The Church of England's bureaucracy is out of control. Emma Thompson28 February 2021

The General Synod (the Church of England’s elected governing body) met by Zoom webinar on Saturday. The meeting was on YouTube, open to public viewing. The Archbishop of York, the Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell, presented an update on his ‘Vision and Strategy, outlining a ‘mixed ecology’ Church in which every member matters and resources should go to the first line of the ministry, with only necessary costs on central and diocesan structure and services.

The Church of England's bureaucracy is out of control. Emma Thompson28 February 2021

Yet Chelmsford Diocese (the district where Stephen Cottrell was previously Bishop) has already announced a morale-sapping plan to reduce its parish vicars by an eyewatering 61 this year, potentially more – while continuing to recruit for new diocesan managerial posts.

Although the Church is not a profit-making business, it is critical that it be financially viable. However, its approach to expenditure is incoherent. Since it is overwhelmingly financed by its parishes, reducing parish vicars (who are central to attracting financial support) sits oddly with recruiting more diocesan staff and new ordinands, spending £270 million in a 10-year programme of ‘Strategic Development Funding’ for new initiatives such as church plants, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion that dioceses could sell Church-owned land at an undervalue for affordable housing.


The absence of obvious costings, joined-up thinking, dialogue and collaboration with parishes increases the public perception of remote, empire-building leaders, out-of-touch with the grassroots. In his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the historian Paul Kennedy coined the term ‘imperial overstretch’, noting that declining empires tend to take cuts out on front-liners, rather than attacking the proper area for shrinkage: central costs.

The Church lost income during the pandemic. It already needed to reduce its cost base. The overdue reduction of the duplicative administration of its 42 dioceses, requested by the General Synod in 2018, makes an obvious way to economise. A parish treasurer recently noted in the Church Times that nearly 30 per cent of his church’s ‘parish share’ bill from the diocese, supposedly to pay for a parish priest, was for diocesan (and central) costs.

The Church is not being localised, or even centralised… it is being ‘middle-ised’. Vicars write ruefully: ‘Please, no more diocesan strategies! No more Five-Year Plans!’ Parish volunteers complain that onerous diocesan bureaucracy increases their own work and costs.

The CofE’s outdated managerialism is reminiscent of ICI’s in the 1970s, which didn’t end well. This week, Greg Jackson, CEO of a £1.4bn energy company, said that top-down, "command and control" management structures "infantilise" employees and "drown creative people in process and bureaucracy". He advocated a hands-off approach, allowing individuals and teams to be self-reliant and sort out their own affairs as much as possible, without interference from above.

Meanwhile, heading the Church’s 42 dioceses are ranks of senior clergy. Long attrition in church attendance has left the CofE conspicuously top-heavy. The British Army, with about 80,000 soldiers, has 65 Generals. The Church, with some 6,800 stipendiary (paid) clergy now, has 116 Archbishops and Bishops (in 1836, there were only 26). A Bishop’s stipend, housing, staff and ministry costs would finance multiple vicars.

What is a Bishop for? ‘When we had 25,000 stipendiary clergy, we had fewer Bishops and Archdeacons, and no Assistant Archdeacons; and they attended to the spiritual,’ comments a retired vicar. ‘Now, with many fewer clergy, the management has burgeoned and they seem preoccupied with the secular’.

Even 130 years ago, with many fewer Bishops and many more parish clergy and churchgoers, Gilbert & Sullivan proclaimed: ‘And Bishops in their shovel hats/Were plentiful as tabby cats/In point of fact, too many!’ The Church was never meant to have a ‘career ladder’.

Common complaints are that today’s Bishops are all appointed by one person and mostly ‘out of the same stable’, increasingly from Evangelical training colleges and courses. In his 1931 book ‘Christian Faith and Life’, the then-Archbishop of York, William Temple, advocated a broad Church of England, warning that the ‘full Christian life cannot be lived only in groups of like-minded Christians’, or division will ensue, weakening the whole Church.

Temple comments on the ‘uninspiring spectacle’ presented by the Church when it attends to ‘incidental things’, rather than the Gospel, the sacraments and, ‘supremely’, Holy Communion. Stirring, intellectual Christian moral leadership could have been comforting in the pandemic. However, the professorial Bishops of old have been replaced by managerial Bishops. Few have studied Theology to postgraduate level.

Yet the CofE seems tragi-comically incapable of trimming its own management. Merging three dioceses into the Diocese of Leeds in 2014 failed to save costs, indeed created an extra bishop.

Like many parish volunteers, I support the Church financially, by monthly standing order. Rural parishioners like me are dismissed as ‘traditionalist’ or ‘conservative’ for liking our parish churches and vicars (rather as patients favour doctors and hospitals). So, why should my views be of any interest to the Archbishops? Perhaps, here, I might borrow from the words of my great-great-great grandfather (a Northamptonshire parson with a deeply impressive beard), writing to my great-great grandfather (a wayward son with a fashionable moustache): ‘Sir, if you wish to take my money, I feel you should take my advice’.

Emma Thompson is a parish volunteer

From a churchwarden:

Offices of the church
Sir: Sorry to bang on about the centralisation and bureaucratisation of the Church of England, but Richard Martin has not started when he calls for a reduction in the number of bishops and archdeacons (Letters, 20 February). Try the diocesan office. Only a few years ago the Oxford diocesan office was housed in an old vicarage in North Hinksey. Now it occupies several floors in a new office block in Kidlington. It needs it: just look at the website. In addition to four bishops, eight archdeacons and assistant archdeacons, there appear to be more than 150 other diocesan officers of one sort or another, compared to 400 paid clergy in the parishes.

Martin Down
Witney, Oxfordshire

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