StephenHaleOne of the challenges we are all living with is the reality that many churches will close in the next decade. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but it is a reality that is upon us. Every diocese in Australia has a cohort of churches with very small numbers and mainly elderly parishioners.

Sooner or later these churches reach a point of unviability. In saying this I’m not stating anything new. We’re all familiar with these situations. The ramp up of multiple compliance requirements in the past decade and the two years of pandemic have accelerated the situation.

The thing that is new will be the scale of the problem. Many of these churches have been clinging on for many years and it’s remarkable that they have gone on for as long as they have. Most of these churches are within the Anglo Catholic/Traditional side of the Anglican Church but it isn’t confined to this tradition. As a clear sign of the challenge of our reality it was reported at the most recent Melbourne Synod that over 50% of parishes have no children in attendance!

In God’s providence the counter to this is that many new churches have started in the past decade and there will be many more new churches in the years ahead. More especially we are being greatly blessed by the birth of many language-specific (non-English speaking) faith communities which often see significant growth. At the most recent ordination in Melbourne the number of ordinands was 10 to 5 in this direction!

I believe that it is easier to start a new church than to renew an existing church. Existing churches have many challenges and ministers who are appointed to them are often seeking to achieve twin outcomes. They are seeking to sustain a traditional service with a group with high pastoral needs, while simultaneously birthing something new. It can be done, but it’s a tough gig. While there are lots of great examples where this has led to the birth of something new, there are also many ministers who have been burned along the way in places where it has been too hard, and it hasn’t happened.

So, what should we do? Is this a disaster or is it an amazing opportunity? The comments in this article are more applicable to our metropolitan and provincial cities.

The challenges in remote rural areas are great and I don’t claim to be an expert in that area. I give thanks for and pray for BCA and the remote rural bishops regularly.

The worst-case scenario is that we do nothing intentional and allow church after church to die with nothing to replace them. This would be tragic. There needs to be an intentional diocesan strategy. Without a strategy, more often than not the Assistant Bishops in the larger dioceses are put into an impossible position. They are left to deal with church after church facing similar scenarios and burning huge numbers of hours with no clear framework for addressing it. Bishops are often obligated to find clergy for too many unviable churches and it is proving to be increasingly challenging to find them. A growing number of parishes have had a rolling series of locums for years.

In broad terms I would suggest we are asking too many clergy to go to too many Parishes that are too far gone, and the consequences aren’t great for anyone! While church renewals can and do happen, it is unrealistic to expect them to happen in multiple places simultaneously.

Another scenario is the cobbling together of churches that are within some proximity to create a basis for a fulltime minister. This model can work, but only if there is clear intentionality about how it might work. Without that this is often a recipe for significant tension and conflict.

It’s not much fun leading two or three centres all of which are in a similar scenario and all of whom want the minister between 9am and 11am on a Sunday morning.

Another worst-case scenario in all of this is that progressively over time properties are sold and dioceses build up their central reserves to buffer against abuse payouts. The diocese is an organising entity not the church and the role of the diocese is to support the church to grow, not to protect itself.

The closure of churches does free up assets that can be used to:

  • create a church planting fund to assist in the planting of new churches.
  • more fully support the birth of many more culturally-diverse (non-English speaking) congregations.
  • intentionally partner with the medium size and larger churches to invite them to take over dying churches with a view to planting new congregations. The church planter is then a part of a team as well as having the back-up of a stronger church.
  • facilitate the closure of a few churches within proximity with a view to the sale of one or more of the sites and the building of a new centre with contemporary facilities. I spoke at a Uniting Church last year where 5 churches had agreed to close and amalgamate and come together on an existing site with all sorts of allied activities happening with several Sunday congregations.
  • buy land for new outer suburban and inner urban plants.

To navigate these and many other changes bishops need to be honest about the reality of where we are at. Alongside of that they need to offer a fresh vision of what is possible and actively support those who are seeking to make that a reality.

Bishop Stephen Hale is Chair, EFAC Australia and EFAC Global.