Julian Mann raises questions about the spiritual value and practical benefits of deanery reviews, and in particular the provision of resources for small churches

Deanery reviews are increasingly being seen as the rescuing cavalry for a national church in decline. But serious spiritual and practical questions must be asked of them. The stated rationale clearly varies from diocese to diocese, but the common theme is the need to address decline and for decisions about the deployment of the reduced number of stipendiary clergy to be owned at the local level. Consultants are then hired; meetings held; reports produced. There are promises of’resources’ for smaller churches. But the questions over the spiritual value and practical direction of such activism centre on two things.

The practical reality

The first is the fact that a closer working relationship between churches in a deanery brings the theological diversity of the Church of England much closer to home. There can of course be value in gaining input from the ministry and experience of other churches, but the major problem for fragile small churches like the one I am privileged to serve is that of getting too hugger-mugger with false teachers. It is significant that it tends to be those who take their theological orthodoxy seriously – Classic Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics – who are the least enthusiastic about deanery reviews.

The second is the relative insignificance of the deanery as an ecclesiastical entity. The practical reality is that deaneries do not appoint clergy and they do not pay parish share. Bishops in their dioceses do the former; local parish churches do the latter.

A diocese has significance. It has a bishop and other senior staff who are responsible for appointing clergy, deploying them, supporting them and disciplining them when necessary; it has an administrative centre at diocesan church house and staff who are responsible for administering clergy stipends and looking after parsonage houses.

A parish has significance – a community served by a local church and its minister of Word and Sacrament is conceivable. Clearly, it is more easily conceivable as an ecclesiastical district

in a village or a suburb than as an arguably arbitrary demarcation in an urban area. But nonetheless the concept has practical cash value.

Motivating churchgoers

But a deanery? What ‘resources’ can churches in discrete local communities clustered within a subdivision of a diocese, which in practical terms comprises an area dean and a synod, actually offer one another? Surely people are too busy sustaining the ministry of their own parish churches to attend more meetings?

The ‘resource’ we need more of, as a small church that is looking by God’s grace to become viable, is serving, giving, praying Christian disciples who will commit themselves to the parish church and its mission for Christ. If the sharing of resources means clergy and active laity straddling two or more churches in their deanery, how helpful is that in creating sustainable Christian communities? Doesn’t that mean in practice that already stretched people spread themselves even more thinly?

It would be encouraging and hugely helpful for us if some of the commuters to other parishes would transfer to their own local church and help to sustain its ministry financially and in prayer. But they have already made their decision to join another local church, often outside the deanery.

From the roving microphone at the front of the revamped deanery synod, now meeting around cafe-style tables, it may be freely admitted that most people in the pews aren’t really bothered about the deanery. But it is our role as clergy and deanery synod representatives to educate them and motivate them to get behind the process, which has been endorsed by an overwhelming majority (resounding applause).

My Victorian ancestors used to manufacture steam engines in Leeds before the firm went bankrupt at the turn of the last century. As anyone who has worked in that industry will know, stationary steam engines can make an awful lot of noise, especially when they are not going anywhere. |