It is vitally important that the people of Cornwall are made aware of plans to close an as yet unspecified number of their parish churches under a plan named On The Way. The plans, formed by Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, and Hugh Nelson, Bishop of St Germans, are underway. Churches are to be run not by ordained vicars but by little-trained others. Churches are being clustered together in groups as large as eight or ten, overseen by one clergyperson. Parishes as such will disappear; some towns and villages will have neither their own vicar nor their own church. One clergy overseer has already been appointed on the Roseland Peninsula.
Services will be encouraged in private homes, or at 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 a vicar can be found or if 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 clergyperson on any particular day—not because there are no clergy being ordained but because our bishops refuse to give them parishes.
Bishop Philip has said, in a publicly available video, that there will be no going back. The change will take place; things are not to remain the same. He claims to be guided in this by God, in response to the dire financial shortages of the county's bishopric, the Diocese of Truro. All the while, he is being assisted by external advisors and facilitators, who must be paid. Truro Diocese already employs 38 permanent staff, compared with 64 clergy: a ratio above the national average. It spends £350,000 annually on Net Zero climate change work, a sum which would pay seven extra clergy; and it employs untold numbers of external advisors, consultants and facilitators for a variety of purposes apart from On The Way. It is highly possible that the diocese is holding other large sums in reserve which could be spent to keep churches open with their own vicar. There is abundant evidence nationally of parish congregations diminishing if there is no permanent vicar.
The bishops’ version of consultation is clearly a paper exercise. Minutes of meetings do not record dissent, consultations are fudged and opposition is being suppressed. Rather than doing what God wants, Bishop Philip and Bishop Hugh are in some cases setting parishes against one another: those without a vicar for years, despite relentless pleading, are pitted against parishes which have a vicar but who face losing them under the new structure and don’t want to merge. Divide and rule.
Cornish churches welcome remarkable numbers of visitors. Some come to admire the stained glass or are visiting historic family graves. Others come for the unique and intense atmosphere of peace which exists in our churches. They come quietly on weekdays in times of loss, distress or simply exhaustion, finding comfort and sustenance. Sometimes they leave heart-rending written prayer requests or moving messages of thanks for the church being open. They are hardly going to knock on someone’s front door and ask to sit in contemplation in a stranger’s sitting room.
Once churches have closed, they will be completely abandoned to the elements, possibly vandalism, to rot and collapse. To the distress of many, Bishop Hugh has openly stated that the Church of England isn’t there to look after mediaeval buildings, of which Cornwall has so many. The C of E centrally has never maintained its churches; their congregations must do so. So your town or village may have to watch a building in which people have prayed—in some cases, for over 1,000 years—fall into ruin whilst local bishops are satisfied with what they have done and the church nationally holds reserves of many billions of pounds.
More information about how to protest is available from Save the Parish, e-mail [email protected], which is trying to halt the destruction. Cornwall isn’t alone; such reorganisations are also happening in other parts of the country but are being opposed. Many of us who worship in our churches regularly are extremely distressed by what our bishops are doing. You might not want to worship regularly in your parish church, but a remarkable number of people love, want and need that building and the presence of a vicar in their parish.
Whatever happened to a vicar being responsible for the cure of all souls in his/her parish? Please don’t sit back and accept what Bishops Philip and Hugh are doing. Don’t think you have no voice and it’s all a done deal. Make your voice heard. Write letters to them. Complain to the Church Commissioners. Write to the national press and express displeasure online. As Christians, we are discouraged from open criticism and waging war; but we simply must openly object. Many of us are already doing this, because we are very, very angry.
Bishop Philip and Bishop Hugh, you might tell us you are doing what God wants (which some of us think is a piece of supreme arrogance), but many of us maintain you are listening to another voice altogether. "On The Way" is a misnomer. You are implementing On The Way Out.