Holy Smoke

Can C of E parishes stop bureaucrats wasting their money?

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I'm not referring to the familiar evidence that the Established Church, in common with all mainstream Christian denominations in Britain, is watching its congregations shrink at a humiliating rate. In 2019, an average of only 690,000 people attended Church of England services on Sundays – 50,000 fewer than in 2016. And that was before Covid. This is what people mean when they talk about churchgoing falling off a cliff, and it’s a desperate problem for a church facing the impossible challenge of maintaining 16,000 buildings, many of them Grade I listed.

What shocked me was what my guest, the Rev Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, revealed about the horrors of the C of E’s insatiably greedy and tediously right-on bureaucracy. An ever-growing army of administrators and busybodies – he describes their numbers as ‘astronomical’ – is raiding the collection plates of local parishes so that they can force-feed churchgoers with their drivel.

Marcus is one of the best-connected priests in the Church of England – and one of the bravest. In our interview he talks candidly about the ‘despoiling’ of parishes by the managerial culture promoted by the bishops, which has thrown away more than £240 million on doomed projects to attract new worshippers. These schemes are mostly cack-handed attempts to foist the charismatic evangelical model of ‘church plants’ on ordinary parishes. (For an idea of just how badly this can go wrong, read the under-reported story of the resignation of the Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin, a hardline evangelical whose obsession with mega-churches and alleged harassment of vicars led Winchester to be dubbed ‘the diocese of North Korea’).

It was a barking mad scheme to create 10,000 ‘lay-led churches’ that prompted Marcus Walker, writing in The Spectator in July, to launch a ‘Save the parish’ campaign that, among other things, encourages parish priests and their congregations to lock away their money so that the power-crazed mediocrities who control the church can’t get their hands on it.

Trust me: you don’t want to miss what the Rector of the oldest parish church in the City of London has to say. And, once you’ve listened to him, I don’t think you’ll be surprised that St Bartholomew’s is absolutely thriving under his stewardship.

(Note to Catholic listeners: I couldn’t resist asking Marcus, former deputy director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, what he makes of Pope Francis’s campaign to suppress the traditional Latin Mass…)