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How many churches does the Church of England actually need (and where)? A Provocation.

This blog is designed as a 'provocation' - it is a 'big idea' based on somewhat arbitrary numbers - it is not a final plan - but an attempt to help us think practically,

and perhaps proactively, about the future of the Church of England.

We would love to hear your thoughts on our Facebook page, or even better, join us for 'coffee' next week, on Thursday morning, to chew these ideas over 'face-to-face.'

However accurate or inaccurate reports at the weekend were, they have rightly stimulated a debate about the future size of the Church of England: how many clergy and churches should it have?

Which inevitably leads to the question of where should they be?

Some raw maths- 700,000 or so weekly worshippers (pre-Covid), in churches of an average of 150 people would mean we would need 4,666 churches. Add a few others - cathedrals etc and a total of 5,000 would be more than sufficient to absorb the more occasional worshipper and even the “Christmas rush” .

5,000 churches still offers a Church of England church for every 11,000 people in England. Given that about 3m English people attend church, but only about 20% of those are Church of England churches, that is in fact pro rata, one church for every 2,200 or so potential “Church of Englanders”.

5,000 is also, coincidentally, one church for every other civil parish across the nation.

Even if a third of full-time stipendiary clergy were lost, each of the 5,000 churches would have its own full-time stipendiary vicar with at least some of the almost 3,000 self-supporting clergy and 7,000 clergy with PTO’s spread across the 5,000 churches to assist.

If even half of unpaid licensed/PTO clergy wished to continue to offer their ministry each of the 5,000 churches would have two licensed clergy.

Only about one-third of the present buildings would be required and, less than 40% of present parishes. Obviously, that should lead to savings at the centre and funds for investment.

Savings at 'the top'

Let's say that twenty-five dioceses and 40-50 bishops (40%) could be shed. If each bishop costs an average of £177,000 that is a saving of close to £9m a year which plus losing 2,500 clergy at £67,000 pa (£167,500,000) and losing the costs of twenty five dioceses, must take the total savings to well over £200m every year.

Which churches survive?

So far so simple, but where would these 5,000 churches be? Would yours survive the “Beechingisation” of the Church of England?

Like everything else - supermarkets, banks, libraries there would be bound to be a bias towards more densely populated urban locations, but not as much as might be thought.

One church per 11,000 would give London about 800 churches (similar to what the dioceses of London and Southwark combined have now) and the city of Manchester about 50.

And if all the biggest 20 cities (From London to Northampton: total pop about 16.5m) were given one church per 11,000 - they would need about 1,500 churches.

The next 65 biggest towns and cities (From Reading to Halifax: total pop around 8.75m) would need another 800. Halifax has a population of 90,000.

There are about 700 towns and villages with a population between 9 and 90,000, with a total population of 19.5m. We could, at first offer a single church per settlement - this would mean we would be getting down to towns of the size of Ledbury, Longton and Lydney before a community, is itself potentially too small for a church in its own right.

This would leave us with 2000 churches to distribute amongst the rest of the population. It may be thought that some of the larger towns would merit a second or third church, - which might require another 2-300 churches. Or, it might be felt that the needs of rural areas should be prioritised, with local strategic decisions needed about how smaller settlements relate to one another and where a 'central' church should be situated.

For comparison - Sainsbury’s and Tesco between them have about 4,850 stores - of every shape and size - metro to superstore. Co-op, which prides itself on being a local store, only has about 2600 grocery stores, and if you combine the number of Aldis, Lidls, Asdas, Booths, Morrisons, Budgens, Icelands, Waitroses etc. you reach about 5000.

It's just a thought....

Some questions:

How could this proposed model be improved?

Might it be better to reduce the number of churches in the large urban areas, with high population density and good transport networks, to increase the number in towns and rural areas?

How big does a settlement need to be to justify a second Church of England church - is one large church (of 4-500 people) preferable to two smaller churches?

How would a settlement smaller than 9,000 in your patch be affected by this - how might this be mitigated?

Is this type of retrenchment model more desirable, not least for clergy, than what is presently on offer?

Is it better to have a national plan or leave the difficult decisions to the deaneries?

But what are we going to do with 10,000 redundant buildings?

Perhaps we could think big:

Make all unneeded buildings the responsibility, not of the parish (or diocese) but of a central body of the Church of England, and ultimately of the ABC and ABY.

Within the constraint provision outlined, ie one church for each town with a population over 9,000, impose a requirement on every diocese that for 5 years whenever a building can be sold and for whatever sum, it is sold. That will, in and, of itself produce some sensible rationalisation. The proceeds must be paid to the central body for future redistribution.

However bitter the opposition, sell the parsonages and any other houses not required for clergy and any buildings ancillary to an unneeded church ie the hall. Those proceeds too will go to a central body for future redistribution. If 10,000 parishes raised even £100,000 on average that is £1bn.

The Church of England should seek what government assistance might be available and make clear to parishes who resist change that they will receive no help from central funds and therefore all future costs will be theirs to bear.

Where unwanted buildings cannot be sold, then we could:

  • Prioritise offering buildings, if necessary, free or purely on full-repairing leases alone, to other denominations.

  • Then offer any buildings that are not wanted by other denominations/cannot be sold to local communities with assistance to create a Community Interest Companies, access funding, and the like. Church groups might be able to use these spaces.

  • If buildings have no economic or community use then the minimum amount required of the resources from sales and the other savings above could be deployed to the preservation via “mothballing” of unneeded buildings

  • In the last resort and within the law, abandon the building.

Over the five-year period a fund of £1bn from savings plus all the sale profits will have been created. If the Church Commissioners continued to get a 9% return on that £2bn - then they could raise £180m a year - which could be spent on growth.

With grateful thanks to for demographic data - all mistakes our own - and will happily be corrected!

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