Archbishop of Canterbury urged to save village churches as Covid crisis bites

Gabriella Swerling
St Boniface Church in the News Forest - RUSSELL SACH 
St Boniface Church in the News Forest - RUSSELL SACH
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Rural churches are struggling to pay their vicars, as clergy and wardens issue a stark warning to the Archbishop of Canterbury to “act now to save the village church”.

Village churches are finding it difficult to draw the same level of congregation numbers and funds as their urban counterparts, with the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating the pre-existing problems.

The Telegraph has spoken to multiple serving and retired clergy and members of General Synod – the Church’s governing council – as well as wardens, treasurers and lay people, who revealed their fears that the Church of England could “collapse” in rural communities.

They also spoke of a multi-million pound debt facing countryside parishes, following a “pressure” to contribute to the voluntary Parish Share.

They claimed that a “reign of terror and bullying” from Church authorities and a pressure to “toe the party line” has left them scared to speak out and criticise current policies. They fear losing their jobs in a time of economic turmoil. 

As a result, they have issued a call on the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, to act now to avoid “the likely financial collapse of the church” and “get rid of the culture of turning clergy into little robots”.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gives an address at Westminster Abbey - Paul Grove/Reuters
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gives an address at Westminster Abbey - Paul Grove/Reuters

The Parish Share often goes towards vital resources such as paying for a vicar. However, rural congregants and clergy are warning that they have been forced to share one vicar across multiple parishes, or claim they have been threatened with not receiving a vicar unless they pay thousands of pounds to the Church. 

The Parish Share is a voluntary contribution paid by each of the 12,500 parishes towards the work of the Church in each Diocese and beyond. It can range from just a few thousand pounds to over £200,000 each year. 

The wide span aims to reflect the different sizes of parishes and the difference between  very small operations in rural areas, compared to larger urban churches which have more congregants and resources. 

The total amount dioceses need to raise through the Parish Share also varies because the number of historic investment assets in each diocese varies. For example, in Guildford around 95 per cent of the budget is raised through the Parish Share, while in Lincoln the figure is around 40 per cent. 

The Parish Share is calculated and billed by the Diocese, and “is about generous giving in response to God's generosity to us”.

However, a marked increase to the Parish Share since the 1990s has “overburdened” parishes, church wardens, treasurers and clergy have claimed.

They claim that this burden, combined with the financial losses exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic – such as a lack of donations via the collection plate and losses of tens of thousands of pounds from fundraisers such as annual fêtes – mean many village churches face financial ruin and closure.  (Below a priest takes his prayers to the streets during lockdown.)

One church warden, who works in a rural area and did not want to be named for fear of hampering chances of being given a new priest, said that their benefice has had no vicar for a year. 

However, the Diocese “has withdrawn the position from their list of vacancies and is now pressuring us to pay the full Parish Share before they will consider appointing a new priest. This is putting the cart before the horse”.

The warden said that in a nearby village, the Parish Share bill is four times the church’s actual income. They added: “Our Diocese has illogical and unrealistic expectations of how much tiny villages with expensive listed church buildings can afford to pay as a Parish Share.”

One member of the General Synod, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “The Parish Share has become a huge burden and it needs to be scrapped or reduced. The evidence is that it's beyond the pocket of most churches, including some fairly big urban churches.”

“We need localism, not managerialism… If there isn’t reform, the Church in rural areas will go out not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

Rev’d Simon Douglas Lane, of St Mary’s Sunbury church, of Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex, said that his church’s Parish Share for 2020 was meant to be £85,500 and “following negotiations to pay what we could” with the Diocese of London, they managed to reduce it to £54,500. 

“Urban churches have a higher population than those in rural villages, where many homes are people’s second homes and people tend to be older and shielding from Covid-19,” he said. 

“I just don’t think Dioceses have taken this into account that people aren’t going out at all. Some rural churches don’t even have wifi and broadband.”

Parish Church, St Mary's, Sunbury On Thames, Middlesex,  - Jeff Gilbert 
Parish Church, St Mary's, Sunbury On Thames, Middlesex, - Jeff Gilbert

Donald Clarke, 87, treasurer of Holy Trinity, Coleman's Hatch Church in Tunbridge Wells, said that his church is facing a deficit of £8,000 – “which we can manage” – but added that his church’s Parish Share is £35,000, while its parish electoral roll is only 80 people. 

“The church should be funding parishes rather than bishops,” he said. “There’s too much top hamper in the Church.

“Justin Welby has been in business [for over a decade in the oil industry], and knows how business is run and how hierarchies work – he must know that this hierarchy is not up to scratch. It will be the end of the village church if this carries on. It’s the pastoral work which gets lost.”

Canon Angela Tilby, Canon Emeritus at Christ Church, Oxford, added: “The financial collapse of the church is quite likely if this agenda goes on being pushed. It's not necessary, and there’s clearly a major problem”. 

“I’m more worried about that bullying culture than the finances… You can't get rid of that culture of turning clergy into little robots in a hurry.”

However she remained positive, adding: “I just have a feeling that country communities will not let their churches go to rack and ruin and they will find ways to keep some of them going.”

A retired priest who worked in rural areas, who also did not want to be identified, added: “The model for the church is now a business model and in a business situation you wouldn't have seats of non-productivity.

“So if the rural churches are not bringing in new Christians, then you move on and find some other way to do it. 

She added: “Clergy who speak out against that model of the church as a business are quietly or otherwise pushed to one side, so therefore we have only got the people who toe the party line. And that’s what you do in a business, but the church isn't a business, its for everyone – faith or no faith.”

In response, a spokesperson for the Church of England said that it relies on “generous giving by its members to support mission and ministry in every community in England, both rural and urban”. 

“Covid-19 has brought challenges for some who give in faith, as well as affecting other sources of parish income such as hall lettings and fetes. However, it is encouraging that so far giving income has proven more resilient than might have been expected. 

“The leadership and vision our clergy bring is vital for the health and growth of parishes, and so it is no surprise that clergy costs account for the vast majority of our financial commitments. We are training more and more clergy each year to meet this need long into the future.

“In urban areas, our investment in a vicar is around £8 per head of population, whereas in rural communities it is typically higher at around £20. However we are committed to making this investment together across our diverse communities, irrespective of affluence or location.

“Throughout the Church of England financial commitments are made in the local dioceses by elected parish representatives who sit on diocesan synods with their respective diocesan bishop.”

A Lambeth Palace spokesperson added that the Church of England has been “committed to localism for centuries”. 

“Every inch of the country is part of an Anglican parish, and parish churches are woven into the fabric of their communities. Locality matters: it means a home; community; stability.”

The spokesperson added: “Of course, as senior church leaders we need to remove the plank from our own eyes. During the pandemic it has been vital for the Church of England to have a national Covid Recovery Group to keep our churches, clergy and congregations as informed and safe as possible. 

“And we are not immune to the temptation to pull more decisions into the centre, to feel that “something is being done. But it is a temptation that should be resisted. Often that “something” might not be as effective as what could be done locally.

“We have our own hierarchies in the Church of England, but ultimately it is our churches and our clergy on the ground that are its lifeblood. In the last six months, it has been them to whom we own our deep gratitude.”