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We’ll have to shut some empty churches To save its poorer parishes the C of E needs to slash its middle management

A memorial to Norfolk's Covid dead in Norwich Cathedral. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A memorial to Norfolk's Covid dead in Norwich Cathedral. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


February 5, 2021   7 mins

Henry VIII not being able to keep his pants on is the best-known C of E birth narrative. But there is another, more edifying story. Because of Henry’s zipper trouble, the Church in England eventually stumbled into a hodgepodge religious compromise that allowed a place for very different and hitherto warring theological instincts peacefully to co-exist. Semi-peacefully, at least.

It didn’t happen by design. And a horrendous religious civil war was to follow, an extension, in many ways, of the wars of religious that had disfigured Europe with Protestants and Catholics all slaughtering each other in the name of God. But, in this country, a place of healing was eventually discovered. In this place, faith began to be separated from violence.

That place was the parish church of the Church of England. Here, both the catholic and the protestant instincts could be partially accommodated. This was somewhere people could worship in the same church without reaching for the pitchforks. Divisions could be managed without necessarily being overcome. With a book of common prayer — the common bit being crucial — and an emphasis on prayer and pastoral care, the established church, and the parish church in particular, became the site of national healing.

Not for everyone — non-conformists, for instance, were side-lined. But what held a great many people together was a loyalty to the local, to place. And more than any other institution, the parish church symbolised this renewal of local solidarity. Former enemies could sit alongside each other in church and pray to the same God, bracketing out their ideological differences, suspicious of enthusiasm, both catholic and reformed, singing over the cracks.

Lulled by sandy stone architecture, the gentle lullabies of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways”, and an irenic, softly spoken Vicar, the parish church did its job almost too well. The English church fell asleep.

But for all its many dangers, enthusiasm also has its uses — not least when the church urgently needs to rally its forces in the face of a growing lack of interest, as it does right now. For all its many virtues, the gentle sleepy spirit of the parish church doesn’t always feel like a bridgehead for the re-conversion of England. Passion needs to be re-kindled. Forces need to be concentrated. The Christian church within England has to return to missionary mode. And it is, therefore, perhaps inevitable that some of us parish clergy are feeling a little bit of whiplash. Times they are a changing.

But many of the problems we now face are as much the consequence of missionary over-reach as of sleepy church complacency. The year I was ordained, the sociologist Robin Gill published his famous The Myth of the Empty Church, which should have probably been titled The Myth of the Full Church. The Victorians built too many churches, he argued, thus burdening and bankrupting future generations with the upkeep of impressive but expensive God boxes. It was the boom-and-bust theory of church growth.

The history of my ancient parish bears this out: Newington dates back to 1212, perhaps even earlier. Geographically, it was huge by modern standards, covering an area now served by a dozen or so parishes, most of what we now call Southwark. When London expanded during the 19th century — from a population of 1.9 million 1810 to 6.2 million in 1897 — the Church of England responded with a massive programme of church building. In the middle of that century, a new church was consecrated every four or five days. My own parish was split into ten between 1826 and 1877. And there were more later, carved from parts of my old parish and slices of neighbouring ones.

These were the boom times, built at the height of imperial confidence. But bust is now upon us. This week we had to go cap in hand to the Diocese to ask them for a loan. Our old Victorian church hall collapsed back in December and the bill for demolition is around ÂŁ150,000. We have nothing like that.

This week we also learned that the Church is concerned about “the sustainability of many local churches” — a problem floated in a leaked document. The Covid crisis has cost the church something in the region of £150 million and counting. And there are those who say that many of our congregations will never come back. As the report detailed: “Church attendance has reduced by around 40% over the last thirty years; the number of church buildings has fallen by 6%, which means a higher cost burden for the remaining attendees.” Something has to give. I cannot keep on asking my parishioners for money they don’t have. And the Diocese is no longer able to keep on subsidising all those churches that do not pay their own way.

But if the Church of England is to be precisely that – a church for the whole of the country, rich and poor — it cannot retreat into the wealthy suburbs, leaving the inner-city churches to become repurposed as designer flats with pointy ceilings. Nor can it fool itself that Zoom is the magical answer – a way of providing church without the need to worry about the leaky roof or whether or not we can afford to turn on the heating. Zoom has its advantages, not least that it offers to the housebound a window into the worshiping life of the church they are no longer able to attend. And indeed, over the last year, my own congregation has grown by about 20%, with new people joining us from all over the world. But for those churches in the more Catholic tradition, where church life centres around the offering of bread and wine, zoom is no substitute.

Transubstantiation may be an unexplainable miracle, but there is no way to convert the body of Christ into a digital offering that can be passed into the hands of the congregation via the camera on my laptop. You can no more offer the body and blood of Christ over zoom as you can go to the dentist over zoom. Catholic Christianity is inescapably physical, incarnational. And Zoom is, so to speak, an inherently Protestant medium, a genius technology for the promulgation of the word (much as the printing press did so much to accelerate the Reformation) but incapable of carrying the full weight of a more catholic sensibility, with its emphasis on place and presence. An evangelical church can function more like Boohoo than Debenhams, but a catholic one cannot.

It is not the fault of the more successful parts of the church that the poorer parts of it are struggling. And it is a mistake to look at the growth of the more missionary minded evangelical parishes and regard them as some sort of threat to parishes like mine. Nonetheless, the idea that precious resources should be redirected towards growing, successful parishes does nothing to address the question of how the Church of England survives within the inner city. Such an approach would transform the Church of England into a middle-class broadly Protestant offering, and thus constitute a retreat from the core Church of England raison d’etre of, as it were, universal service provision. The only good justification for an established church is that it has a presence within every community in the land. Without this, disestablishment would be morally unavoidable.

One way to both save the parish and allow the release of missionary energy would be to cut the layers of middle management that Dioceses haves built up over time. The Henry VIII shaped problem that the Church of England has is that of the bloated middle, with the continual invention of administrative jobs located at Church House. Some of us who are struggling to keep our parishes going unkindly wonder whether there are too many people employed by the church to sit behind a desk rather than stand behind an altar. We may also need to cut the number of Dioceses and expensive talking shops like the General Synod. But the truth is that without the central structures of the church, parishes like mine would no longer exist. After all, from where else would we get a loan from to pay for the demolition of our church hall? Indeed, how else could the parish afford to have a priest here, and a Rectory, if not for the subsidy administered by Church House.

But do these central structures really need to be so big? Church house for the Oxford diocese now employs more than 100 people. These are jobs that are replicated in many of our 42 dioceses. The Roman Catholic church, for example, seems to be able to manage (just as successfully) with a few office staff and an old filing cabinet. The problem within the Church of England appears to be the employment of a whole middle management class of communication officers and compliance professionals generating reams of forms and paperwork. In normal times there may be a case for such work. But when the church is busy cutting frontline staff — the parish clergy — the existence of this bloated middle has to be seriously challenged.

But if we’re talking about greater subsidiarity, this inevitably means parishes taking greater responsibility for their own financial affairs. At the moment, and however much I explain otherwise, many in my parish still believe that we pay some sort of tax to the diocese just for existing. In truth we are heavily subsidised. It is the worst of both worlds.

So yes, the church must change. There will be much pain in those changes for many. But what, for me, is absolutely non-negotiable is the parish system. Parishes like mine covered a much larger geographical area before and they can do so again. Some churches will close. Some of that hubristic Victorian over expansion will have to be reversed. Resources must be concentrated. But the idea of a priest in a parish must be defended. The transformation that is needed will not take place successfully if the parish clergy fear that the central church regards its poorer parishes as little more than failing cost centres.

This is a crucial moment for the C of E. But churches have survived much worse. And events of the 21st century have demonstrated that the old narrative of slow religious decline is as much a myth as that of that of the Victorian church triumphant. Globally, Christianity continues to grow in the most unexpected places. China, for instance. But on these shores, we are called to be faithful in dark and difficult times. The Christian faith contains a genius for reinvention. And if we are right that God is in his heaven, then there is ultimately nothing to worry about. And if we are wrong, then it doesn’t matter anyway.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘The problem within the Church of England appears to be the employment of a whole middle management class of communication officers and compliance professionals generating reams of forms and paperwork.’

The same can be said of all organisations – public and private – these days. As for the Church, I can only repeat the tired old cliche ‘Go Woke, Go Broke’.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Local councils have precisely the same problem. More and more staff sitting at desks, less and less emptying bins, repairing potholes, and helping the unfortunate. When cuts have to be made, the office dwellers survive, but the bins are emptied less often, the potholes are not repaired, and the unfortunate are left to do they can alone. And the rates go up and up

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Any not put the desk dwellers in the pot holes? That would kill a few birds with one stone.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“It’s not there now
The grounds all flat
and beneath it is the bloke in the bowler hat”
Bernard Cribbins

William Blake
William Blake
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The problem with the Church of England is that it has forgotten why it exists. It is now simply a business focused on staying solvent. In that it must fail.

Jules Anjim
Jules Anjim
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

And if so many priests hadn’t molested so many young children in their care, headmasters and teachers abused so many of their vulnerable charges, the Church wouldn’t have needed the intervention of so many compliance and communication and other middle management professionals who are struggling to ensure the Church does not face the disestablishment this article hints at.

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago

Mostly the Cof E is customs, rituals, rules and behaviours. With each passing year it becomes more liberal as conservatives leave and liberalism predominates.

A liberal religion cannot hold its adherents and certainly cannot pay for its churches. Viable culture is breaking down in the West not for lack of rules and rituals. Viable culture in the west is breaking down because the idea of a governing capital-T Truth has broken down and we are left with nothing but human autonomy. That’s at least manageable in the short term so long as there is money to sustain autonomy. But then all that is happening is that being rich gives one the illusion of being independent of God. Money allows one to purchase the luxury of atheism. It’s not an accident that Gene Roddenberry’s atheistic vision was one of perpetual wealth. That was the necessary enabling condition. But the wealth amassed by the West depended upon certain cultural preconditions that are being eviscerated with each passing month. This libertine society that we have created is not compatible with long-term prosperity.

It’s therefore a self-correcting problem. The West will soon no longer be rich. It will soon no longer dominate the world. Then all these questions of meaning and purpose are going to return and a liberal CofE ( what is left of it) will have no answers, because they embraced the culture rather than God.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago

I posted the below comment 8-9 months ago…despite Giles’s optimism, I don’t think anything has changed.

I don’t think it will be too long before the church is just a quaint old English custom .

In another generation I think most village churches will have been sold and converted in to plush abodes, it’ll be the only way to keep them from falling apart. Larger towns might hang on to their churches.

I don’t think the church yet appreciates how far it has fallen in the eyes of the public, and to see senior clergy joining in the witch-hunt of individuals, well…how did that go the last time clergy were involved in witch-hunts? In fact, Bishops getting themselves involved in politics has historically not gone well for them.
The church only has itself to blame. Traditionally the church looked after the poor and needy, regardless of who they were. Now, the poor are still poor and the needy are still needy, but it’s a different kind of poor and needy and the church hasn’t really taken this on, instead following the neo-liberal multi-cultural dance and ignoring the needs of large tracts of what was their “flock”. Happy to wear rainbows and support minorities, but don’t want to speak up on behalf of abused children, for example.

They should have stuck to what they’re good at, and they should leave the twitter wars to the deranged and mentally unstable.

David Ford
David Ford
3 years ago

I’m a now, non-church going Anglo-Catholic and much of what you’ve written I’m in broad agreement with.

Unfortunately I think you will find that, rather like middle-aged spread, that ‘bloated middle’ of diocesan management will remain stubbornly persistent whatever you try to do. It’s the very nature of middle management to keep itself in existence ,
(and growth) by pursuing all manner of ‘initiatives’, ‘programmes and ‘compliances’. It’s a self-generating machine and I am afraid the poor bloody infantry of the parish priesthood doesn’t really stand a chance. You are there to be ‘done to’ – the fate of nearly all ‘customer-facing ‘ roles in any corporate business. The C of E isn’t really a church anymore anyway- it’s a corporate ‘ faith-based sacred journey experience ‘.

As for the idea that you want to avoid the C of E becoming a ‘ middle class broadly Protestant offering’ – mate, you are fifty years too late. That ship sailed long ago.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago
Reply to  David Ford

In my ignorance I never understood why one would want to be an anglo catholic.
You might as get the real deal, be it protestant or Catholic.
Perhaps that is the root problem.

Isaac Frisby
Isaac Frisby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Then do something about your ignorance and read about why people are Anglo-Catholic and what it actually means to be so. There are important historical and theological reasons.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago
Reply to  Isaac Frisby

Well, this was your (along to those who down-voted my comment) opportunity to educate me.

Tony Nunn
Tony Nunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I think the short answer is that the CofE has traditionally appealed to the English propensity for compromise and mistrust of extremism. Having said that, most Anglo-Catholic churches are more “Catholic” than Roman Catholic ones.

Warren Hill
Warren Hill
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Nunn

Indeed. I was raised in an ‘Oxford Movement” church, founded in 1844 in Boston. Had a Lady Chapel with the requisite statue, All Saints Chapel, Smells & Bells, and all the rest of the trimmings. When turning 19, and I started to consider ‘Non-Conformist’ / ‘Dissenter’ ways, a couple young men from the parish were asked to have a conversation with me. It didn’t take 15 minutes before it was all about how Jesus was the Apostle of Love, and Paul the Apostle of Hate, all done with the motive of convincing me not to take the ‘details’ of much of Scripture too seriously. Needless to say, I’ve been a committed Non-Conformist since. Is it any wonder that attendance in the US Episcopal Church is fading fast, with empty church buildings to deal with, same as the C of E. The solution for both is also the same – rediscover the actual Gospel and preach it.

younbe75
younbe75
3 years ago

Physical gathering isn’t a Catholic or a Protestant thing, but a biblical thing. ‘Church’ is a gathered people, a family and a body, not isolated individuals zooming in to a service (though this is better than nothing given the circumstances), and communion is the family meal eaten around a common table (which is why online communion is impossible).

Not sure if the author believes in transubstantiation, but if so he’s in the wrong church. Article 28 says, “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions. The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.”

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
3 years ago
Reply to  younbe75

I was just about to post the same.I would have thought Zoom might aid the process. It is as a further article says, ” but a fond thing vainly imagin’d

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
3 years ago

The CoE is so bland, as bland as the Archbishop of York. How DID such a blancmange get to his position? Why should anyone get up of a Sunday to hear about climate change from him?
One major reason for de-Christianisation in the UK is the pathetic, century old CoE genuflection to “modernity”. In the 1930s, “modernity” was eugenics, ie abortion. Now, its about everything to do with sex, race, climate, social justice, you name it. It marxism with frocks.

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

Exactly. The problem is the message. The church appears to preach Marxism (turning off 65% of the population) but Marxism has no need for religion (so they lost the other 35% too). So they are left with nobody. How is it they cannot see the obvious?

George Wheeler
George Wheeler
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

Well god is invisible so cannot be seen.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

How indeed.

Dorothy Webb
Dorothy Webb
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

I left the C of E, regretfully, over the issues you describe, but I have turned back to the old Prayer Book during the absence of a service to attend. Morning and Evening Prayer, the Liturgy, the Psalms for the Day have brought me great blessing – though I would like to share them with other believers, they are meant to be a congregational matter.

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago
Reply to  Dorothy Webb

The current loss of congregation is of course difficult, but speaking as a Catholic, who also loves the Anglican prayer book, it’s important to remind yourself while praying that you do so in the presence of Almighty God and the whole communion of angels and saints.

Andy Gibson
Andy Gibson
3 years ago
Reply to  Dorothy Webb

Dorothy such beautiful sentiments, your words have lightened my day. Online church is anathema to me, I too miss the congregation. Socially distanced church is even worse. I fear a great many more will leave.

Barry Joyce
Barry Joyce
3 years ago

An excellent essay . I agree that at the heart of the Church of England is its parochial ministry to ALL within each parish, irrespective of status, wealth, race, gender, sexuality, or even belief. A glorious openness and generosity of spirit. For me the Gospel is best reflected in some inner city churches where there is a mixture of traditional C of E types, ladies who do the flowers, people with mental health problems, a sprinkling of middle class people in tbe professions, blue collar workers, unemployed people, single mothers, a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, all sharing worship and fellowship despite all the burdens of building maintenance, vandalism and general indifference.

Tony Nunn
Tony Nunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Barry Joyce

That sounds a lot like my church.

William Cameron
William Cameron
3 years ago

Its a classic corporation going bust . Under financing the people delivering the service while over providing central overheads.

The Anglican church has more administrators than Great Britain had in Whitehall running India

Its also lost the plot -it favours “woke” over religious belief.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Can the Church cope with being broke

Well, look on the bright side – at least all them vicars will be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as a consequence of being broke.

Stefan Hill
Stefan Hill
3 years ago

The article addresses a problem called: Corruption. We have the same problem at my workplace, a tax paid state IT-agency.

1) Some people work in the frontline, designen IT-system to be used by civil servants.
2) Other writes guidelines and make strategic decisions.

The category 2 have a lot of perks. For example you could spend work hours on going to Las Vegas to visit a conference. To justify the trip you can claim to have found a new tool that solves All Problems. If it is bought and creates problems rather then solving them, you can explain it by the fact that all employees are idiots (except those who advice the managers what tools to buy).

So: There are good insensitives for people to move from 1 to 2. From a world where your achievements are visible and possible to measure to a world where you are yourself responsible to evaluate your own performance.

The Church Of Sweden seems to suffer from this corruption just as the Church Of England. The central administration is growing. New policies are created. The objectives is not to help parishes but rather to guide them into a liberal direction. The gap between the priest working on the frontline and their supervisor is widening. It is like a body infected by parasites

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago
Reply to  Stefan Hill

Is there a church of SWEDEN in the Anglican community??

Isaac Frisby
Isaac Frisby
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

No. Though the the Church of Sweden (Lutheran) are in communion with the Church of England through the Porvoo Communion.

julian smith
julian smith
3 years ago

An enjoyable article! Many things to comment on.
I agree that there is a danger with the seduction of ‘Zoom’. It isn’t simply about being attractive to evangelicals. As an evangelical, it ignores that churhc is about being together WITH people, which zoom doesn’t do, and is a poor substitute for it. it also ignores the fact that a Pristes mission field is their parish. On a meeiting with the Bishop, One Vicar was raving about the fact that they were having an online lent course, and that someone from America had signed up for it- but what about the people who live in and around the church they are supposed to represent?
The Churhc has been obsessed by strategies over the years, imposed from above. None work, and within 3 years, another strategy is launched. Maybe the Church should stop strategizing and instead get down on their knees?- but then again, what’s God got to do with it!

Luca Marx
Luca Marx
3 years ago

A Church with a parochial ministry for all?
It would be a very fine thing indeed if this were the case. Having resided in this Midland parish for 20 years I have never, ever seen the Vicar ministering to any of us. It will soon be a year that our Church has been effectively locked. And just what has he/she been doing? Certainly not holding services and even more certainly not been knocking on our doors (nor sending us letters), asking after our material and spiritual well being. (Pushing papers and pens?).
When the Church is again open I shall return, but with a great reluctance to engage with a representative of the church that has so miserably failed to engage with it’s flock during this time of crisis and despair.
In reality this pandemic was a golden opportunity for the Church to up its game and reach out it’s hand to the lost and the suffering. This failure to act in this time of our need will besmirch the honour and the glory of the Church for many a long year.

Peter Lockyer
Peter Lockyer
3 years ago

Faith, warmth and a genuine interest in people. Now that’s a church that would inspire me. Sorry to name names, but Nicky Gumbel at HTB personifies that for me. He doesn’t know me from Adam but when I emailed him last week to say how lovely his online services are he sent me such a great email back. Very different from the usual cool reception I get when visiting Churches, and I’m an ex vicar, so what is it like for those exploring whether church is for them?

Alan Faulkner
Alan Faulkner
3 years ago

Giles, thank you for your article which resonates with me and reminded me of a valuable lesson from my early career.
I’ve worked in sales and commercial roles with multinationals in the ICT sector for some 40 years. In one role I was involved in the annual financial planning process. Country sales managers, responsible for customer engagement and growth, were asked whether each centralised support function delivered any value. If a function didn’t add value to the field based teams, it’s budget would be cut. Sitting in a regional support function, I became acutely aware of the need to be of use to the customer facing teams and to work continuously to remove internal bureaucracy.
This lesson I’ve since found applicable to all types of organisation, irrespective of ownership!

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago

The thinking in this article is extremely muddle-headed. The solution to the woes of any enterprise that is already near rock bottom is not to imagine you can cut your way to growth. When you have a huge, untapped market in front of you, the solution is to get the product right for the audience and growth will take care of itself. The CofE’s current “product” is basically the same message as the Libdems. It has become so political that it turns off the majority of the population, and when we do hear the CofE say anything it is always leftist bleating. Perhaps the church could become more populist, as in popular? Look at the mosques, they have no problem filling the floors in the inner cities as they are the centre of their communities and are populist. I am afraid the CofE is so degenerate that is no longer has the ability to change course and is doomed.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

The CofE’s current “product” is basically the same message as the Libdems

when we do hear the CofE say anything it is always leftist bleating

Spot On!

Paul Wright
Paul Wright
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

Quite right, there’s this bloke the church is always promoting who said things like “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” and even “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

This sort of leftism certainly won’t attract the masses. What’s needed is some sort of populist, broad way. A wide gate, you might call it.

Campbell P
Campbell P
3 years ago

Having worked in the Army, International Business, the Police, and the C of E (in officially ‘the most deprived’ parish of the diocese, in an ‘urban priority area’, and then a rural parish), I would argue, briefly, that the following certainly constitute THREE MAJOR COMPONENTS OF THE CURRENT ANGLICAN MALAISE:
1. The unwillingness of congregations – in wealthy areas especially – to give sacrificially or even responsibly to their own or other poor parishes (brothers and sisters in Christ); this and the dogged refusal to evangelise – which is surely at the very heart of what it means to be the ‘Church’ Christ founded and commissioned. (When local Anglo-Catholicism or ‘Middle-of-the-Roadism’ are just synonymous with ‘Holy Huddle’, such churches are unlikely to last very long nor deserve to do so.)
2. The creation of a hierarchy composed of ‘company’ men and women ‘preferred’ for their readiness not to ask difficult questions or rock the boat but instead chant the company mantras – collegiality, collaborative, committee – behind which they can hide, shirk personal responsibility, and thereby secure and maintain their positions.
3.The woeful lack of what most laity would describe as ‘leadership’. What they see and experience is ‘management’ – largely now of decline since they (the hierarchy) don’t even really understand the principles of good management in an organisation with a budget anyway! Clergy for some time now have been trained (often poorly, unfortunately) for middle-management roles, roles which suit the characters of most offering for ordination or, at least, most accepted for it. And so they become a self-selecting and self-perpetuating group to continue this essentially debilitating management ethos and culture. What is urgently required, if the system with its entrenched positions refuses to change, are LAY PEOPLE with genuine leadership qualities and proven track records, a welcome and most needy vaccination against the current pandemic of mismanagement, misdirection, and misguided ‘projects’, not to mention the clear injustices (recent ‘safeguarding’ nonsenses) arising DIRECTLY from bad management and the absence of the essential ‘Thee Cs’ for trustworthy leadership – Character, Competence, and Commitment.

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Campbell P

So you don’t see any problem with the message and the way it is delivered? Don’t you think most people are utterly turned off by the wokery in church?

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

But isn’t that sort of what the chap is saying, just without mentioning “Liberal Values” and “wokeness” in name?

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

I don’t think so, he is just referring to organisational structures rather than the organisation’s purpose

Campbell P
Campbell P
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

Yes, you are probably right. But within ‘wokery’ there is a range of ideas and proposals, in some of which there is a grain or even more than a grain of truth in – as People like Douglas Murray realise – but which have been highjacked; and some with which some people – and not only the gullible, though that seems often the case! – have sympathy and for good reason. But I certainly don’t think ‘wokery’ is the main problem The problem is with the organisation, its systems, and its senior personnel. And again, as I discovered in other organisations, it is very easy to distract criticism from the real problems – institutional incompetence and corruption – by getting people to focus on myths and canards such as ‘institutional racism’, unconscious bias’, etc. When Chaplain to a Police Force, one black officer who had been treated unfairly was told to ‘play the race card’ even though he admitted to me that the issue was incompetence, not racism. The C of E hierarchy is certainly guilty of continually jumping on the latest bandwagon of fad or fiction in a desire to be seen as ‘relevant’. It is only the Gospel that is truly relevant and able to transform people’s lives. But have we heard the Gospel from the house of Bishops during the pandemic? Even the non-churchgoers in my rural parish have been shocked by the lack of leadership and Christian message from what they describe as ‘our bishops’!

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Campbell P

OK but that’s all organisation structure again, it does not explain why they are so leftist and hence unattractive to so many. To me, as a congregation member, what I care about is what I hear if (!) I go to church, not what politicking goes on behind the scenes. And what I hear when I go to church gives me a feeling like I have walked into a Libdem or even Corbyn-Labour political meeting. OK to be fair except for carol concerts I have only been to church once in five years but I pay attention to the signs they put up and the issues they choose to focus on (and the ones they ignore) and they seem to want to antagonise the Brexit-voting patriotic people of this country. I am pretty sure there is a lot of politicking and corruption in mosques too but they seem to be able to stick to a populist message that pulls in the punters! The one time I went to my local CofE (to show my kids what happens in a church) we got up and walked out as the vicar seemed obsessed about syrian refugees coming to the UK and that photo of the child who drowned but unable to discuss the sufferring of christians and make a case for why they should be a priority. The church needs to be pro-Christian as a minimum!!!

Oliver Elphick
Oliver Elphick
3 years ago
Reply to  G Matthews

The church, for the most part, doesn’t believe the bible. So it has become just another worldly organisation. It doesn’t preach the gospel and so is irrelevant.

Spiro Spero
Spiro Spero
3 years ago

‘The church that marries the spirit of the age, will find herself a widow in the next.’ Is this not now the opportune time for the Church of England to rejoin the Catholic Church? After all, the causes of division, whether real or imagined of the sixteenth century are long gone. Though perhaps it is already too late. The female priest thing is a major problem for traditional Christianity, whether Catholic or E. Orthodox. The key with Christianity is to keep the bar high, doctrinally, while practicing latitude pastorally and to evangelize on both fronts. The Catholic Church is very good at this, the big tent. Christ is the keystone we must ‘stumble’ over. The problem for the CofE is that (beautiful buildings aside) it had almost entirely bent to ‘the world’ to the point where younger seekers are unlikely to see any difference and therefore no reason to remain. People want to be challenged. The quiet, ‘compromisiness’ while no doubt welcome at the end of the seventeenth century may well prove fatal now.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

I think that it is necessary to separate two ideas, the first being church/chapel and the second being religion.
In our congregation I would say that about 20% are religious, which means to me that they understand why their particular church is different from another similar church.

The 80% go to that particular church because they have always gone there, they know everybody there, they feel comfortable there, etc. Perhaps generations of their family will be buried outside in the graveyard. Perhaps they might stop going but they would never just go across the road and try a new church.

The church, meaning the local people and not the hierarchy, try to do as much as they can for the community and especially visit old and sick people. Religion does not do this work.

The hierarchy turn up at meetings to talk about budgets but, in fact, nothing ever changes; so the church slowly dies. During the lockdown our vicar has bought a guitar and holds a You Tube service at which she sings songs she has written. Whilst giving her 10 out of 10 for effort, nobody wants this. A service without Communion is almost not a service.

I can’t understand why the church (small ‘c’) can’t do a lot more. If you include the buildings and art, they have to be a very rich organisations. They could supplement the social services in a big way and almost do it for free. But the people in the hierarchy are not thinkers, nor revolutionaries. They are just like civil servants.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

In a nod to Jim Crace* and his excellent novel ‘Quarantine’ about Jesus going off into the desert, perhaps we could turn the churches into quarantine centres. That way, it would all have come full circle.

*Or was it John Crace?

markfoodoflove
markfoodoflove
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

No, you’re right… very good book isn’t it?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  markfoodoflove

Have you read any of his others? I read ‘Quarantine’ about 20 years ago and have not explored further.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago

Are you advocating the closure of the more “protestant” churches, as they are now pretty much irrelevant, to save the more Catholic tradition?

Stefan Hill
Stefan Hill
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I think he advocates closing down empty churches in order to save growing churches.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago
Reply to  Stefan Hill

Transubstantiation may be an unexplainable miracle, but there is no way to convert the body of Christ into a digital offering that can be passed into the hands of the congregation via the camera on my laptop. You can no more offer the body and blood of Christ over zoom as you can go to the dentist over zoom. Catholic Christianity is inescapably physical, incarnational. And Zoom is, so to speak, an inherently Protestant medium, a genius technology for the promulgation of the word (much as the printing press did so much to accelerate the Reformation) but incapable of carrying the full weight of a more catholic sensibility, with its emphasis on place and presence. An evangelical church can function more like Boohoo than Debenhams, but a catholic one cannot.

William Cameron
William Cameron
3 years ago

The strategy is precisely wrong. The Church should be putting investment into poor parishes – not further fattening the fuller ones

mdkeulemans43
mdkeulemans43
3 years ago

Campbell Paget is pretty much spot on. The CofE is not really bothered about the laity except for putting money in the plate. The whole thing is tightly run from the top down, with no encouragement of local initiative. If the top says shut up shop the people have to accept. But what if they offer to manage without a paid priest? They will be quickly silenced!

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Excellent article.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Before a church is closed permanently some matters need considering. The church may be set in a community that is earmarked for new housing and increased population. The church may be well situated and easily accessed. With careful internal reordering the church could be used as a community centre as well as a place of worship. Although numbers may be small now there may be potential for future growth with the right leadership, faithful prayer and outreach.
These issues need to be considered because churches remain important conveyors of community identity and spirit, especially in rural areas. But most significant of all they are houses of God – holy places where His People meet to worship pray and learn and to be inspired for their mission and ministry in the community. Somebody once said that churches “make God findable”. This came home to me when I was the Vicar of a large mining village in Yorkshire. During the strike 84/85 2 miners started coming to church. They were desperately depressed and the only place they felt they could get help was the local church, and they both did indeed find God through the ministry and worship of His people in His church.
Many people seem to be oblivious to the fact that there are many signs of new life and resurgence in the Church of England today. You can easily miss this if you’re dependent on the media for your information.Some examples of this new life are Alpha, New Wine United, Fresh Expressions of Church, church planting, church reordering and increased numbers offering themselves for the ordained ministry. If you really want to get a full picture of what is going on in the Church google these examples and don’t rely on the rants of others.
The church cannot die because it’s led by the Risen Christ who pours out His Holy Spirit to renew and revive it in every generation. Such will be the result that in 10 – 20 years time our churches may well be full again.

chriswolfe1946
chriswolfe1946
3 years ago

Thank you Giles for a challenging article, clearly inspired by the experience of working on the front line. Almost all denominations of the Christian Church are shrinking in the rich and educated West, while many are growing in the poorer and less well educated South. The reasons for this are a lot more fundamental than bloated middle management or woke bishops.

There is an elephant in the room. After several hundred years of the enlightenment, most western people find huge difficulty in suspending their intelligence and knowledge of the laws of nature when asked to recite week after week things that they know cannot literally be true. A faith that appears to be predicated on the resuscitation of a three days dead corpse, together with numerous other slightly less unlikely events, is inevitably going to be an irrelevance to the vast majority. And so, inevitably, church attendance let alone church membership will decline. Of course most clergy know this, but cannot say it. They have had the benefit of modern scholarship, and they have a faith which is deeply rooted in the love shown in the life and death of Jesus, and a non-literal understanding of the miraculous stories written in an age when magic was the only way of understanding so many things. If we now add to the mix the toxic spectacle of the church tearing itself apart over gender and/or sex, while shielding child abusing predators in its own ranks, it is amazing that anyone would want to be associated with the church. This is not a uniquely Anglican problem by any means. All strands of the church are affected.

So what’s to be done? In the end, it all comes down to honesty. When the clergy become able to share their honest understanding of the faith, as many clergy actually do after retirement, more people will respond to such honesty and be ready to join churches of all flavours. So many people have become members of the “church alumni” often after a lifetime of church membership. Some of us would come back if we were not required to be dishonestly reciting medieval magic each week. We know the message of love taught by Jesus is powerful and right. We know that if that message was at the root of individual and corporate relationships, then the kingdom of heaven would be truly among us. We long for the day when we can with John A T Robinson be “Honest to God” because we are honest about God. Maybe tide can be turned, but I’m not optimistic.

I know many will totally disagree with this analysis. Some may even be hurt by it, and I’m sorry for that. Please don’t spend your time writing a rebuttal. If you have a genuine much more traditional faith, I totally respect your understanding of the faith for you. I only ask that you respect another understanding.

Jules Anjim
Jules Anjim
3 years ago
Reply to  chriswolfe1946

Extremely well articulated and, I think, devastatingly true.

waddadux
waddadux
3 years ago

The history of the Church of England is surely one of decline, almost from its inception. The Puritans broke away in the 17th century. The Methodists broke away in the 18th century. Then there was the Oxford Movement in the 19th century, with a large drift into the Catholic Church. The 20th century brought straightforward lapsation. With the latest British Social Attitudes survey indicating allegiance to the C of E stands at 12% of the population, and only a small proportion of them being regular church attenders, the end is surely near. Will the C of E survive the 21st century?

TIm Sledge
TIm Sledge
3 years ago

I hesitate to chip in here! I am a former “Mission Enabler”. I have created the strap lines and sold the jargon and its not all bad, but I do wince looking back and wonder how disconnected it all was from the reality of local parish life. After 5 years, I felt I couldn’t do the job with integrity without being a parish priest. Being a parish priest were the best of years. Being part of the nutrients in the soil of the community was a remarkable privilege (even though it burnt me out!) . But it was clear that there was contempt from the Diocesan Bishop for anything other than the evangelical and the brave and new and “HTB shaped”. There is nothing wrong with them at all, but there has to be balance. Cant we have a “both/and” approach still? My worry here is that we just “carry on as we have done before”, without a serious engagement in the challenges churches face locally. My take is this: the simple reality is that over 50% of stipendiary clergy are simply not up to the job. They take a stipend, and don’t do much, or enough, and there is little or no challenge or accountability. Furthermore, the ongoing training/CPD and support is woeful in most places and often run by people who cant run or cope with parish life.
So with all the talk of pioneers… where are the pioneer parish clergy? Why are we not harnessing and supporting this talent. I had little support at all.
We need a call to evangelisation. We need it across the board. We cannot hide behind altars and bibles and expect everything to change and just moan. There is too much griping . from the vicar’s stall and not enough action and re-energising of those who need to lead congregations and communities.
The world is not having these discussions. The world in fear is hungry for community, for a sense of place, and God preserve us from relevance, but would we had a church that at least had a resonance with the community it serves we might be onto something.
Perhaps if we put more effort and money into a local re-freshed expression of the parish church and had half-decent people to lead them, we might stand a chance. But I am so not sure any more!

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  TIm Sledge

I don’t understand why the church can’t look across the street at the mosque and ask itself what is it that they are doing right? In any other business it is normal to look at the competition and steal their best ideas. This “HTB” model of rock music and evangelicalism still seems to miss the key point, which is what message are you giving? Is it still going to be climate change, refugees and food banks? If so, there is nothing in it for the majority of the population.

Karen Jemmett
Karen Jemmett
3 years ago

What a good word irenic is. I thought for a moment it was a typo since it’s not even in my desk copy of The Oxford Dictionary, so bless you for that, Giles. I see the term Irenic Victory is sometimes used to describe the opposite of Pyrrhic Victory and implies success in finding a resolution to a conflict through peaceful reconciliation. I’m still not altogether convinced this is a precise use of word in the context of your average, post-war parish priest, however. Although I was reliably told by my mother that ours was unusually softly spoken on account of the fact he was tortured by the Japanese and thereafter displayed exceptional humility amongst his fellow parishioners. But as far as resolutions were concerned, wasn’t that something that was largely left to the UN?

Interesting article, though and sorry to be unduly picky about the vocabulary used.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago
Reply to  Karen Jemmett

That escaped me altogether too.
Google says:
adjective FORMAL
aiming or aimed at peace.
noun
a part of Christian theology concerned with reconciling different denominations and sects.

I can’t wait to use this word in casual conversation 😀

Andrew McGee
Andrew McGee
3 years ago

Many redundant churches have been turned into restaurants. Indian seems particularly popular, that would be a sensible use for many of these otherwise useless buildings. Meanwhile the church can do a Debenhams and try to manage the inevitable decline towards insolvency.

Robert Evans
Robert Evans
3 years ago

As a retired Church in Wales priest, I share Giles’ view that we too have too many bureaucrats and, in our case, too many dioceses. 6 diocese and the accompanying bureaucracy is too much for a province the size of Wales. We also have too many churches, most of which are struggling to pay their way. I pray that enlightened bishops will take the initiative and do what is necessary to take the church forward.

Virginia Stourton
Virginia Stourton
3 years ago

Brilliant article. For five years I have been tackling the C of E to change the dynamics and invest in their Priests (God’s Messengers) by paying them properly and adding more. You cannot have a successful Army without soldiers. Now the generals are shooting themselves in the foot by decreasing clergy. Unless the Church Hierarchy get back to delivering Jesus Christs message of love and salvation ,which can only be achieved through priests, the the Church will continue to unravel. The Bishops all know me and I have some big names onside now. Want to know more and how the Church could get in 270 million 400 hundred thousand pounds per annum, also read my intensive research with the young and their views on the Church. Contact me virginiastourton@btinternet.com As Capt. Sir Tom Moore said Tomorrow will be a good day. Don’t give up Behind the Clouds the sun still shines

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago

You think the answer is more people spouting the same leftist dogma? More people like the CofE vicar in London who refused to clap Tom Moore because of white nationalism? No, the answer is to first sort out the ideology within the church. Adding more priests will simply make the problem worse.

Andy Gibson
Andy Gibson
3 years ago

I read today that church leaders in Scotland are seeking a judicial review of church closures. Scottish churches have been closed in this recent Lockdown, the first time they have been closed for worship since the 17th century.

Church premises can be used during this lockdown as vaccine centres, blood donor centres and foodbanks, but cannot be used for people to come together to recite the Lord’s prayer.

Information is available on
Christianconcern (dot) com website entitled –
Scottish church leaders launch legal action over ‘unlawful’ closures and criminalisation of public worship

Richard Brown
Richard Brown
3 years ago

Other Protestant churches do without bishops, archdeacons and dioceses and have minimal overhead staff. That’s because every local church is self-supporting, exactly what the parish system should be. At the moment, dead men’s money (the 8bn of CofE investments) pays for our increasingly useless out-of-touch bishops and their lifestyle, but the middle management of most dioceses is a tax on the parish share.
How Oxford diocese gets away with 100 of these people, goodness knows, but it means a few poorer parishes are considerably poorer, and some places which should have clergy haven’t got them.

William Blake
William Blake
3 years ago

The parish system was introduced as a way of overseeing and controlling the populace. Ever since its formation that has been the primary objective of the National Church brought into being by Henry viii. And its controlling nature still exists even if hugely reduced.
In the early years after the break from Rome the monarch of the day used the wealth of church land and income as a reward for services rendered. Hence the introduction of Prince Bishops. Christianity had little to do with it. And much later and particularly in the eighteenth century if one needed a job in order to live, one had to accept being required to be regular in attendance at church.
There can be little doubt that most church buildings were built by the national church primarily for population control purposes, and only secondly for a weather proof space for corporate worship. Some of course were constructed as a form of penance by a monarch or lord. And so those of us who attend church find ourselves saddled with the upkeep of buildings which cannot easily be afforded. But this fact has only been forced into being recognised by the severe Covid 19 restrictions.
Yes, those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ need somewhere to meet together regularly because Christians are in essence a family. But it doesn’t have to be a church building. It can be a private house, a village hall, a school hall, or a farm barn. Anywhere which offers a weather proof space for communal worship, prayer, and support, with or without ordained clergy.
The case for maintaining church buildings is largely because they are either wonderful examples of architecture or are a repository of the area history. And for that reason their upkeep should be the responsibility of the local authority. Not the few parishioners whose names are listed on the Electoral Roll.

Last edited 3 years ago by William Blake
TIm Sledge
TIm Sledge
3 years ago

ok