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Bishops beware the Cornish revolt


IF the uprising by Church of England parishioners in Cornwall spreads, Archbishop Justin Welby and his House of Bishops could be facing their own Brexit moment.

Recent correspondence in the West Briton newspaper highlights the opposition the Bishop of Truro is facing to his plans, in New Labour parlance, to ‘modernise’ his diocese.  In 2021 Bishop Philip Mounstephen launched a strategy document called On the Way, dubbed by his opponents ‘On the way out’. 

The practical outworking of On the Way seems not to have landed well with parishioners in the Cornwall branch of the Save the Parish movement, which launched nationally in August 2021 and fielded candidates in the elections to the General Synod. 

The West Briton published a letter on March 9 from Pam Dodd, a parishioner in Probus, a village between St Austell and Truro, headed ‘The death-knell of parish life’.

She wrote: ‘It is vitally important that the people of Cornwall are aware of plans to close an unspecified number of parish churches under a plan named On the Way. Churches are to be run by non-clergy, clustered together in groups as large as 8 or 10, overseen by one clergy person . . .

‘Services will be encouraged in private homes or in other venues such as shopping centres and football pitches. Quite apart from church worship by regular congregations, Cornish people may no longer be able to marry in their own church, babies may not be baptised there, nor funerals held there. It all depends whether your church is closed. Holy Communion, that great sacrament of the church, is already disappearing due to falling clergy numbers, being limited to whichever church can obtain an ordained person on any particular day.’

The paper published a letter in response from Bishop Mounstephen’s colleague, the suffragan bishop of St Germans, Hugh Nelson. He denied that the bishops were imposing the strategy to reverse congregational decline and attract more young people.

He wrote: ‘The plans for the future have been developed by the leaders of local churches, with careful thought and prayer by everyone involved. I understand that they are not the plans that the letter writer wants, but that does not mean that consultation has not happened, nor that other views have not been heard. This process of change, and the shrinking of congregations, has been happening for many decades. The changes local churches are making are a response to that change, not the cause of it.’

Next to Bishop Nelson’s letter was one from Andrew Lane, a parishioner in Warleggan, a Poldarkian village to the south of Bodmin Moor, supporting Pam Dodd and headed ‘Losing millions will force bishops to ditch dogma’.

He wrote: ‘Church buildings are seen as “limiting factors”, whereas front rooms, shopping malls and football stadiums are the preferred and trendy venues.

‘The bishops are apparently deaf to protest, immune to criticism, so there is no alternative but to act. The one power that the parishes have is that they collectively contribute more than £3million p.a. to diocesan finances. They should simply stop paying it: yes, continue to raise the money, but put it to one side and sit on it.’

On March 23, the West Briton published another letter from the redoubtable Pam Dodd, ‘Climate change not relevant to church’s work in Cornwall’.

She wrote: ‘Employing experts to advise a church with no money to install a ground-source heat pump costing anything between £14,000 and £45,000 when the roof leaks and the surrounding graveyard would need digging up is hardly the best use of diocesan funds. Decide the diocese can’t afford its climate change work: £350,000 saved in one fell swoop.’

Bishop Nelson has written to the paper denying that the diocese’s carbon Net Zero plan by 2030 ‘will mean small churches having to raise lots of money for ground-source heat pumps. While some will choose to make this a priority because it matters to them, our efforts will concentrate on the biggest emitters of carbon: our big churches, our Church of England schools and our vicarages’.

Bishop Mounstephen voted for same-sex church blessings at the General Synod in February, as did the chairman of Save the Parish, the Rev Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London. So, it would seem that the difference between Save the Parish and the modernising bishops is not especially doctrinal or ethical but in their disagreement over the role of the traditional parish.

Anglican churches which are succeeding in reaching younger people are often unashamedly conservative in Christian theology and ethics and yet nimble and imaginative in their modus operandi. Unfortunately, the institutional obstacles to that happy combination are probably insurmountable in the rest of the 21st century C of E.

Protracted division looks the more likely future for the established Church if Save the Parish gathers momentum as a populist movement of church volunteers, similar to the political groundswell which caught the Westminster elite napping over the Brexit vote. This would face the woke, leftist bishops dominating the C of E hierarchy with a formidable grass-roots resistance.

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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