsense when (as the ‘Mind of Anglicans’ survey showed) significant numbers of clergy cannot give wholehearted assent to the doctrine to which the preposition applies. The gradual transition of the Church of England from a Catholic Church to a Society for the Advancement of Post-Modern Indifferentism needs to be arrested now. Otherwise the modish talk about ‘structures for mission’ and ‘strategies for evangelism’ will have a very hollow ring.

A neighbouring parish to mine, which had been an early beacon of the Oxford Movement, recently undertook extensive restoration work. It was magnificently done, complete with ‘Visitor Centre’, at a cost to the English Heritage Lottery fund of around two million pounds. The congregation on a Sunday morning is less than a hundred, and the Rector under whose aegis the transformation took place did not believe in God.

I have seen the future, and it does not work!

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.