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C of E Synod: Financial Woes, Safeguarding & Boilers

Financial worries, varied progress on safeguarding and evangelism, and new specs for church boilers dominated conversation at the February session of the Church of England’s General Synod, held February 8-10 at Church House in London. A testy exchange over the hiring of the church’s new appointments secretary, Stephen Knott, provided a rare moment of drama in the session, the first of three scheduled for the year.

The Rt. Rev. Martin Seeley of St. Edmundsbury & Ipswich, chair of the church’s Ministry Council, said that pandemic-related financial challenges are already threatening the “ambitious aspirations” of Vision and Strategy, the church’s plan for recruiting younger clergy and planting thousands of new churches that was launched last year.

“We have got a long-term Vision and Strategy and short-term pressures around finance, and those two timetables don’t meet,” Seeley said.  Some cash-strapped dioceses are poised to cut stipendiary posts just as record numbers of new ordinands are entering the job market, a concern flagged in Perspectives on Money, People and Buildings, a paper circulated to bishops last year.

Seeley said that the Ministry Council was seeking additional support from the Archbishops’ Council, which oversees central funding, “to ensure that no eligible stipendiary curate finishing in 2022 will be without the possibility of a post of further responsibility.”

In response to synod member questions, Seeley also expressed concern about clergy well-being as more multi-parish benefices are being created in response to funding shortfalls. (A multi-parish benefice is a grouping of two or more parishes under a single incumbent or ministry team.)  The Church of England currently has 2,151 such benefices, and 331 of them contain more than five churches (one has 29). “I think we are in serious danger of creating impossible jobs, and many jobs have become impossible, where the ministry for the cure of souls becomes the ministry of managing a team,” he said.

Possible Restructuring

On the same day, a confidential paper prepared last September for the church’s bishops about restructuring episcopal ministry in light of similar financial pressures was leaked by Church Times. 27 of the church’s 42 dioceses are currently operating with deficit budgets. It bemoans financial inequalities between dioceses, poor alignment between diocesan territories and current populations, and costly duplication of “back office” staffing.

Various proposals are considered, all focused on maintaining a commitment to episcopal ministry with “a territorial focus,” while also reducing administrative burdens for bishops and focusing more resources on parish clergy and chaplains in “front line ministry.”

Possible solutions include shrinking the number of dioceses through mergers (like the Yorkshire reorganization that created the Diocese of Leeds 11 years ago) or the creation of larger regional dioceses, aligned with civic jurisdictions instead of ancient cathedral cities. Term limits could be possible, as well as designating more “non-territorial missionary bishops,” with ministry focused on a given portfolio. This could follow the model of the Rt. Rev. Ric Thorpe, who has led church planting work across the Church of England since 2015 under the title of Bishop of Islington, a see made redundant decades ago.

While General Synod did not directly address the issues and proposals in the paper about bishops, it did commend a report on work toward merging most of the Church of England’s national activities and institutions into a single body. “‘Humbler, simpler, bolder’ is our aim, with a special emphasis on ‘simpler’ – enabling our governance structures to serve the mission and ministry of the Church more straight-forwardly and effectively,” said the Rt. Rev. Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford, who will lead the next phase of the effort, focused on consulting with key stakeholders in church and state.

Appointment Questioned

During question time on the session’s first day, Welby was repeatedly quizzed about the choice of Stephen Knott, a gay married man, who has worked at Lambeth Palace since 2013. The appointments secretary coordinates the selection process for bishops, cathedral deans, and other senior roles, and an internal hiring process was used. Some conservatives have criticized Knott’s selection at a time when the church is set to consider changing its teaching and practice on same-sex relationships through engagement with the Living in Love and Faith process.

The synod’s questioners, though, probed whether efforts had been made to encourage non-white candidates to apply for the job. In a written reply, Welby explained that the post had been advertised to all employees of the National Church Institutions, 15% of whom were from “global majority” backgrounds. “A number of experienced and potentially appointable NCI staff applied, and all who applied were invited to interview.”

Rebecca Chapman, a synod member who formerly worked in communications at Lambeth Palace, asked if the selection panel had been made aware of seven breaches of employment law associated with Knott’s handling of her maternity leave in 2016-2017. Her question was ruled out of order.

Safeguarding Concerns

The chair of the church’s new Independent Safeguarding Board, Maggie Atkinson, told the synod on February 8 that there are serious lingering problems in handling cases of alleged abuse, including a “child-unfriendly” system, and a failure to prioritize safeguarding complaints among the staff administering it.

Atkinson’s report noted that survivors and complainants often struggle with overly complex structures and promises about redress that are never implemented or are “seriously delayed and bound about with legalistic defensiveness.” Some also complain of “slow, institutionally defensive responses, with the person making a disclosure often disbelieved, alongside a continued sense that ‘institutions’ and the potential of upset for the accused matter more than, rather than as much as, the person making disclosures.”

She also noted that the system’s tendency to move quickly from an initial inquiry to formal and complex complaint process is often intimidating for children and young people, who would be better served by addressing their concerns directly in the context where help was first sought.

Synod member Gavin Drake called Atkinson’s report “explosive,” and said that the ISB’s findings called for a comprehensive overview and wholesale reform of the current safeguarding systems. Clive Billenness echoed his concerns, especially an absence of attention to bullying within the church. Other members noted that the Independent Safeguarding Board had barely begun its work, and those administering the church’s complex safeguarding bureaucracy needed time to implement its findings.

Evangelism and Boilers

The Rt. Rev. Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, reported to the synod that “Setting God’s People Free,” a churchwide initiative, had succeeded in creating a “change in culture” among Anglicans over the last five years, with lay people becoming much more confident in sharing their faith.

The progress report explained that three parts of the project would continue: Everyday Faith, a digital portal focused on equipping and supporting personal evangelism; Everyday Church, a website that shares creative tips for congregations; and the Discipleship Enablers Network, a group focused on connecting lay ministry leaders and sharing best practices.

The Synod put some teeth into a 2020 commitment to move towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 by a series of amendments to the church’s Faculty Jurisdiction Rules, which govern approvals for significant changes to church buildings. The new rules make it easier for churches to implement carbon-reducing changes like adding electric pew heaters and charging stations for electric cars. However they also require diocesan permission for “like for like” replacements of boilers that uses fossil fuels. Churches who ask for traditional boilers much also explain how they have given “due regard” to the net-zero targets.

Thanks to Church Times for extensive coverage of the General Synod session.


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