The Diocesan Strategic Review Group was established in 2016 to asses the use of the church buildings and consider how they enable the Diocese of Sodor and Man to engage with the Mission of God. The financial consequences of the 3-month lockdown brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have “taken altogether, been catastrophic for the diocese. This has meant that [the Group] can no longer take [its] time over this process, as had originally been envisaged, and the outcome may be less of a smooth progress than had been hoped for”.
On 6 August 2020, the Working Party issued two documents: The Diocesan Strategy for Church Buildings 2020 and a Tool kit for the Mission Partnership Councils. The foreword to the strategy document concludes:
“What had been the report of a Diocesan Working Party is now our diocesan strategy and is available to be considered by everybody. It is offered to the whole diocese and our partners with the prayers of the bishop, the Working Party and the Implementation Group that we will work together for the Mission of God in our diocese preparing ourselves for a viable ministry throughout the 21st century by the decisions we take at this time.”
The Appendix to the Toolkit lists the four Mission Partnerships, their parishes and the numbers of people in each as in the 2016 Census. The Appendices to the Strategy are: The Church Buildings Review 2016, Sodor and Man; List of Anglican Places of Worship; List of Church Halls; and List of Registered Church Buildings (including private chapels) and Halls of all denominations.
The Diocesan Synod accepted the strategy document at its meeting on 4th August 2020, and as the official strategy of the Diocese of Sodor and Man, as amended it has been published on the diocesan website, along with the Tool Kit, which was also been slightly amended. At the meeting of the Diocesan Synod, the Bishop announced that he would establish an Implementation Group in order to deal promptly with the reports of the Mission Partnership Councils (MPCs). This Group would be, in effect, a working party of the Church Commissioners. By 31 December 2020, the MPCs (but not PCCs or individuals) are required to submit:
1. A simple list of all churches in each Mission Partnership grouped by parish and with the category the MPC recommends they be placed in, as agreed by a simple majority of those attending the meeting.
2. A note of any pastoral re-organisation the MPC would commend to the Church Commissioners to enable the Implementation Group to achieve an approximate 6,000 population per stipendiary priest.
3. A brief comment on any of the recommendations the Implementation Groups has offered as they affect the Mission Partnership.
The categories of church are described in section 5 of the Strategy (page 12), and the basic criteria are described in detail on pages 12 to17, extracts of which are reproduced below:
- Hub Churches: “There would be only one hub church per multi-church parish. This church would be the focus of mission in the parish and would aim to resource other churches in the parish should they exist. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Minster’ model.”
- Community Mission Churches: “These churches may be kept but should not be supported from central funds nor should they be independent parish churches nor expect weekly Sunday Eucharistic worship. Their buildings are able to be adapted or have been adapted to generate social and financial capital from the local community. They may be “hibernated” over the winter (probably except for Christmas and funerals).”
- Heritage Churches: “These are churches which have a clear heritage and/or architectural value but which struggle to attract a sustainable congregation, can’t pay a full parish SMF consistently AND maintain their building. They should be helped to look for partnerships to maintain as versions of festival/heritage church, as cemetery chapels maintained on the rates or as self-funding community resources. They should cease to be a drain on PCC resources. They may be “hibernated” as well.”
- Churches at a ‘Crossroads’: “Churches where radical change needs to happen with a long-term strategy of sustainability. This may involve closure, sale, demolition or radical new uses.”
- Marketable Churches: “These are churches with small congregations but which would be easily sold for a fair market price, the funds to form a kitty to maintain Hub Churches. They may be sustainable at present, and we are not recommending a whole scale closure and sale of these buildings immediately, but if their market value exceeds their value to the Mission of God then the Church Commissioners cannot justify the cost of keeping them open.”
Other aspects of the strategy include [emphasis in original];
- “the review group’s brief from the Church Commissioners: ‘not least to decide where we may need to invest dwindling diocesan and parochial resources in keeping a parish church open for missional reasons.’
- “There is a widespread acceptance both within and outside the church that we can’t afford all the church buildings we currently have, and that as in many cases those buildings are seeing a declining attendance and house ageing congregations we do not need all the churches we have;
- “We are of the strong opinion that the registered building list so far as it applies to churches is not fit for purpose. We would like to see a two tier list, the upper tier being those churches agreed by conservationists and the special interest groups (including the denominations) to be of great value to the island’s heritage, and qualifying for support from public monies.
- “We would also like Government to discuss with us an Ecclesiastical Exemption from some aspects of central control such as is the case in England. This will free the churches of time consuming bureaucracy which is already adequately dealt with by our own Faculty Jurisdiction laws – and in 2016 Tynwald exempted us from the War Memorials legislation on the grounds that Faculty Jurisdiction already offered the War Memorials in our care sufficient protection
- “We note that two of our thriving island denominations own or use without ownership less than 10 buildings and have numbers of worshippers that rival our own total attendance figures; we have 41 church buildings at the time of writing, as well as church halls.
- “We urge that most church halls will be sold or have long-term leases … – or possibly be used for mission and worship in place of a church building which has become unsustainable.
- “Although the General Synod in February 2020 decided that it is essential for the Church of England to reach a carbon neutral position by 2030 [the Group has not] been able to take a great deal of account of this, although a separate diocesan policy on this is being developed.”
The Implementation Group will work with these recommendations to place all of the church buildings into a category and align their decision making, and that of the DBF and other diocesan bodies, accordingly. The Implementation Group and the Church Commissioners will advise the bishop, who must make the final decision in such matters.
Within the Church of England as a whole, around twenty church buildings are closed for worship each year, and details of its parish reorganisation and closed church buildings are available here. This page notes that Dioceses regularly review how they provide support for mission, ministry and pastoral care, and sometimes this leads to reorganisation such as:
- Joining parishes together or creating new ones e.g. in new housing areas
- Setting up a Bishop’s Mission Order to support a new mission initiative or fresh expression of church
- Closing a church building no longer required as a place of worship or replacing one which is unsuitable.
Factors specific to the Diocese of Sodor and Man include:
- Current levels of staffing remain relatively high per capita of population (although reducing) for the Church of England and the sizes of many of its parishes are very small compared to the English average. This leads to the requirement that higher levels of giving are required to pay for its stipendiary clergy.
- Unlike most English dioceses, the largest part of our diocesan income comes from the parishes’ giving: here it is around 75%; in England the average is less than 50%.