Bravo, then, Leicester Diocese in England – it has stepped off the edge and bravely taken the plunge into a whole new potential way of doing ministry.
Whether that step off the edge is tantamount to falling from a cliff into an abyss – or a gentle paraglide ride landing in fresh sunlit pastures – remains to be seen.
The change, agreed this last weekend, has come about because of what the Diocesan Board of Finance called "a financially unsustainable future..." Other dioceses in the Church of England will be watching with interest, as Leicester is far from the only one facing acute monetary trouble.
So what is Leicester doing, and is it a good idea or not? In a nutshell, 20-25 geographical "Minster Communities" will be established – each one consisting of a group of parishes which are expected to "collaborate in mission without losing their individual identity".
The diocese's summary adds: "There will be an appointed minister for every Christian community ... and sacramental provision is assured. It is anticipated that initially most of the expected 80-90 paid positions will be stipendiary clergy, but our aspiration is for increased lay ministry working alongside clergy across the diocese." In 2020, there were 98 stipendiary clergy and 31 curates in training. It is a big cut.
Each "Minster Community" will include a minimum of "an oversight minister (ordained)"; a "growing faith focussed minister"; an "operations director" and "a locally contextually focussed minister". Bishop of Leicester Martyn Snow maintains that parishes will "remain front and centre" and "the rights of PCCs and incumbents... respected". The whole thing is an entirely new concept. The diocese has said it "does not mirror similarly named frameworks or organisation structures" anywhere else, but is "bespoke". It is certainly bold.
Is it a good idea? Well, all credit to Bishop Snow for saying, "if we want to reach children and young people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ we will have to do things differently..." And there does seem to have been an enormous amount of consultation, which perhaps explains why the Diocesan Synod approved the plans with a 72% vote in favour. It would be charitable to assume that much prayer has gone into it. Moreover, the diocesan press people have been outstanding, so they get 10/10, whatever else might be now said.
My reservations – and I would be delighted to be proved wrong over time – are as follows. Firstly, it runs the risk of turning clergy into something completely different from what they have been. There are 324 churches in the diocese; split them into 25 Minster Communities and that means 13 churches in each one. Even if every church only has communion once a month (and most would have it more often) that is still three per Sunday. Stipendiary clergy will likely end up whizzing round handing out bread and wine – won't they? Overall, the sort of role envisaged for stipendiary clergy sounds nothing like the role for which I myself (writing as one such clergyperson) was trained, nor which I would wish or feel practically able to exercise. It sounds more like being an Area Dean – on speed!
Secondly, it is based on an emphasis on "the diocese" which we find nowhere in the New Testament. Of course, some administrative structure is necessary (think safeguarding), as is pastoral care and oversight from bishops. But the New Testament speaks first and foremost of local congregations and the church universal. Dioceses may have their uses, but sometimes they seem to acquire a life of their own which can rather get out of hand.
Because this new structure emerges from "the diocese" (albeit with consultation), it maintains and possibly amplifies flaws within that system. For example, in practice quite a lot of bishops these days seem to prefer to act as space-makers for different and mutually incompatible theologies rather than as defenders of truth. It's a notion which arises from the belief that unity means everyone sticking together with a certain flexibility of belief, rather than unity arising from agreement in the truth. And the new Leicester plan would seem to herald the possibility of taking that concept to new levels. As part of the process, Bishop Snow has himself recently encouraged the diocese to "recognise and celebrate [its] diversity as a 'fellowship of the unlike'." This is certainly true geographically, but there are theological implications too.
Thus, a Minster Community will be based on geographical proximity rather than theological conviction. One can imagine that in a set-up of 12 churches, two or three might be clearly evangelical to start with; four perhaps might be distinctively Anglo-Catholic; the rest will be "central". Over time, while "traditions" are maintained (some churches remain guitar-using, others swing incense etc), theological conviction and distinctiveness could easily become blurred into a middle-of-the-road mishmash. Will people of robust convictions (conservative evangelicals or traditionalist Anglo-Catholics) be appointed as the ordained Oversight Minister? Or will it be easier to appoint people with "less distinct" theology, as they will be seen as likely to ruffle the fewest feathers? Again, I can only say: I would be delighted to be proved wrong. This is, after all, simply an opinion piece, not Biblical prophecy.
In my rather idealistic and possibly naïve mindset, I like to imagine another alternative scenario in which Leicester Diocese had said to all churches: "We're sorry, but in a couple of years we will effectively be bust. So each church must pay its own running costs, including for all the clergy it has, and their pensions etc. We also invite you to voluntarily fund and pool ministry with less well-off churches with whom you feel able to work missionally. Any church which can't afford to run on this basis, either through its own giving, or through support from others will, inevitably, close. And we invite you to declare how much you are willing to contribute each year for central posts such as safeguarding expertise and Bishops. We will then budget centrally accordingly." Messy? Yes. But better longer-term? Arguably.
So I have reservations. I hope I am wrong; we should wish these endeavours well. But I also wonder whether, perhaps, it will be issues relating to finance as much as sexuality which break the Church of England. Will evangelical churches in Leicester diocese wanting to safeguard their long-term gospel future want to be part of what some might predict will become a blended ecclesiastical lumpenproletariat? And how will the Church of England Evangelical Council and Gafcon assist those who are even now thinking, "For the gospel to flourish, we need a different structure," or "For the sake of the gospel, we need to get out"?
What is that sound I hear? Is it the sound of a crunch moment getting nearer?
David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now www.e-n.org.ukin print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.