By Mark Michael
The Church of England’s smallest diocese could “run out of money” in five years because of income lost during coronavirus lockdowns, according to a strategic review released in mid-August. The Diocese of Sodor and Man is making plans to consolidate congregations and to sell off a significant number of its 41 church buildings, as diocesan income from congregations has fallen off sharply.
“The lockdown triggered by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) from March 2020 onwards with its necessary closure of churches for several months has brought us, along with many other dioceses, to the brink of financial ruin,” the review states.
Sodor and Man, whose jurisdiction comprises the historically poor Isle of Man, a self-governing crown dependency located in the Irish Sea, lacks the large stabilizing endowments possessed by some historic English dioceses. It depends on payments from congregations for 75 percent of its income, making it especially vulnerable to fluctuations in parish giving. The diocese plans to rely on funds from the Church of England’s central authority to pay for expenses for the remainder of 2020.
The review blames the diocese’s financial woes on an overabundance of church buildings, stating “There is a widespread acceptance both within and outside the church that we can’t afford all the church buildings we currently have, and that as in many cases those buildings are seeing a declining attendance and house ageing congregations we do not need all the churches we have. Usually most church members and especially members of Diocesan Synod agree with this – unless they think their church is on a list of those to be closed; then we discover a myriad of reasons why that one particular church could never be closed.”
Two other Christian denominations with similar numbers of Sunday worshipers maintain fewer than ten church buildings on the 221 square mile Isle of Man, which has a population of around 90,000 people. There are only 8 Roman Catholic churches, for example, under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Liverpool.
Canon John Coldwell, who serves on the diocesan board of finance, confirmed the diagnosis, and indicated that the COVID crisis has merely made need for reducing building stock more urgent. “Basically, the number of churches we have is unsustainable,” he told The Church Times:. What with the global financial downturn, and now the COVID epidemic, it is a perfect storm.”
The review lays out a plan for allocating each church building to one of five categories: “hub” churches capable of sustaining a full-time ministry, “community mission churches,” many of which would be closed in winter; “heritage churches” which would be opened only for special events and financially sustained by “friends groups;” “churches at a crossroads” which require “radical rethinking” that could involve “closure, sale, demolition;” and “marketable churches,” which could be sold to raise funds for ongoing mission.
Most church halls, it adds, will need to be sold unless they produce “a reliable, substantial and sustainable profit.” The diocese’s parochial structure, which underwent a significant consolidation into 15 benefices several years ago, will likely require further shrinking, as the report suggests that sustainable parishes must serve geographical areas of at least 6000 people. The number of stipendiary clergy posts, which was only 17 in 2018, will likely also be reduced.
When founded in 1154, the Diocese of Sodor was part of the Church of Norway and consisted of all the islands off Britain’s Western coast, including the Outer and Inner Hebrides. “Sodor” is a collective description of these islands, from the Old Norse Suðreyjar (Sudreys or “southern isles”), though the term is best known today as the fictional island home of Thomas the Tank Engine in Wilbert Awdry’s children’s stories.
Since 1334, the diocese has been part of the Church of England, but its jurisdiction has been limited to the Isle of Man, the southernmost island of the grouping. The Anglican Church has a central role in the history of the island, and is established by law, with the bishop serving as member of the upper chamber of Tynwald, the island’s parliament, claimed to be the oldest in the world.
A 2015 survey found that 45 percent of Manxmen, as the islanders call themselves, identify as Anglicans and a 2013 report noted that the rate of religious participation among Anglicans on the island has been relatively high and stable for Church of England dioceses, but Sodor and Man has not been able to plant new churches as the island’s population has shifted with new development. Churches across the island continue to largely correspond with the twelfth century keeills (places of prayer) established by the Vikings when the diocese was first created, and many are in areas with very small or nonexistent current populations.
Amalgamation of the Diocese of Sodor and Man into the neighboring mainland Diocese of Liverpool has been discussed since the 19th century but is complicated by the peculiar nature of Anglicanism’s establishment on the island.
The report indicated that an implementation group will work on categorizing the diocese’s churches over during the remainder of 2020. Final decisions will be made by the diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Peter Eagles, probably early in 2021.