Resisting Wrong Arguments for PCC Mergers: from the Diocese of Winchester

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In most cases, PCC amalgamations should be resisted – by politely saying ‘no thank you’ and staying firm, even under pressure to change. Reason: the PCC is the legal entity, and there are no better guardians of a particular church than the local people who attend it and live near it.

Here is an example from North West Hampshire. The argument for PCC Amalgamation was made in a document from the Diocese of Winchester dated 26-3-21, titled “Simplification of Benefice Governance”. In this document, which is seen as part of the “diocesan-wide benefice restructuring”, it was stated:

“We believe we are already at a stage in many multi-parish benefices where simplification of governance is needed. Since 2000 we have seen a 30% reduction in stipendiary clergy posts in the diocese, a 38% reduction in attendance but only 7% reduction in the number of individual parishes and PCCs. As we are forced to cut clergy posts further in response to Covid19 and create more and larger multi-parish benefices the need for such simplification grows more compelling and urgent.

“We propose that each benefice should have a single PCC. The principal function and purpose of the PCC is the responsibility of co-operating with the incumbent (rector, vicar or priest in charge) in promoting the mission of the Church in its parish.”

This last sentence is misplaced. Co-operation with the incumbent was indeed a principal function of the PCC 50 years ago, but in most cases today it cannot be, simply because most churches no longer have a vicar or rector unique to their one church. There is no incumbent who is dedicated to the PCC; at best he/she is shared with other PCCs, and at worst there is nobody. Therefore the role of the PCC has become primary where previously it was supportive. Today it is the PCC which keeps the Church flame alight; it is the PCC that ensures there is enough money to pay all the bills; it is the PCC that ensures there are appropriate services and priests to take Holy Communion; it is the PCC that takes responsibility for keeping its church itself safe and in a good state of repair. Moreover in rural areas, the PCC can align with the administrative parish council, pursuing together shared objectives to keep the village looking tidy and its parish church in a good state. Often the same individuals will serve on PCC and Parish Council.

Given the primacy of the PCC in all these activities, it is mistaken to suggest – as the Winchester Diocese document does – that responsibility should be transplanted to a larger body, for 2 reasons:

  1. We felt the drive and local context, so important for maintaining effort, would be lost.
  2. We expected that such a move would be financially disastrous. We believed it would cause a fall in the level of donations (as people will feel less closely affiliated to a grouping that goes beyond their village area) and an increase in costs (as it will be necessary to employ people to staff the new super-PCC, where previously there were volunteers).

The concern about ‘governance overload’ on incumbent priests, expressed in the first paragraph, is however entirely reasonable. It stems from the fact that every incumbent priest is ex officio a member, and automatic Chair, of every PCC in his/her area and, nowadays, that might mean 5-10 PCCs. Happily, the problem can be dealt with perfectly well without PCC amalgamations, taking one of these options:

  1. Common Sense and Trust. The incumbent priest has the right to chair PCC meetings but the 2020 Church Representation Rules Part 1 make clear he/she doesn’t have an obligation to do so. It would be perfectly in order for the incumbent to explain that generally, they would not attend a particular PCC’s meetings. It would be helpful if dioceses would encourage parish priests to draw back like this if they need to, explaining there is no obligation, and they can decide when they think it is right. Such PCC meetings can be convened without the priest, as they would be in an interregnum, and taken by the Vice-Chair, normally a Churchwarden. If a PCC is struggling, the frequency of meetings could be reduced too, from quarterly to perhaps once or twice a year. Maybe the incumbent would come just sometimes.
  2. Adoption of New Rules. Part 2 of the 2020 Church Representation Rules sets out the option for a parish to adopt a different form of governance. To do this, a parish has to get it drawn up properly, and it has to be approved by the Bishop’s Council. So rather than merging the PCCs, it would be an option to adopt a different constitution in which the incumbent is not the Chair, or is only the Chair of the ‘main’ parish, where that is the case.

We resisted the PCC Amalgamation proposal simply by making it very clear that we were unhappy about it. During the consultation meeting, emotions ran rather high in some cases, which was a shame, but at least the diocese was able to see the strength of our feeling. In the end, no good diocese wants to trample on parishes that are doing their best to sustain worship, so in our case, they indicated that they would respect our wish to remain solo. There are some other churches for which amalgamation is still a prospect. 

Happily, the process for PCC Amalgamation requires many stages, so there are still good opportunities to make representations and to advance these more sensible alternatives.