Sunday, 30 September 2012

Lincoln Dysfunctional - But the Solution?

It seems that my remaining days in the C of E at the north end of the Lincoln Diocese were inhabited in a dysfuctional diocese.

Here was what I knew at the time. The numbers of people through the doors was down, and had been going down for a long time. The paid clergy numbers were at the upper age range and declining rapidly, but there were volunteer trainee priests on the way. The chap as priest at the neighbouring group of parishes retired and was not replaced. They were then divided up for a time for oversight purposes, and messed about, and everyone else was messed about until they all came into the same parish oversight and the incumbent finally achieved some stability of position. So in a sense they were hanging on until a decision was made while a sort of 'minster model' emerged which meant centralisation around a town regarding clergy provision, where there was located a group of unpaid clergy in increasing numbers along with an existing lay reader. There was a sense in which, all through this period, the churches beyond were left to produce their own solution by decline with oversight, until oversight became incorporation by an eventual decision.

So when the previous bishop left the new one came in and got himself a report, a report that showed Lincoln is near the bottom of some key performance indicators. Like, for example, they are a tight fisted lot down in Lincolnshire. I could have told them that because I was too. The report states:

Between 2000 and 2011, the number of stipendiary clergy in the Diocese fell from 226 to 152, a reduction of 33%, whilst Norwich fell by 7%. The national average reduction was 16%. Based on its area and number of churches, Lincoln’s national proportion of stipendiary clergy should be more than twice its actual number. Giving as a % of average income was 2.6% in 2009, compared with a 3.4% national average, ranking Lincoln 41st from 43. At the same time, weekly attendance fell by 17% compared with the national average fall of 10%, despite Lincolnshire’s population increasing by 6%. Source: CofE Research & Statistics data (see appendix) [Notes page 9]

One of the reasons people were tight fisted was that the paid clergy kept disappearing, so the idea apparently grew that if there were fewer people to fund then less money was needed. As for the surplus of unused churches, the best thing for them was for them to be looked after by heritage bodies or left to go to ruin. This was actually a strategy, called the New Era strategy (and may explain why a group of neighbouring parishes was left to drift towards a solution before management became more effective and took a decision).

the New Era strategy often results in the withdrawal of a Parish Group’s stipendiary priest, which in turn reduces effective Mission, Ministry and focus for fundraising. The result is a downward spiral of despair: reduced Mission and Ministry leads to smaller congregations and less Giving until the Parish church becomes unviable. The burden of maintaining the church in a safe state then usually falls to the Diocese. A policy is required for unviable churches.

Alternatively, early intervention through access to the Diocese Reserve and other grants could reverse this cycle and, in the long term, save the Diocese money. Initiatives to improve churches’ economic viability could include solar PV panels, lead replacement and, where no other village facility exists, the fitting of kitchens and lavatories to facilitate their utility as Parish halls. [page 10]

The sense of drift, then, was an experience of the area and of the diocese in general. The report states:

In the Ministry Division’s 2011 ‘Experiences of Ministry’ survey, clergy from the Diocese rated their support against four key criteria. The results ranked Lincoln between 40th and 42nd out of the 42 English mainland Dioceses. [notes page 7]

The only good thing seems to have been the training of lay readers. Clergy recruitment was another rubbish experience, with untimely advertising, and geographic remoteness counteracting against good housing. Promotion for clergy was seen as unrelated to talent and chaplains felt separated off altogether and people retired unrecognised. The reputation for liberalism was seen to favour this tendency and excluded others. Thus morale was low [page 7].

One can see where this is all going, but let's see if the report does go that way. So what does the report recommend? First that the Diocese’s Senior Clergy should comprise of one Diocesan Bishop,one Suffragan Bishop and three Archdeacons [page 2]. Thus David Rossdale, Bishop of Grimsby, has resigned. He's the one on the left, up above.

Then the work of ministers should be recognised and rewarded with the bishop overseeing the development of talented clergy for promotion to senior roles. The bias perceived towards liberals should be replaced by a welcome to all kinds and chaplains should be better included. [See pages 7 and 8]

Well, what does one make of such a report? I think it has a fundamental flaw and it is in its clergy and then management focus. The guts of the matter is the fewer people darkening the doors of organised Christianity. The Methodist church down the road was in far worse shape. Its ministry and leadership (with a scandal down the road) was adapting to take account of real decline. The idea that you can employ more clergy, make it all cost more, and that this produces more people to dig deep into their pockets is an illusion of self-importance.

While I was there I did a web archive of a news booklet that had ambitions for itself in the 1970s. Even in the 1970s a Sunday Achool outing to the coast involved bus loads of children and many Sunday School teachers. But in 2009 there was a group approaching the 'leaving age' well catered for, and asking for more involvement, and a handful if that of younger children. The Sunday School is a dead institution, and is in most places. In the 1970s the Sunday School, Choir and local schools were all connected. Now the clergy make visits into school and maintain the connection with Church of England schools.

As regards liberalism, there might be the wider reputation, but the next parish was evangelical, and there was some crossing the border traffic. I crossed the border. I never attended the main church in my parish once and attended the one 30 seconds from my door three times between 1994 and 2010. The town constrained not the liberality, which actually was a plurality (because the congregation had main, Catholic, liberal and evangelical elements), but the desired Catholicism. The tension was, should the church become even more Catholic and mystical (even) or be accessible to the broader outside, the latter argument undermined by the fact that Anglican liturgy is an acquired taste in whatever style it is presented. People haven't acquired it in Sunday School, and it looks and sounds strange to people of ordinary thought. Nevertheless there were the more open, even semi-chaotic, services, and some regulars knew when to stay away.

The argument about ministers and focus, and stability, even identity, is one that faces the people I am with today, in a small independent congregation. Do we run the thing collectively or does it end up in factions and errors that cause arguments, or do we have the focus of a minister if only one would consider such a remote location. The minister could constrain the plurality we get now, but the plurality of now is almost random and sometimes amateur. It is so easy to have a minister but to have a bad minister and then matters really are disastrous.What is required, perhaps, is management skills and pastoral skills and clear distribution of roles and methods. But what is also required is enough people coming through the door. A minister might be a means to that, but might also lose some, and might be fairly useless as people sit back and leave it to the one paid individual.

What I am trying to get at here is the old reports like Paul and Tiller were about lay solutions and working from the bottom up, from activity up. Management is the solution in so far as it facilitates activity. But what seems to be implicit in this Lincoln report is the refocus on the clergy, as if a church is its clergy.

It isn't like that. There is a workload and the people who care for the church's future take on the workload. But the church should be aiming at an inner harmony and purpose, a means to handle its disagreements, so that it becomes an attractive community throuigh which people can think through the meaning of their lives.

There is no excuse for managerial drift, but it can make sense to rationalise churches and lead them from the congregation (allowing space for those who simply want to attend). A place has to encourage participation and jobs done, and it is when no one wants to do them that the hard decisions need taking. The solution is not to clericalise and pay anyone who wants to help manage a church on the basis that this might cause others to put their hands in their pockets.

The real question is to ask what churches are for, and how they can function as meeting places, and what is done in them, and then how they can be managed and by whom.

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