Ben Phillips reflects on the increasingly top-heavy structures of the Church of England and commends a radical rethinking of diocesan boundaries which would enable bishops to be both real pastors on the ground and effective symbolic leaders of the wider Church.
Many in the Anglican Twitter-sphere were found to be getting their ecclesiastical hosiery in a twist on 26 December, after an entertaining piece by Steven Doughty appeared in the Daily Mail.(1) (with accompanying header photo. ed)
Whilst the headline ‘Shutdown of churches and ban on weddings during Covid crisis has cost Church of England £150MILLION and could trigger a cull of parishes’ was designed to provoke and outrage on the second day of Christmas, Mr Doughty’s report contained something more interesting to the readership of this blog: ‘Among those [reforms] discussed have been a cut in the number of bishops from more than 100 to as few as ten.’
From 119 to 10! (2) Many readers will laugh at the prospect of a 90% purge of bishops. It can be argued that having cut at the parish level for decade upon decade, any future reorganisation requires some members of the House of Bishops to contemplate the same sort of reduction within its own ranks.
After such significant investment in time, effort and patronage of the Talent Pool, the ‘mini-MBA’ for Deans, the unrivalled expansion of Archdeacons and director-level posts with titles such as ‘Creation and Justice’ and ‘New Communities and Evangelism’, are we to see it go the way of all flesh, so that we may be ‘Bolder, Simpler, Humbler’? As the new Archbishop of York said in his address to Synod: “We, the Church of Jesus Christ is (sic) being purged. We are being asked to consider what really matters, and where shall we put our trust, and upon what things shall we depend.” (3) Surely, a reduction in unnecessary and tangential positions to the core ministry of the Church is intended as part of this vision? I’m not so sure it is.
From the Arbuthnot Committee on Diocesan Boundaries in 1965 (4), right through to the so-called ‘West Yorkshire and the Daleks’ scheme in 2013, the Church has constantly reiterated its emphasis on being smaller and nearer to people, promising to pull back the creep in hierarchy numbers whilst in fact doing the complete opposite. So how does 119 become 10?
In a Church Times article as far back as 2 May 2003, the Reverend Gareth Miller wrote of the critical financial and pastoral crisis facing the Church of England. Entitled ‘A Church Simplified and Renewed’, (5) the article makes a radical suggestion of tearing up the English diocesan model and replacing it on a model more akin to that of the US Episcopal Church or of our Roman Catholic brethren. It is an interesting model – by grouping each current diocese into a new ‘super diocese’ (6) with a bishop with Metropolitan-type powers, the necessary administration and ‘curial’ functions of each current diocese would be absorbed into a regional centre. The current diocesan structure of advisors, committees and working groups would too be lifted to regional level. The bishops of these ‘super dioceses’ could not be the micro-managerial type that seems to find favour within the House of Bishops at present. Such larger dioceses would require a bishop who would be comfortable with being more a figure-head leader administratively, who could hold the office with gravitas and be at ease with that. This might re-open the episcopate to those academics who have shown reluctance to accept nomination, but also allow for those whose who were more pastoral a chance to be nearer the faithful and be out in the diocese as their ‘Father/Mother-in-God’ because they are not weighed down and encumbered by managerial responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. Whilst we may never get the balance right between the somewhat divergent catholic and evangelical understanding of bishops I believe that this shake-up would give us the once-in-a-generation opportunity to edge closer towards that goal.
So where do we see these new ‘super dioceses’ being based? Mr Miller’s model suggests 10 which seem to be a good starting base:
Ely (or, possibly, Norwich)
Birmingham (or, possibly, Lichfield)
It is clear that both Archbishops would not (and could not) be bishop of their respective ‘super-diocese’, and in some cases, the administration of it would not be from the see-town.(7) So we’ve found our ten – but what of the others? Before Watts and Co. begin packing up their episcopal purple for storage, Mr Miller contemplates a more local ‘accessible… and pastoral’ episcopate, made up of 104 episcopal areas, (8) his aim being that ‘it makes the dioceses smaller, simpler and more coherent.’ Under his place, each of these episcopal areas would have a single Archdeacon, and potentially a Cathedral, although Miller admits that this would mean levelling down some more ancient foundations to be smaller and simpler, to reflect their episcopal area. Smaller, simpler, more coherent – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
I look forward to seeing the Synod proposal detailing the new plans in due course. Archbishop Stephen is right – we do need to consider what really matters, on what we can depend and where we can put our trust. As we have seen in recent months, the current system has not functioned well for some time, trust is at an all-time low, and, I’m sure I can speak for many in saying that I have found it difficult to depend on the Church for quite some time. My hope is that those of us who truly believe that the Church of England is a place for all expressions of Anglicanism will be able to have our voices heard and contribute to the changes our Church is called to face, however hard and however difficult.
Ben Phillips is a liturgist and historical musicologist, currently finishing research into Welsh Anglican choral foundations in the wake of dis-establishment.
2 This does not count the two current vacant suffragan sees at time of writing (Stockport and Stafford), or the Bishop at Lambeth.
3 Cottrell, S., Presidential Address to General Synod (July sitting 2020), https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/Presidential%20Address%20-%20General%20Synod%20July%202020%20.pdf
4 Diocesan Boundaries, being the Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on the Organisation
6 Mr Miller refers to them as ‘provinces’ and their bishops as ‘metropolitans’ – to save confusion, I have retitled them as “super-diocese” and “bishop/diocesan bishop” respectively.
7 For example, Newcastle would make more sense for the Durham “super-diocese”, and Lichfield as the Cathedral of the Birmingham “super-diocese”.
8 In his piece, Mr Miller refers to them as ‘dioceses’. Since most diocesan responsibilities have been raised to the regional level, I have designated these as ‘episcopal areas’.