Three vital statistics from General Synod

This week saw the first meeting of the new General Synod following elections last month. It was designed to be a largely uncontroversial first session, not least because around 60% of the members were new—something fairly unprecedented, which resulted in a surprising number of established members not being re-elected. Most of the items of business were either completing the formalities of items already discussed (including next year’s budget for Archbishops’ Council, and the finalisation of the changes to the Vacancy in See process), discussion to catch the new members up to date (Vision and Strategy, Governance Review), or things that were not controversial. You can see both the agenda and all the papers (since Synod conducts its business in the public eye) on the Church of England webpage here.

As a result, and as is often the case, the most interesting session was Questions on Tuesday evening from 5.30 to 7.00. 132 questions had been submitted; as has been the practice for several years, initial answers were published in writing and the Synod time was taken up with asking supplementary questions. Despite this, we only got just over half way through the list; Synod must give more time to this (and control the number of supplementary questions any one member can ask).

I here reflect on three questions that were asked, which potentially offered some illuminating statistics, all of which I was involved with one way or another.

Question 13 was asked by a new lay member of Synod, retired professor of material sciences Roy Faulkner, but I advised on the wording:

What are the numbers respectively of usual Sunday attendance, parochial clergy, diocesan posts, archdeacons, and suffragan and diocesan bishops over the last 100 years, say in 1920, 1950, 1980, 2010, and today?

No information was supplied on church attendance or diocesan posts, but the numbers of senior leaders and clergy in dioceses were given as follows:

What is striking here is that the number of clergy has declined by around 45% from 1959 to 2020, whilst the number of senior leaders (archdeacons plus bishops) has actually increased from 219 to 235. At the same time, according to Christian Research, attendance has declined from around 2,900,000 to around 800,000, a drop of some 75%.

Two things are striking here. First is that the number attending church per member of parochial clergy has decreased from 221 to 110. It is not clear that these numbers mean very much in an absolute sense, but they point to some of the key issues in the financial pressure that dioceses are facing: there are fewer people attending, giving and supporting clergy on average, so giving per person needs to be much higher than it was in the past in order to sustain the cohort of stipendiary clergy. The complexity here is that, with a massive changes in social context, not least the introduction of Sunday trading, even committed Christians attend Sunday services less frequently, so the decline in attendance numbers does not translate directly into a decline in the numbers of people who attend or are involved. In the past, the kind of people who might have attended twice every Sunday now might well attend once on two or three Sundays in a month, which alone would account for more than a 60% drop in the counted attendance numbers.

(On the subject of attendance, it is also worth noting that the challenge for the C of E is not that people are attending less, but that successive generations are not following in their predecessors footsteps. I came across this graph which illustrates it very well:

This tells us, yet again, that one of our main challenges is finding effective ways to nurture successive generations within the church family, as much as it is reaching each generation outside.)

But the paradox on stipendiary clergy numbers is that all the known research shows that cutting the number of stipendiary clergy leads to a decline in attendance, so we would normally assume that reducing the number of clergy further would probably lead to a further reduction in attendance.

The second striking thing is that the number of senior leaders per 100 parochial clergy has almost exactly doubled from 1.67 in 1959 to 3.26. I asked Stephen Cottrell a supplementary question ‘Is anyone aware of a particular explanation for this?’ and he answered in general terms ‘We must look carefully at all roles’. This growth in senior leaders is before we consider the huge growth in central administrative staff across the dioceses, so that in some cases up to a third of diocesan staff are in central administration, and only two-thirds are clergy in parishes.

There is no simple answer to this; we live in a much more complex and bureaucratic world than we did in the 1950s. And there is no doubt that some things are better done centrally. But the starkness and steepness of this change does concentrate the mind. Do we need to ask, of central administration and senior leadership, in a fresh way, what are all these posts for? Are they doing things which support the delivery of ministry in the parish—or are we trying to do too many others things which need serious pruning? Should we continue to do anything at all which is not about direct engagement in sharing and building faith?

In relation to overall numbers of parochial clergy, I asked Question 36:

How many dioceses have announced plans to cut the number of stipendiary posts over the next five years, by how much, and by how many in total?

This follows the announcement several weeks ago by Leicester Diocese (discussed here) that they were going to cut the numbers of stipendiary posts and form ‘minster communities’ that group parishes together. Several other dioceses are also planning to make stipendiary posts redundant. No numbers were immediately forthcoming, though Martin Seeley, bishop of Edmundsbury and Ipswich, in response to my supplementary question ‘When will we have them?’ promised them within a month. In the meantime, he observed in the written answer:

Dioceses are still assessing their immediate and longer-term financial circumstances. The scale and pattern of future clergy retirements is very difficult to predict through the unique context of the pandemic and the full implications of the ambitious Vision and Strategy have yet to be fully reflected in the plans of Dioceses.

Meanwhile measures are already being developed and implemented to mitigate the risk of a short term mis-match between the continuing flow of stipendiary ordained vocations and the needs of the church. These include the extension of the already existing Strategic Ministry Fund to create additional curacy places.

The crucial observation here is that there is a serious mismatch between diocesan short-term decision-making, and longer term national strategy. It seems odd to me that this issue is not number one on the agenda of meetings of the House of Bishops; I don’t see where else such a mismatch can be addressed, but to my knowledge it is not yet being dealt with there.

The second vital statistic arose in my Question 83, which sadly we did not reach, so I was unable to ask the important supplementary questions I had been intending.

In 2020, according to their annual report, the Church Commissioners made an excellent return of 10.4% on their assets which at year end were £9.2bn, an asset growth of approximately £867m. Of this, £281m was dispersed through LinC and SDF and to support the Pension Fund. Of the remaining £586m, how much went towards management fees and costs, how much was kept back to protect the assets against devaluation through inflation and to ensure intergenerational justice in resourcing, and on what basis?

The answer was simple: all of the £586m was the figure retained as growth in assets, as management fees had already been accounted for, but there was no clear explanation of the basis on which this decision was made. I find this quite extraordinary, as it represents a growth in the Commissioners assets of 7.0%. The written answer to my question included this comment:

As my predecessor told Synod in July, “The Commissioners aim to distribute the maximum funding for mission and ministry that can be maintained in real terms into the future. This balances the needs of the current and future beneficiaries: the task of a permanent endowment.”

I struggle to understand how, in a period of historically low interest rates, and comparatively low inflation, growing the asset base by 7.0% whilst refusing to subsidise the dioceses any further through the effects of Covid and lockdown can constitute a ‘balance’ between the needs of current and future beneficiaries. To make this a little more concrete: had the Commissioners decided to protect the future value of their assets by holding onto a growth of 5% instead of 7%—which is still pretty conservative—this would have released a further £167m, enough to contribute a further £4m to every single diocese in this one year, which would go a long way to buying more time by eliminating deficits and discouraging the cutting of stipendiary posts.

Would this have been a good decision to make? Would it help dioceses by protecting them from making hard decisions about pruning areas of activity and ministry? Isn’t the problem we face as a denomination our failure to confront the reality of unsustainable and ineffective ministry?

Possibly so, but whether pruning feels like a good idea depends very much on whether you are the person doing the pruning or the person being pruned. Given the current state of clergy morale, given the mismatch noted above between short-term diocesan decision-making and longer term national strategy, and given that some dioceses clearly are not making good decisions here, using these funds to buy dioceses another, say, two or three years so that they can prepare better to face reality would seem like a good thing to me.

The supplementary question I would have asked is: on what grounds was it decided not to do this, or something like it? Why are the Commissioners prioritising protecting their assets for the future to such an extent at a time when a good number of dioceses are facing substantial deficits, often of several million pounds? The key problem here is the lack of transparency in decision making. Others might or might not agree with the way the decision has been made, but at the very least we need to see the working if we are to continue to work together in mutual partnership and trust.

The third interesting statistic came in quite a different context and of quite a different kind, in relation to a series of questions relating to the prohibition on the use of individual cups to administer wine in Holy Communion. There was a series of questions about the previous claim by the House of Bishops that receiving wine in individual cups was ‘illegal’, but this has been challenged by a group of ecclesiastical lawyers, and there has been no proper response. Andrew Atherstone, in a supplementary question, noted that it was reported in The Globe newspaper (26 April 1902):

On another question connected with the Holy Communion an important ruling has just been given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Somebody has asked Dr Temple whether, in view of the possible danger of infection during the administration of the chalice, he would authorise the provision of small glasses into which the consecrated wine may be poured for individual consumption. We have not seen the words of the reply, but it is stated that the Archbishop declares there is nothing illegal in the proposal, the provision being made either by the churchwardens or by the communicant who himself desires it.

In the written answer to the questions, Michael Ipgrave, who is bishop of Lichfield, stated:

The House recognises that different ministers and churches have in good conscience adopted a variety of forms of administration of Holy Communion while Covid-19 continues to circulate in the general population. Whatever approach is taken, ministers and churches should be guided by the symbolism and ideal of ‘one bread and one cup’.

I then asked the natural question arising:

For bears of little brain like myself, is there someone who could explain to me in words of one syllable why it is possible to receive the bread in the form of wafers, which were never part of ‘one loaf’, yet for some reason it is apparently not permitted to receive wine in small cups poured from a single vessel, which clearly did originate in ‘one cup’?

My question was, very oddly, ruled out of order, as were two other forms of the same question (the first by new member Chris Blunt from Chester).

What became apparent in the exchange is that the House of Bishops have not offered any clear or convincing support for their prohibition on the use of individual cups at Communion, that there is actually a diversity of practice on the ground, and that this diversity will continue. I think it would help all concerned if we heard a simple admission: ‘We got it wrong’.

What these three issues have in common is the need for transparency, honesty and accountability in our decision making in different areas, and an integration and coherence in our strategies. I am not sure we are there yet.

As we approach Advent, how do we make sense of the language in the New Testament about the ‘end of the world’? Why is it pastorally important to get this right? Is all the language about ‘rapture’, ’tribulation’ and ‘millennium’ helpful—or a distracting fiction?
Come and find out at Ian Paul’s Zoom teaching morning on Saturday 4th December:

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Three vital statistics from General Synod