Simplification of Church Governance – advantages of the Single Parish Benefice – a personal view by Revd Alex Pease

These are the slides of a presentation given by Revd Alex Pease to the Benefice of the Future conference on Thursday 26th September 2019 and to other meetings of benefices considering this issue.  The slides outline the advantages and disadvantages of forming a Single Parish, Multi Church Benefice

Single Parish – the Advantages -5

Moving from a Multi Parish benefice to a Multi Church Parish – a Personal View by Revd Alex Pease

Why would you merge parishes? Surely there cannot be anything more daunting or even depressing for a potential candidate to a rural benefice to see on the parish profile that there are four or more PCCs for which she must take responsibility?  The relationship with one PCC can be a challenge in itself.  But the massive duplication of church officers: church wardens, deanery synod representatives, safeguarding officers, data protection officers, treasurers, PCC secretaries and electoral roll officers for a total church population of only 200, and all the meetings involved (as the Rector has to attend all the PCC meetings and all the APCMs) is enough to make anyone blanch, but the thought of having to persuade more than one group of fairly conservative people of any change in policy, is enough to make any Rector lose the will to live. The result, of course, is that change doesn’t happen.  It’s just easier to continue to spin the plates, to keep the show on the road, and just keep going, making no change at all.  As one city evangelical vicar said to Alex “why on earth would you want to put yourself through that?”.

And yet rural ministry can be so rewarding, as we see God act, that we want to do it.  But rural church communities do need to understand that if they want to attract good candidates they need to organise themselves in a way which makes them easy to manage.

Hence, some benefices have transitioned into single parish benefices even though they may comprise several villages. But the struggle to achieve this change can be painful both for the local community and for the minister concerned.

But why create a single parish?

The first advantage of a Single Parish is the creation of a common purpose and mission within the benefice.

There are both spiritual and practical aspects to this:

From a spiritual perspective, God blesses churches which are in unity – it’s as if we cannot bear the  weight of the glory He wants to impart to us when we are divided.  This makes sense.  As we know, it is the Holy Spirit who changes hearts and inclines us to want to become followers of Christ – we know this from John 3:5 as Jesus says ‘Very truly I tell you, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit‘. The Holy Spirit is grieved by dissension and is less effective in changing hearts, if grieved (Ephesians 4:30-31 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19).  Thus conflict between Christians means that the likelihood of having a growing church is reduced.  The opportunity for disagreement in a Multi-Parish Benefice must be greater than in a single parish, as in a single parish, all the representatives have a responsibility for the whole parish.  It could be said that the Multi Parish Benefice institutionalises dissension within the ministry of one minister, within a cure of souls.  Therefore, Multi Parish Benefices tend to inhibit growth of the kingdom. A united church, on the other hand, receives the fruitfulness of the blessing of the presence of the Holy Spirit (Psalm 133) as He is able to transform the world around it and through it.  Quite apart from anything else, our unity is a sign to the world that He has sent us (John 17:20).

From a practical perspective, when the villages come together as one parish, with one legal representative body, and importantly one set of accounts, eventually the village representatives stop only thinking about themselves and their own village.  The representatives get to know each other and as they become friends, they start to trust each other.  They themselves start to worship at each other’s churches and not just at their own.  Eventually they see themselves as one, not, say, four, bodies.

Second, a merger enables change to happen.  There is no longer a need to have months of delays as individual PCCs are consulted on everything proposed at the Benefice Council.

Third, it reduces the duplication of Churches Officers: Safeguarding, Data protection, treasurers, secretaries, electoral roll officers, thus regulatory issues are more professionally managed (less risk of decisions without faculties).

Fourth, a merger centres power in one place, rather than diffusing it in a series of unmanageable small groups, which are less demanding to deal with for clergy.

Fifth, a merger means less process means more time for mission.  Precious volunteer time is not wasted on process and can be directed towards mission.

Sixth, a merger can facilitate a reduction in low attended services without completely undermining over all church attendance or engagement between villagers and the church. In an important conversation to kick off negotiations for the reduction of regular services across the Parish from three per Sunday to two, one more conservative member of the PCC said to Alex “well it’s a single parish….!”  It was a very good start to a difficult discussion.  Ultimately, the single PCC agreed the reduction in services without a murmur, a result which just would not have been possible if we had to take the same decision to four PCCs.

Seventh, it is much easier to recruit clergy for appointments.

But are there any disadvantages to a Single Parish Benefice?  Firstly, a merger of Parish does risk  losing engagement with the community in smaller villages.  Its very important to ensure that there are enough regular services in the smaller less well attended villages to motivate the villagers to keep them engaged (acting as Churchwardens, looking after the building and contributing to the Common Mission Fund).  Secondly, It’s hard work to set up –a merger can easily be de-railed by even one small community and so it needs strong episcopal leadership and probably the leverage of a new appointment to happen. Thirdly, the combined parish will probably come over the threshold for income (£100,000) that means it needs registering as a charity with the Charities Commission.

Can’t the same result be achieved by another means?  One of the benefices in Winchester Diocese has come up with an ingenious way of creating a “virtual” single parish by what it calls its “Benefice Forum”. To reduce the huge number of meetings, all the PCCs in the benefice are held in the same building at the same time. The matters common to all of them are held together and then business which relates only to individual parishes is then discussed in separate rooms.  While this is a very good option if a merger cannot be achieved (and may be a good staging post on the way to merger ultimately), it does not achieve the principal aim, which is the sense of common purpose and mission.  This is clear as soon as any discussion of money comes up.  When the question of whether one parish will support another parish which does not have enough money to make the repairs required by the Quinquennial Architects Inspection, the result can be fireworks!  But it’s not just about money, getting inter parish co-operation on services (so that the precious volunteer time is not squandered in a multiplicity of small efforts for, say, ministry for children or youth in each of the villages, rather than managed in one of the villages best placed to conduct that mission) is a huge challenge.  With a single parish benefice, because there is one Christingle, one Carols in the Barn, one Crib Service etc. to which all four villages are invited and representatives from all four villages are involved, people meet each other across the villages and become friends.

Then there is the multi layered cake issue.  If you imagine a cake with several different layers represents the entire population of a rural benefice, there will be at least three different churchmanships within that benefice – evangelical, catholic, liberal/traditional.  If you cut the cake in the regular way from centre to the outside then this is like how a multi church benefice is organised: a few of the evangelicals, a few of the catholics, a few of the liberals in each village church.

However, it you cut the cake layer by layer you have all the evangelicals, all the catholics, all the liberals.  A single parish enables you to specialise in particular forms of worship in the church buildings most suited for that type of worship.  So for example the charismatics can concentrate on the one reordered church building in the single parish rather than be constantly wanting to remove the pews from the church in ‘their village church’.  Equally if one church building is particularly suited for contemplative worship and say Sung Evensong then that this the place that specialises in that.  This avoids duplication of effort, maximises the use of the energy of the different forms of spirituality in the combined community and actually reduces potential conflict between all of those who should be working together for the kingdom in the community.

How do you organise a single parishThere has to be a scheme (under Rule 18 of the Church Representation Rules 2011 and in accordance with the Pastoral Measure 1983).  This must be approved by either an Annual Parochial Church Meeting or an Extraordinary Parochial Church Meeting by a two thirds majority of the combined parish.  The scheme will provide for the creation of districts within the parish corresponding to the constituent parishes of the combined parish.  Each District then has a District Church Council and a District Church Meeting corresponding to the PCC and APCM which it would have had before the merger and election for these bodies goes ahead as if they were PCCs and APCM with two Churchwardens being appointed for the combined Parish from the individual districts.

However, the real difference comes in the districts’ powers.  The district has no power to manage money or hold property.  The management of the church building and church yard, the provision of necessaries and staffing for worship at that church and fund raising in the district for the combined parish are the primary responsibilities of the DCC. All decisions about styles of worship, liturgy, services, mission are all decided by the PCC of the combined parish. The Rector need not attend most of the meetings of the DCCs although is required to attend the Annual District Church Meeting and it is advisable to attend a DCC meeting from time to time.

In addition to the Scheme there would be a non-binding policy guidance paper which addresses the following points:  that the is an intention to keep the churches of the combined parish open for regular and festive worship; that the PCC will not make any major changes or alterations to a church building without the agreement of the church wardens nominated by the relevant DCC; the DCC may make recommendations to the PCC on the use of any funds restricted to their church; and for the establishment of PCC committees to deal with finance, budgeting, management and accounting.

Doesn’t a combined PCC just create another level of bureaucracy?  The way to look at this is to compare what there is before to what there is afterwards.  Before you have as many PCCs and Churchwardens and church officers as there are villages. Afterwards, you do have an additional layer, but as the DCCs have no real power (only responsibilities – for maintenance and fund raising) the opportunity for conflict is vastly reduced. The real time that an additional level of bureaucracy is created is when you have a Benefice Council supervising a multiplicity of parishes.  In that case, the village representatives constant refrain is “well I will have to go and ask my PCC” when any proposal is put forward, thus delaying anything new by weeks, if not months.  Because the Combined PCC has actual power, the quality of debate is hugely improved as the more motivated are drawn to the PCC and the church’s mission stops being hijacked by the preferences of difficult individuals at a village level who generally find themselves isolated if they are elected to the PCC.  The community of the combined parish starts to work as those from each village get to know each other.

Can you create a single parish in any situation?  There is no point trying to create a single parish between two communities which are culturally and demographically very different.  So there is no point in trying to create a single parish between an urban or suburban community and a rural community.  But there is no reason why not to do so between rural villages. To say, as Alex has heard said, “but we cannot merge with them, they fought on the other side during the Civil War” is just ridiculous and a mask for the personal preference of the individual church officers concerned, rather than a legitimate objection in the interests of the community.

Probably, there is no point in merging parishes if they are geographically inconveniently located.  A good test is to see if the proposed merger covers the same area as the catchment area for the local primary school. There is then every chance that the parents who take children to that school will see themselves as belonging to the merged community.  Another good test is, can the Rector cycle round the whole of the merged parish in a morning?

How on earth do you go about achieving the merger? 

First, you need leadership.  You need a Rector who is generally favoured by all the parishes to achieve this.  It is the sort of thing that a very popular and successful Rector can do as his time in the Benefice draws to a close.

Second, you need to take the money seriously.  The biggest obstacle tends to be concerns that St Bartholomew’s (which has a large fabric fund due to many legacies over the years) is going to have to finance the profligate parish of St. Aloysius.  Start with pooling Sunday collections and get parishioners used to the idea that all the money is going to one pot.  Our experience in Itchen Valley, looking from the perspective of about 10 years after the merger, is that our finances as a combined church are in a much better state than they were when we put the merger together. We believe that the common purpose and mission of the church community is attractive to the whole population and that thus the merger has contributed to our financial stability.

Third, allow each of the villages to have a fabric fund which is not pooled and also a “Friends of St Aloysius Fund” which stands outside the PCC and enables villagers to give to the fabric of their own particular church.  Many villagers who are not followers of Christ will only be willing to contribute to a non PCC fund.  Let them do so!  The disadvantage of the Friends approach is that these are not charities and thus gifts to them are not tax deductible.

Fourth, encourage all the villages to get all the fabric work they need actioned, done before the merger – in other words spend the fabric fund to the extent this is possible.

Fifth, get your most able church officers involved in leading the process.  This is something that successful businesspeople or accountants or civil servants can lead.

Sixth, scope out potential opponents early and go and speak to them. Show that you care about them and are not just riding roughshod over their legitimate concerns. For former commercial lawyers like me, we can often assume that because others are silent about their objections that means that we have persuaded them.  But sometimes silence just means ‘I still don’t agree but I don’t feel that I have the capability to put across what I feel about this proposal.’  Ultimately, you might have to go for a secret ballot of electoral roll members in each village on the merger so that people can vote according to their conscience and not just be brow beaten by strong characters into voting one way or another.  If the ballot gives a strong outcome in favour then objections by other strong characters just fall away.

Seventh, don’t necessarily try and do everything at once.  The church is all about relationships and these need to take time to develop.  Move in stages to where you want to go.  So for example on the finances, Itchen Valley Parish, started with combined accounts but with one column for expenditure and income for each church so that everyone could see that money raised in one village was not being spent on the church in another village.  After a while, trust really developed between the individuals involved and the individual columns which were a challenge to operate were abandoned.

Conclusion The advantages of forming a single parish are huge in terms of mission in the community in which you have been appointed as Rector.  And if you are ordained and even if you have no experience of rural church before and find a post where the merger has already happened, it says so much about the community behind that church: don’t delay, put in an application!