Declining incomes and an ageing clergy will force churches across the Westcountry to turn to volunteer vicars, a Westcountry bishop has said.
The Right Reverend Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro, told the Western Morning News that the double blow of a struggle to generate income, allied with the imminent retirement of 20 per cent of its paid clergy, could eventually “liberate local churches” across the West.
He said: “As many stipendiary clergy in the country will retire in the next few years we have to think about how this will affect our parishes.
“Our finances are not as strong as we would like them to be and I would urge people to consider how the church can be controlled by local communities.”
The Church of England confirmed more clergy were retiring than being recruited ac ross the country – but the Exeter Diocese is bucking the trend this year with more ordinations than for many years.
In Cornwall Bishop Tim expects members of the public will gradually take over more and more services, chair meetings and generally oversee the running of the church, as the reality of operating with fewer vicars nears.
Lay members may also be trained to hear confession, a move which some current Church of England priests are uncomfortable with.
But this is nothing to fear, he said, as it will bring the running of the church back to its roots.
Bishop Tim said: “It shows signs of new life and growth which is very exciting. Members of the laity will have to act as disciples and the few full-time paid clergy will be responsible for a larger area. Some of the 20 clergy in Cornwall soon to retire will be replaced, but not all of them, and this shows the change.”
Although the church said its budget this year has not decreased, the reality is that income is becoming less and less.
“We are finding it hard to generate money, just as all charities are in these financially hard times,” said Bishop Tim.
“These changes aren’t the result of a budget cut but there is no escaping the fact that generating money is difficult. This is about liberating local churches and giving disciples the equipment they need to be able to carry out God’s work.” It is also likely churches will be granted the power to ordain people locally, rather than nationally, as is the current procedure.
The bishop added: “It may be the case that local people are trained to carry out key roles, such as marriages and funerals, and each local community will have a team of people working together to do this, but we will always ensure that sacramental areas are covered.”
Church of England spokesman Steve Jenkins, head of media and acting director of communications for the Church of England, said: “Even though we are ordaining around 500 clergy each year, we were ordaining many more in the 70s. At the same time we have more clergy retiring, resulting in a drop in paid clergy.
“This is not about a budget cut, it’s about losing 400 clergy to retirement each year and not being able to keep up with it. There is more of a need now than there ever has been for the laity to become involved.”
But the Diocese of Exeter dispute the changes. A spokesman said: “We’ve just ordained 20 people this year – the most we have ever had in 50 years.”
Bishop Tim added said: “If we all see ourselves as disciples then we will need to understand our role as those who have gifts and a part to play.”