By Mark Michael

An internal discussion paper leaked to the press warns of the possibility of major cash shortfalls, significant attendance drops, and “indiscriminate cuts” to paid clergy posts in the post-COVID Church of England. Perspectives on Money, People and Buildings, a document prepared by the vision and strategy group for the church led by Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, was distributed to the church’s bishops and diocesan secretaries on January 18. The Sunday Times broke the story on January 31, under the headline “Church to Cut Paid Clergy as a Fifth of Flock Wanders Off.”

Cottrell disputed the characterization in a BBC Radio Sunday interview, saying, “It is much too early to write headlines like this…. Yes, this is a financially challenging time for the Church as it is for all organizations; but there are no central plans to cut clergy. Even if there were, we couldn’t do it…. That is not how the Church of England operates.”

Yet the paper issued with a cover letter by Cottrell sketches a picture of a church deeply shaken by pandemic-related changes.

Based on financial reporting, survey data, and discussions among the bishops, the paper confirmed that the inability to gather for worship has been very costly. As of November 2020, parish share income, the assessments paid from parishes to dioceses, had fallen by 8.1 percent. It predicts a further fall of 10 percent for 2021, though this estimate may be conservative, coming before the current round of strict lockdowns. Pandemic-related cost savings are estimated at only 2 to 3 percent.

The drop in parish share income also varies considerably between dioceses, and has generally fallen harder on dioceses in the north. The largest fall was 17.8 percent, and one diocese saw an increase of 0.5 percent income over 2019. “Churches which have a solid foundation of regular giving through direct debit or standing order appear to be withstanding the pandemic much better than those more dependent on church hall income, visitor donations and cash in the offertory plate,” it said.

The paper cited the growth in online worship as a success, noting that “the pandemic created opportunities for the Church to engage with new people.” Surveys conducted during England’s first nationwide lockdown estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 people who were new to church or had attended irregularly participated in “Church at Home” offerings, and that 100,000 to 200,000 of these planned to continue to attend online or in-person worship.

Just as many regular churchgoers, however, said they are “not planning to return to worship in any form” in the future. The survey suggests the church’s post-pandemic worshipping community will number between 1 and 1.2 million, and that 160,000-200,000 of these would be online-only participants. “The Church of England could emerge from the pandemic smaller in terms of engagement by at least some measures, but particularly physical attendance,” the paper said. “This will inevitably have further impact on the sustainability of many local churches.”

The paper noted that the Church of England had survived decades of sustained decline because “its historic assets have been large enough to enable it to subsidize parishes which cannot afford their ministry costs and by steadily reducing the number of stipendiary ministers.”

Similar reductions are likely for the future, like those already announced in Cottrell’s former cash-strapped Diocese of Chelmsford and in Sodor and Man. The paper noted that clergy spending across the church is projected to be down 4 percent in 2021, and that “dioceses are making provision for reduced numbers of clergy in almost all cases.” This projected shift comes at a time when the number of new ordinands is growing more rapidly than had been expected. “2019-2020 saw the highest number of recommendations to ordained ministry in 25 years and the current discernment year already looks to be full,” the paper notes. The oversupply of new clergy may lead to future shortages in “first incumbencies,” the initial leadership positions new clergy would usually assume after a two- to three-year initial curacy.

The paper also raises concerns about the sustainability of church buildings. Though church attendance has fallen by 40 percent in England over the last 30 years, the number of church buildings has dropped by only 6 percent. The costs of maintaining so many buildings (as well as so many dioceses), it notes, are resting on fewer shoulders.

“The number of churches whose ability to manage their mission, ministry and buildings is in question has risen, but so far, no general increase in requests for closure has been observed. It is widely felt that taking time to understand the new world is a crucial part of deciding the future of individual churches, and decisions should not be rushed.”

The paper concludes by pointing to opportunities for deep reform presented by the pandemic while also hinting at painful differences about the best way forward. “Many diocesan leaders believe that the financial challenges being exposed by the pandemic mean this is the moment to embark on radical changes to re-shape existing resource patterns and ministry structures, and to invest in developing a more missionally healthy and financially sustainable Church. But there is not a consensus about that: some don’t see a need for radical change or have the appetite to undertake it; some suggest that changes will have little impact.”