Paul Vallely: The difficulty for the church is finding where to cut from the ranks

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The Independent Online

The number of bishops in the Church of England has risen in recent years. Though there are just 44 of them with a diocese, if you add in their suffragan sidekicks, there are now 110. By contrast, the number of ordinary priests has fallen by almost half in the past five decades.

Recession and the credit crunch affect the church as much as every other sector of life, in some ways more so, because so much of its wealth has traditionally been in property, the price of which has crashed. The case for bishops bearing their share of the burden is inescapable. The trick is in finding where to cut.

In the past, the role of the bishop was as the key teaching authority in his diocese. He is also pastor to the pastors, responsible for the psychological care of his priestly flock. Some bishops still fulfil those duties but others have become classic middle management executives whose prime qualification is skill at playing the corporate game.

At the pew level, parishes are merged and over-stretched junior clergy race from one church to another on a Sunday morning to pack in as many services as possible, but without having the time to spend with churchgoers after the service.

Fewer bishops might be part of the solution. But putting in place a system to cut the right ones and return the others to their proper function will be trickier altogether. That way, there might also be more money – and time – for reaching out to ordinary people at parish level.