Population or congregation – where the ghost of establishment resides

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the Sheffield formula, and thinking about the implications of it (and I’m aware of coming late to the party so if people know of good discussions of this elsewhere, I’d be grateful for pointers in the comments). For those in a blissful state of non-initiation into the arcane mysteries, the Sheffield formula is a way of calculating how clergy should be deployed. It was developed by the eponymous Bishop in a report published in the mid-1970s and takes four factors into account: local population, area, church buildings and church membership. To quote Gordon Kuhrt, “The greatest emphasis was given to population and reflected the priority given to the idea of the Church ministering to the whole nation, not just to its members.”

I’m coming to see that decision as possibly the prime disaster of the post-war church, principally in terms of mission. A few bullet points on the dimensions of that disaster:

– Where population is given that strong weight, there is no direct link between staffing and growth (or diminishment) of the congregation.

– There isn’t even a direct link between population and workload, for the missing link between them is culture – a smaller population of more traditional culture will likely generate a larger workload for clergy than a larger population that is completely secular.

– It can cosset comfortable churches and set ceilings to growth, making it very difficult to reinforce success.

– It entrenches centralised management of resources rather than enabling local initiative.

– It confuses the mission of the church with maintenance of the status quo (that is, it equates the former with the latter) – and the status quo that was assumed in the mid-1970s is very far from being a healthy assumption to make about the church in the 2010s.

In my view the central diocese should step back from making such determinations, and hand over the responsibility for funding clergy to the parishes themselves, supplemented by a mission fund to support churches in more vulnerable areas. Failing that, we could at least shift to a system that excluded population from consideration, and tied the deployment of clergy directly to the size of congregations.

However, there is one aspect of population that I think would make a useful measure. There is, presumably, an average figure for how many from a local population are likely to become part of an Anglican church – let’s say that it’s 2.5% for ease – so for every 1,000 population we might expect a congregation of 25 people. We might then set up a system whereby any church which has a congregation of between 2% and 3% of the local population is considered ‘average’; those with a congregation of less than 2% are less than average, those with more than 3% are more than average. This would give a rough and ready guide to how churches are doing (and obviously, other factors would need to be taken into account, along the same lines of the ‘culture’ mentioned earlier. Mission posts would not be expected to be ‘average’!)

At the moment, a town of 20,000 people with a single church might have one that seemed to be thriving, with a church membership of 300 and all sorts of activities and services, whereas a small village with a population of less than 500 might seem to be failing, with a church membership of 16 – yet the latter would be ‘above average’ and the former quite significantly below. A formula for deploying clergy that places emphasis upon population will never challenge the former to grow, and will continue to reduce the resources available to the latter despite their progress in advancing the cause of the Kingdom.

7 thoughts on “Population or congregation – where the ghost of establishment resides

  1. It is interesting to note the huge difference In the calling of clergy between the CoE and the Episcopal Church in the states. Having been on a couple of Call Committees (the group largely responsible for the hiring of priests for a congregation), I have some inside knowledge of how it works. There are aspects I could appreciate in how you do things and the largest of those is the consistency across dioceses. Here, the whim of the bishop often determines their level of involvement in the choice – some being almost dictatorial and some not involved and every nuance in between. Generally, the vestry determines the need for additional clergy based on budget and congregational needs. Then hiring proceeds with interviews, visits to current congregations and discernment. One glaring exception is the deployment of the permanent diaconate. That is still at the sole discretion of the bishop but again, is not regulated by any rules like those you’ve described. I attend a 350-family church and we have no permanent deacon serving our church yet my deacon/friend has been assigned to a church of around 50 total members. Figure that one.

  2. I don’t think even your residual use of population figures makes a useful measure. The church I attend would come out from that as extremely successful. It is indeed successful, but not for the reasons that measure would give. The figure would come out that way simply because it has been assigned an arbitrarily small district and so population, but the majority of the congregation comes from outside that district. Cross boundary church attendance has become so much a part of the C of E that any measures based on arbitrary or historically defined parish boundaries are bound to be misleading.

  3. I’m someone who lives in one place and attends in a completely different diocese. But, I also occasionally attend two local churches, and probably count as part of their mid-week congregations.

    And different congregations exist even in small churches, with low numbers. We are a rural benefice and have 5 different churches with ER’s between 116 to 35. Probably total ER of 350.


    8 am BCP Congregations, average 9 to 16.

    9.30 HC CW(Trad), average 15-20.

    9.30 CW Family Communion, average 30-40.

    9.30 Family Service, average 55

    11am Matins, average 20

    4pm Evensons, average 20.

    9.30 Monthly Benefice Communion (no other svce) average 70.

    We rotate BCP services around the churches.

    On any Sunday, there will be two 1 x BCP, 2 x 9.30, 1 x 11 am and 1 x 4 pm service, in rotation.

    Our youth group run separate services with average attendance of 40+.

    Messy Church attracts upwards of 50.

    Christingles attract in two services an average of 340.

    Christmas and Easter generate peak attendances, seeing upto 140 at a single service, with at least 4 services.

    I can’t work out the averages for these, but the numbers attract one stipendiary minister for the benefice. We are due to receive another 4 churches into the benefice this month, bringing their HFD priest with them.

    If we had to pay for our own stipendiary, we could probably afford to pay for one full time stipendiary.

    Who would pay for all of the peripheral support services from diocese?
    Who would pay for ministry training?
    who would pay for clergy housing?
    Who would pay for Clergy pensions? It goes on.

    I don’t have a solution to the Sheffield formula, but can see how complicated it all is. Our Clergy deployment is decided at Deanery, not Dioccese. Deanery also pull the purse strings for diocese. This appears to work reasonably well, although, deanery could do with more resources for planning and mission and a permanent administrator.

  4. UK Viewer.

    The answer is simple (planning laws permitting) – shut a few church buildings. If I understand you correctly, you have 350 people in five churches. Two or three would be enough. You might get away with one. I reckon you could employ one staff member for the cost of maintaining two to three churches. You would then have a better staff / building ratio.

    This is objectionable to most Anglicans. They prefer the steeple to the people. Didn’t bother Jesus – he sometimes preached in the open!

    The schools, shops, and pubs have gone in your villages, despite their higher attendance. The churches should now be thinned out too. The C of E has a choice – buildings or front line staff. If it chooses buildings, eventually the numbers will fall to a point where they will close anyway.

    Will anything happen? I doubt it. Too many inward looking people in the CofE. That’s why I left.

    God help England!

  5. Why the exodus of people? I see several possibilities…help me understand. A) the church has become irrelevant. B) people are seeking out other religions. C) they can’t be bothered to attend. D) Population itself has decreased. Here in the pacific northwest of the US, we are the #1 most unchurched area in the country mostly because of reason B above (including atheism) and C.

  6. This is a slow moving blog. I hope it is moving. I fear those advocating closing churches are not on the side of the people they have been provided for but of mammon which to me is another guise of the devil.

    Might I ask why church members generally allow and accept directives from a church ‘COMMANDED’ (not led) by bishops who dictate what shall be done in their parishes which under the provisions of Parochial Church (Powers) Measure 1956 PCCs have the right to refuse to accept any measure it considers prejudicial to its church?

    I suggest it is because they have made the mistake of believing what Bishops and Clergy tell them must be true so have been very easy to dupe.

    Sadly it is not the case that clergy and bishops behave with honour in the best interests of the parishes and parishioners as I can prove.

    There are vested and selfish interests prevailing.

    In my experience it has become apparent the houses of bishops and clergy have deceived those they should be serving and leading to achieve their wrongful secular aims of ‘downsizing’ by stipendiary minister’s redundancies to make possible the sequestration and redistribution of the perceived wealth from purportedly well endowed parishes within ‘Rich’ Dioceses such as the Diocese of Winchester where the parish where we live is. That was and remains a corrupt unlawful confidence trick carried out by the houses of bishops and clergy based on the defiance and abuse of pastoral measures including false claims of shortage of applicants for ministry training. It was and remains a scheme to withdraw stipendiary ministry from parishes to facilitate the enforced merger of parishes to form amorphous dissimilar devices bishops called ‘benefices’ to justify declaring church and parish property ‘redundant’when it was not, to justify seizing and ‘disposing’ of it by sale for the betterment of Diocesan and C of E funds to the detriment of parishes’ spiritual and pastoral care.

    That has been achieved by Bishops and clergy jointly disregarding the needs of the people they were appointed to serve and lead deceiving then defrauding them by denying their human rights to be heard by an impartial court appointed by law taking from them what was rightfully theirs by a generous bequest of Alice Long (ALT) of the parish of Owslebury made in 1832 placed in trust of Canterbury of £1,000 to be invested in irredeemable Government Loan Stock (CONSOLS) to provide in perpetuity for the benefit of the poor a minister’s stipend and living with funds for the parish school and church hall beside the church of St Andrew on the Glebe where the parsonage still stands.

    Alice Long’s bequest served her intended purpose from the date of the proof of her last will and testament from the time the will was proved after her death in 1834 until 1972 when we arrived in the parish but I believe the embezzlement of ALT took place in 1921 when in another abuse of power by Bishops the parish of Morestead was deprived of its rector rectory and church rooms by merging the parishes of Owslebury and Morestead.

  7. There is a fundamental flaw in this which is the acceptance of the right of Bishops to operate a chain of command when their role is leadership which has been eschewed by their desire to deceive those whose pastoral care and spiritual guidance they were ordained for to serve. Instead in order to satisfy the requirements of the Sheffield formula was devised which is a device designed by accountants and accepted by lazy bishops who have deserted their posts and responsibilities of serving and leading those they have duped into believing they had no power to resist the fraudulent activities of making stipendiary ministers redundant so as justify forcibly merging parishes to seize then sell their assets for the betterment of diocesan and church of England coffers to the detriment of spiritual and pastoral care in parishes as bishops built up their pension funds. Rescission of such malfeasances is urgently required to prevent the collapse of the parochial church which requires that bishops acknowledge the truth and put it right as well as PCCs to recognise they have a duty to protect their parish churches from the abuses of power they have so far not resisted.

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