Back in the autumn of 2020 Portsmouth Diocese embarked on a process of consultations that will eventually lead to the restructuring of many parish churches across the diocese. This started with the diocese asking every deanery to compile a plan for how the churches within the deanery could best be structured to thrive and grow for the future. The background to the plan also included an awareness of financial difficulties in the diocese caused by the pandemic which will mean a reduction in the number of stipendiary clergy in Portsmouth Diocese. Considerable time, effort and energy was expended in collating and drawing up a plan for our deanery.
All the deanery plans were submitted to the Bishop’s Council in March this year, (this is the diocesan committee who have oversight of our diocese). The senior leadership for our diocese then made a presentation to Diocesan Synod. This presentation we were told at the time was an amalgamation of all the deanery plans into an overall plan for the diocese. The main strand of this diocesan plan was to create groupings of amalgamated parishes in legal Team Ministries. This was a surprise to many as it slowly emerged that this was not a main thread of the deanery plans, indeed some had specifically said this was not their preferred structure. It was included in a minority of the deanery plans and only in specific settings where it was felt that this was the best option.
Over 10 years ago the previous deanery plan had included St Paul’s reducing to a half time clergy post. With this in mind our PCC initially indicated our willingness to consider amalgamating with one other parish with a single PCC giving oversight to both churches and with a resource of one and a half stipendiary clergy posts. At our meeting in May this year our PCC passed the following resolution: ‘The PCC of St Paul’s Sarisbury Green affirm our commitment to increasing collaborative working with other churches in the Western Wards of Fareham. We also affirm our previous agreement to explore further a legal Team Ministry with St John’s Locks Heath. However, we do not believe that a further expansion of that legal Team Ministry would be in the best interest of mission and ministry in the Western Wards.’
What would this mean for St Paul’s? Firstly it does not mean St Paul’s will close, indeed if this plan is accepted it gives the best opportunity for St Paul’s to grow and flourish with a reduction of stipendiary clergy resources. St Paul’s and St John’s would work closely together with a sharing of ministry and other resources between the two churches. I believe this is a good fit for St Paul’s. Both churches serve very similar communities. Both have a similar approach to our style of worship and both have an emphasis on ministry to families as a primary focus for mission and growth. There is a lot of synergy between our church congregations and our parishes. We would also work closely with our neighbouring parishes of Warsash and Titchfield. This could include shared Alpha Courses, Lent courses and other similar opportunities. We could explore sharing of the administration of funerals as well as sharing resources and expertise in other areas of administration. Those who work with families could meet together and again share resources, expertise and ideas. Collaboration could also include ministry to the retired, schools ministry and pastoral care.
But this structure differs from the preferred diocesan model which would amalgamate Locks Heath, Warsash, Titchfield and Sarisbury Green into one single mega-parish with a combined population of over 45,000, a combined average weekly attendance of nearly 500 and a combined parish share of over £300,000. Personally I think this would be a bad option for St Paul’s and more likely to lead to decline in the coming years. What are the reasons for my reticence to consider the diocesan preferred option?
- Previous diocesan reorganisation plans were in areas with failing parishes. None of our four local parishes are failing.
- Whilst there is a lot of synergy between St Paul’s and St John’s this is far less the case with the churches in Warsash and Titchfield. These are are far more village churches with a lot less in common with St Paul’s in the areas of style and ethos.
- In this mega-parish St Paul’s would be the smallest church and therefore stands the possibility of being squeezed out.
- To amalgamate the four parishes would take a considerable amount of time, effort and energy. Whilst this could be achieved it will severely detract us from our focus on mission for a significant time.
- The diocese believes this structure will free clergy from governance and administration, however I believe it will do exactly the opposite with additional levels of governance and meetings being required.
- There are no examples in Portsmouth Diocese of any legal Team Ministries that have led to sustained growth, indeed the pattern in this diocese is of decline.
- I personally know of three examples from colleagues who have been involved in legal Team Ministries that have resulted in decline and the eventual breaking up of those Team Ministries back into individual parish churches. Personally I don’t know of any colleagues who have been part of successful legal Team Ministries that have led to sustained growth.
- There is nothing that I’m aware of within the structure of a legal Team Ministry that cannot equally be achieved within a group pf individual parishes who willingly collaborate together.
The process of planning the restructuring of parishes and churches across the diocese started as a bottom up process where plans were to be locally rooted and based on the extensive local knowledge of clergy, churchwardens and PCCs. Amongst the clergy there is also a wealth of previous experience from many parts of the Church of England of differing church structures. This local knowledge and experience is a vital part of any restructuring at a time when the senior leadership of the diocese has undergone significant changes of personnel who now know little of the local contexts. Sadly, at present, the process appears to have switched to a top down process where local churches will have little say in the primary ways in which churches are restructured and only an input on how this is implemented locally.
Thankfully the breakneck speed of this process has recently been slowed to allow greater time for conversations and for plans to be developed. However the need for change has not gone away and any outcome is almost certain to include significant change for our church community and for me personally.
Questions and comments are welcomed. Please either comment here or send me an email at email@example.com