REFORM UPDATE: JULY 1997

A FRIEND OF MINE at theological college always had the same answer to any difficult question: ‘Well, it depends who you read ...’ So it is with problems in the church - what seems right to one person seems wrong to another. Often conflicting views are held in all sincerity, and in the short term it is hard to choose between them.

A classic example of this would be the case of Redland Parish Church in Bristol. The facts seem quite simple. Redland has an electoral roll of about 250, an annual income of around £125,000 and a set quota of about £70,000. It also benefits from a trust fund established to pay the stipend of the incumbent and the costs of maintaining the vicarage. Outwardly, it is a successful set-up. The only fly in the ointment is that Redland has divided its giving into thirds - one third to mission, one to running the church and one to the quota. Thus there is a substantial shortfall - in effect a ‘quota cap’ - but the parish is still a ‘net giver’. Nevertheless, with the departure of the last incumbent the Diocese suspended the benefice.

Those who generally suspect the motives of Diocesan authorities are understandably shocked. However, from a Diocesan point of view the decision is justifiable and although the shortfall in the quota was taken into account, it was not itself the reason for the suspension. (Indeed, how could it be from a legal point of view?) The real reason was that, in view of the need to cut staff from 173 to 145 over the next three years, the Diocese had imposed a ‘cap’ of its own. Any urban parish with a population of less than 7,000 would henceforth not merit an incumbent, regardless of congregational size. Apparently the last incumbent of Redland argued against suspension in the Pastoral Committee, but since Redland has a population of only some 1,600 souls, the benefice had to go.

It is at this point, however, that it really ‘depends who you read’. Do we detect the hand of Machiavelli or Mr Magoo? Is it a case of conspiracy, incompetence, neither, or both?

Evidence for the conspiracy theory rests largely on the frequent references by those involved to the shortfall in the quota, which suggest that a failure to ‘play the game’ is not irrelevant. It has been observed, for example, that the neighbouring evangelical parish of Clifton has managed to meet its quota of £200,000 in full. Clearly the implication is that if parishes like Redland want incumbents in future they ought to do the same before spending on other areas of mission.

On the other hand, that no conspiracy is involved is suggested by the ‘even-handed’ way in which the Diocese has treated Redland like the other neighbouring parishes. The population cap is 7,000, Redland fails to meet it, ipso facto it is suspended.

Nevertheless, at this stage one detects a definite whiff of confused thinking. Due to the Redland Chapel Trust, the parish could, of course, pay for its incumbent without costing the Diocese a penny. The official response to this seems to be that the Trust cannot be used for the purposes for which it was established because if it were weaker parishes would lose out. Yet it could be argued that since Redland is already a net giver it would make sense to invest more money there so as to generate more income for use elsewhere. Why shoot the goose that lays golden eggs?

At this point, the response comes back that the real problem is not money but personnel. Not enough people are offering for full time ministry. Indeed, Bristol is not really cutting its staff but setting a level at which it hopes to maintain them. If more people heard God’s call to full-time ministry, Redland could have its minister. However, the fact is that the Advisory Board of Ministry are having difficulty finding suitable candidates, especially amongst evangelicals.

Well, like I said, it depends who you read. But it would be worth checking your own situation. Is your Diocese crying out for money or crying out for ministers? Is your bishop more concerned that you will fail to send candidates to ABM or that you will fail to meet your quota? (For that matter, I wonder if Redland are net givers in personnel as well as money.)

Meanwhile, the Bishop of Bristol and the members of Redland are apparently involved in constructive dialogue about the future. One option being considered, which occurred previously in the same parish, is a job-share with a lectureship at Trinity College. We wish both parties well - but in closing I’d recommend a book to the parishioners. It’s called ‘Whose Church is it Anyway?’, published by St Matthias Press - and the answer is ‘God’s and yours’.

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