Looking back it seems extraordinary, not that Church Commissioners and dioceses should have sold so much of the CofE’s assets, but that they should have sold it for so little, in some cases almost giving it away.
It may have been a strange way of doing things, but it managed drastically to reduce the power and independence of the parishes. It is inconceivable that dioceses could have developed so rapidly in the last half century if it had not been for the impoverishment of the parishes.
Poor parishes were the foundation for the centralizing growth of diocesan bureaucracies. They were heady times, a decade ago, in the brave new world of bishop’s officers and diocesan functionaries. The parishes had been beaten; power had been won by the Ordinary and his entourage.
Power corrupts? Such a judgement is too easy and unfair. There were many bishops who believed in what they were doing, for what is new is often exciting, and what is untested seemingly full of potential. Coupled with the new theology of diocesan autonomy, it was a good time to be a bishop.
How soon things turn sour. The parishes had been impoverished – excellent. But now the dioceses began to run out not only of money but of assets to waste. The balance of power is shifting back, and fast. The parishes are paying for the clergy, and the diocesan bureaucracy. And are therefore beginning to demand the power that goes with being the paymaster.
How will bishops react? By suspending livings, of course, but that is only a mechanism. There is a deeper ‘plot’ being hatched (I speak as a paranoid parish priest). What is it?
I wonder whether the Hind Report offers a clue. Will we see a rash of ‘local’ ordinations, as bishops lay hands on lay readers and churchwardens and any other laity up for it? Cheap clergy by the dozen. No stipends to pay. Incumbents circumvented. A church ‘gong’ for the very people who might fight quota increases. A network of patronage, created by the bishop and his diocesan team, to control his ever declining empire.
Declining? ‘Rising numbers of clergy, new ways of being church,’ you can begin to write the indignant responses already. An absurd conspiracy theory? Give it five years.