Sunday church services under threat due to shortage of chaplains

Sunday church services are under threat as there are not enough priests to fill the "golden slot" for worship, a bishop has warned.

Dr Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield, said the traditional celebration of the eucharist on Sunday mornings may not be possible every week due to staff shortages.

His comments come amid fears that the parish church is in danger of “collapse” in rural communities.

In 1999, there were 155 stipendiary incumbents in the diocese of Sheffield, but this has now fallen to 100 and is expected to drop further.

Dr Wilcox said: “We will be hard pressed to sustain a reliable pattern of a weekly celebration of the eucharist in the ‘golden slot’ on a Sunday morning – starting between 9.30am and 11am – in every parish or benefice.”

The Church of England is facing a crisis described by clergy as a "four-headed beast", with the main issues being shortfalls in finance, falling attendance, ageing buildings, and a heavy dependence on older church members.

This newspaper previously reported that rural parishes are struggling to pay their vicars, with clergy and wardens urging the Archbishop of Canterbury to “act now to save the village church”.

Dr Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield

Credit: The Diocese of Sheffield 

Earlier this year, a leaked report which had been sent to the Church of England’s 42 diocesan secretaries warned clergy to prepare for "radical" changes and cuts as officials prepare to overhaul the system to remain financially viable.

Entitled "Money, People and Buildings", it said: "Many diocesan leaders believe that the financial challenges being exposed by the pandemic mean this is the moment to embark on radical changes to re-shape existing resource patterns and ministry structures, and to invest in developing a more missionally healthy and financially sustainable church.

"There has been some horror expressed at the clergy number reductions announced by a few dioceses, although they are in the context of the consistent decline in clergy numbers over recent decades and the unsustainability of ministry in many parishes."

Attendance at services has been falling for years, but this was also exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic as worshippers were no longer permitted to gather in churches.

The report warned that up to 20 per cent of regular worshippers may never return and questioned "the sustainability of many local churches".

It said most dioceses intend to "prune" the number of clergy and diocesan staff, amid fears that the number of paid priests could be cut by up to 20 per cent and replaced with volunteer clergy.

The report concluded: "Online worship will have become a significant part of the mainstream. The Church of England could emerge from the pandemic smaller in terms of engagement by at least some measures, but particularly physical attendance. This will inevitably have further impact on the sustainability of many local churches."

However, archbishops have hit back at claims that they are trying to dismantle parish churches, arguing that their aim is to "expand, reimagine and revitalise" the system.

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