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Diocese of Leicester: Trailblazer or Portent of what's to come?

Another "In View of Experience" blog, offering local lessons for the wider Church.


Over the past few years, the Diocese of Leicester has attempted the most radical reorganisation of its structure, since it was established as a new diocese in the late 1920s. As a member of the diocese, I would like to share some insights into what's currently happening - both its weaknesses, and its possible strengths.

First, let's begin with a fact: the process ‘Shaped by God Together’ should really be called, ‘Shaped by Finance’.

The simple truth is that the Diocese of Leicester faces a £2 million deficit in its budget, and it therefore has to create parish units, or multiple units, that are financially viable. This means that each minster community needs to be able to pay for the clergy ministry they receive. Attempts to increase giving to the required level have failed, so reducing clergy numbers is the only option.

In 2021, as part of the ‘Shaped by God Together’ process, the Diocesan Synod approved a motion to form 20-25 new ‘Minster Communities’

I speak as one involved in the formation of one such Community. A number of issues have arisen during the process that need to be addressed by those running it.

At the start of the process, each church is asked to draw up ‘a storyboard’, designed to define a church's mission and character. This process is beneficial, as it enables the PCC and the wider church to focus on the church's core values. The church is then asked to take their storyboard to a meeting with all the churches in the proposed community so they can compare their different storyboards.

Then comes the ‘Conversation Prompts Workbook’. The booklet's introduction states that it is designed to help churches prepare for and navigate the community formation process.

It contains nine 'dials' graded from 0 to 9. The dials cover areas including discipleship and mission, growing faith and schools, pioneering new communities and many other aspects of church life.  For each area, the booklet describes what a church scoring two should look like and what a church scoring seven should look like and so on. The church then decides where on the 'dial' they are for that particular area of church life. However, as it is up to the individual church to score themselves based on subjective reflection, there is no way of judging whether a church is being honest in that reflection. So, while giving the appearance of objectivity ,this is effectively garbage in, garbage out data.

More importantly, perhaps, there is no place for the discussion of the theological perspectives held by each church.  In fact, every time that question is raised, the team running the process argue that theological differences are not issues that should divide or stop the formation of communities. So, the assumption is that future Minster Communities will contain those who hold the full range of theological perspectives currently held in the Church of England.

The information from the Storyboards and Conversation Prompt Workbooks is then 'processed' by the diocese, who then invite churches to attend a discernment day, where the proposed communities are revealed to the gathered group.

In our case, the proposed community, will be one of four, formed from 51 parishes stretching more than 15 miles from W to E; it will include parishes that are classic small rural parishes that are just surviving, university town parishes, market town parishes, and everything in between. It will consist of conservative Evangelical parishes, new wine parishes, middle-of-the-road Anglican parishes, and highly revisionist LGBGTQ+ parishes. Some churches that will be included currently contribute about £4000 towards the cost of their clergy, others pay more than £100,000.

The process has therefore raised a number of fundamental problems in the formation of 'Minster Communities'.

The “We do not get, we will not give” mentality.

Why would a church in a village that gets a communion service once a month contribute to the cost of the clergyperson in the local town who receives a service every week? As the numbers of clergy decline and clergy are required to cover an ever-increasing number of parishes, the parishes that do not get regular clergy do not wish to pay for clergy they do not get.

Grouping churches together increases the speed of decline of a church.

The Church of England’s own research,‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, states that, “Analysing data across a range of congregation size categories shows that amalgamations of churches are more likely to decline.”

There need to be more laity to fill the gaps.

 ‘Shaped by God Together’ is based on the core presumption that there is an army of lovely people just desperate to run a church. In contrast, many churches have no treasurers, churchwardens, lay preachers, readers or people to lead children's work. In many rural churches, the congregation numbers no more than 14 or 15 people, with very few children, and the average age of the congregation is 65.

The communities will incorporate schools and headteachers.

There is already excellent work in many schools, but I cannot see how overworked headteachers can engage with the community being formed in any meaningful way. Working in schools will not solve the financial problems the diocese is facing.

Impacts on clergy well-being

The basic structure is designed so that one minister will oversee the community, which could contain up to 25 parishes. Ideally, each community should have four paid staff members: one to deal with the administration, one oversight Minister, one school and youth worker, and one other staff member. Only the oversight minister is required to be ordained. This clergyperson will have an unsustainable workload as they will be needed to train the army of laity coming forward to lead the churches, run the church councils on top of the sacramental and pastoral ministry that they are called to offer. Such a workload is bound to cause stress on the clergy and their family.

Rearranging the deckchairs

But the most serious issue is that diocese is likely to run out of money before the new communities can be formed and made effective.

Many have used the phrase "moving deck chairs on the Titanic" to describe the process. It seems an apt description. On that fateful night in 1912, no matter how much energy was spent running the pumps or shutting the watertight doors, it was in fact inevitable that the Titanic would sink because the first five compartments of the ship had already been breached.

From where I stand, there seems to be a refusal to acknowledge that ‘Shaped by God Together’ will not and cannot resolve the financial crisis the diocese faces. Neither can we continue to ignore the deep theological differences that lie between us.

The process is exhausting, it is taking up vast amounts of ministry time and all for no good outcome.  In military terms, this process and the Diocesan finances are another example of FUBAR (Fouled Up Beyond All Repair).

Which brings me to the reason for writing this.

The ‘Shaped by God Together’ process has been overseen by the Bishop of Leicester, the same person who is now overseeing the implementation of the Living in Love and Faith process. It is unlikely that a bishop who is unable to grasp the financial nettle in his own diocese will be able to grasp the theological nettle in the wider church.

In Leicester we need a far more radical solution, which involves closing failing churches, shrinking diocese functions (and staff budgets) and focusing on areas of growth and flourishing. 

In the wider church we need legally binding structural pastoral provision. 

From what I’ve seen locally, I won’t be holding my breath.


Thanks to Annie Spratt at Unsplash for photo

 

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Guest
Mar 27

Shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic ... hardly the action of folk who want to be disciples of Jesus. Surely we need to invest some of the Church Commissioners' £10.5 billion in more, not fewer, parish clergy? Surely we don't still need the vast number of dioceses that we have now, all with their bureaucrats pushing out yet more stuff to over-worked parish clergy, let alone all the endless meetings? And surely we don't need to sound like the Labour Party at prayer over every social issue, when we cannot even sort out safeguarding in the church without covering up abuse for the sake of the church's reputation or treating every adult as though they are a paedophile?

If I…

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