Cluster Review Report

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Eight Saints Cluster of Churches

A Review conducted by the Rt Rev’d Nick McKinnel

October 2015

Background

The Eight Saints Cluster of Churches is an informal pastoral grouping comprising eight congregations, namely (in alphabetical order of place) St Piran’s Carharrack; St Paul’s Chacewater; St John and St Petroc Devoran; St Feock; St Wenappa Gwennap; St Piran’s Perran-ar-Worthal; Holy Trinity St Day; and St Stithians’. 

The legal status and Deanery status of each parish continues with Devoran and Feock as individual parishes and benefices; Chacewater and St Day with Carharrack as two parishes in a united benefice; and Gwennap and Stithians with Perran-ar-Worthal as two parishes in a united benefice, but these benefices are currently suspended and the Bishop has provided pastoral care by licensing clergy to the benefices to create the Eight Saints Cluster of Churches.  This arrangement started formally on 13th January 2011 with the licensing of clergy to the Cluster.

The original working agreement has an agreed establishment level of two whole time equivalent stipendiary priests which is the current provision.  There is also a self-supporting priest living in the benefice, two self-supporting curates and a number of readers and retired priests.  The Diocese also funds an administrator for ten hours per week and supports the WAY 2 Project in Stithians Vicarage.

The Review

A review was promised for a year or two after the setting up of the Cluster.  Although some parishes have criticised the delay in implementing this, the fact that the staffing is now down to a settled 2 WTE posts makes this an appropriate time to review the past and think about the future.  My review consisted of reading the original (rather sparse) documentation that established the Cluster, sending out a questionnaire to parishes (of which I received 25 responses), meeting with the staff team and spending an hour at meetings attended by a total of 101 people in seven of the parishes.

Although this review centres on the Cluster, each meeting raised important matters and concerns in the life of each church and these have been passed on directly to the parish clergy.  I am grateful for the honesty of the written responses and contributions at the meetings, all of which were marked by a deep loyalty to and concern for the wellbeing of their churches and communities as well as being conducted with sincerity and friendliness.  I am also particularly grateful for the welcome and help I received from the clergy and would want from the outset to remark on the appreciation there was across the Cluster for the dedication and hard work of all their priests, stipendiary, self-supporting and retired.

 

 

 

The Formation of the Cluster

There was an almost universal perception that things got off on the wrong foot!  One submission puts it like this:

“On March 26th 2010, the then Archdeacon met informally with the standing committee and told us what was happening.  No discussion or consultation.  The Eight Saints Cluster – across two deaneries – was as far as the Diocese was concerned a fait accompli.”

Another says, “I don’t enjoy being part of an arrangement, the setting up of which was foisted upon us.”

The parishes feel that the Cluster was a top down imposition made without any consultation and created in order to save money and on the basis of certain vacancies happening to occur at the same time.  Many consider that the Cluster is too large, a rather random collection of parishes that has come together in a haphazard way with no social cohesiveness and looking in different directions (Truro, Redruth or Falmouth) for shopping, education and employment.

The Development of the Cluster

Despite this rather unpromising start there have been serious and positive efforts to develop a sense of unity and mission within the Cluster.  The first Cluster Rector had a background in NHS management and early initiatives to forward the life of the Cluster included:

  • Licensing and welcome services
  • Establishing rotas
  • Arrangements for sharing expenses
  • Prayer and welcome cards
  • A PCC day conference (funded by a £1200 grant from the Diocese)
  • Pilgrimages
  • Courses for exploring Christianity and for training purposes
  • The introduction of a Cluster Council, Cluster services and annual Cluster day conference
  • Introducing Mission Action Plans
  • The possibility of Cluster-wide portfolios for the staff team
  • A change to some service times while ensuring each Church has at least one Sunday service (usually Eucharistic) at the same time each week
  • The appointment of a Cluster administrator

Much of this is set out in Peter Knibbs’ “Draft Proposals for the Future of Configuration and Development of the Eight Saints Cluster of Churches”, a document written in September 2011 and worth revisiting.  Notes from the PCC day held in October 2011 record the average weekly Cluster attendance at 396 people and the average weekly giving at £4.41.  The PCCs are recorded as giving a hefty majority to all the proposals mentioned above for Cluster activities.  While the paperwork from 2011 suggests a smooth transition into a Cluster, it sounds as if the reality was rather different.  The early years of the Cluster have been described to me as “a very rocky time” with some churches “displaying very unchristian traits” to the Cluster Rector who was doing his best to draw things together, and with most churches simply trying to carry on as if nothing had changed.  As with change in any organisation, there appear to be those who have welcomed innovation and those who have been opposed to it and while some initiatives have flourished it is noticeable that the Cluster Council now rarely if ever meets, the titles of Cluster Rector and Cluster Vicar have been dropped, and despite their existence in many of the parishes, the phrase Mission Action Plan was not mentioned on a single occasion during my visit.

While some hesitation or even opposition still remains to the Cluster, I do detect a softening of attitude among most of the people I met, not least because of the gentle and sensitive leadership of the current priest in charge.  The WAY 2 Project, Cluster choir and pilgrimage to Landevennec as well as the hard work of the administrator are all positive and helpful initiatives. 

One set back was the disappointment felt at Perran-ar-Worthal when the expectation of being provided with a vicarage in their village failed to materialise.  Bishop Tim and the Archdeacon will be well aware of the anger felt by the church and the community and there are clearly lessons to be learnt by the Diocese in terms of joined up thinking and communication.  There should however also be recognition of the generosity of the Diocese in financing alongside two stipendiary priests, an administrator and the WAY 2 Project.  An equivalent group of Churches in Exeter Diocese would most probably be allocated simply 1.5 stipendiary posts.

Current Issues

Rather than set out a strategy for the future or a series of lessons learnt, I have thought it most helpful to try and give my answer to a number of questions which kept recurring over my two days in the Cluster.  These are given with a degree of diffidence as my impressions are inevitably superficial but perhaps even those who disagree with my answers could use them as a basis for discussion!

Should the Cluster Remain as an Eight?

The majority of written and verbal responses wished to become two groups of four (and as I shall suggest, it seems sensible informally for the two stipendiary clergy to have responsibility for four parishes each, as is about to happen).  The clergy enjoy working together in a supportive, creative and good humoured team and a great deal of effort has gone into bringing the Cluster to its present position.  It is hard to see what would be gained by breaking up the current arrangement, not least because the resources for administration, youth work etc are likely to be greater in a larger set up.  However there would be no problem in encouraging closer links between nearby churches (eg, Devoran/Feock or with the current united benefices).

Does the Geography work?

Although all “rural”, the parishes vary in being seaside (eg Feock), ex-mining (eg Gwennap), farming (eg Stithians) and commuter (eg Chacewater) in background.  They also vary in churchmanship, financial stability and morale, and cover a very large area with little natural cohesion.  I can understand those who consider the present arrangement too big and lacking focus.  Each church wants to remain independent but most appreciate the links with their neighbouring churches as well as with ecumenical neighbours.  An alternative to the present arrangement would be for each parish to be attached to the neighbouring town parishes of Redruth, Truro or Falmouth along Minster model lines but if that were to be the case, they would inevitably be the poor relation in a multi-parish benefice, unlikely to have stipendiary clergy living in the parishes and with less say in how the benefice developed.  There is considerable benefit in being eight equal partners under the umbrella of a Cluster which is predominantly rural and where the clergy can value each parish for its uniqueness.

How should the stipendiary clergy be deployed?

It must be fairly unusual in Truro Diocese to have two stipendiary priests both under the age of 40 working in the same Cluster and with the support of so many self-supporting and retired clergy and readers.  They are housed towards the two ends of the Cluster and are about to take particular responsibility for four parishes each.  This will go some way towards answering the repeated request of each church for an identifiable priest not just for the congregation but for the community as a whole.  The turn around in clergy over the last few years has made it difficult for parishes to know who is “our priest” and, while particular gifts and expertise can still be shared across the Cluster, some consistency in ministry will be widely welcomed.  The curates will also increasingly relate to individual churches and this seems to be the case for readers and retired clergy as well.

How useful is the word Cluster?

I found the word Cluster rather ambivalent and was unclear whether the emphasis was on linking up individual parishes which were intended to remain quite separate (like grapes in a bunch) or whether this was the creation of a new unit in which parishes were subservient to the whole (segments in an orange).  That said, the way in which the Cluster was launched means that in this group of churches the word is rather tarnished and I notice that the terms Cluster Rector, Cluster Vicar and Cluster Council have now been largely dropped.  In the early stages there was a definite fear which has not all together gone away that the parishes would be merged (centralisation) and standardised (uniformity).  While there can be merit in both, my impression is that in these eight churches, neither would be a popular (or achievable) development.  If it is in the local church that people come to and grow in faith, where God is worshipped and pastoral care offered, then the Cluster must be seen to be resourcing and encouraging this, not taking energy away from those who already work hard to keep up expensive buildings and to serve Christ in their villages.

What about the deaneries?

The Cluster crosses two deaneries and although this sounds a secondary issue, the reality is that it adds extra meetings, diffuses energy and complicates life now that the MMF is calculated through deaneries.  One submission expresses it like this: “For us, being in a group that has no legal standing in the synodical structure has been very difficult.  We have to fall in with two deanery ideas about how money should be handled and apportioned.  We can’t instigate any changes which we need to make without going through the interminable process of two deaneries, two Diocesan Synod with bits dropping off all the time – until it is finally lost in the committee at some time in the distant future by people who have no understanding of the problem and no interest in changing anything.”  No-one I met supported the present arrangement of being part of two deaneries.

What about a Team Ministry?

This was not a question I was asked but is something which emerged at the formation of the Cluster, and now seems to me to be a sensible time pursue it.  Team ministries can develop in different ways and one such way is to affirm the individual parishes while giving the clergy a clear and recognised relationship as team rector and team vicar.  There is no reason why self-supporting clergy cannot also join the team as team vicars and in the present arrangement this would recognise Dom’s position as effectively a team vicar with legal responsibility for certain parishes.  The present rather messy relationship of various united benefices and individual parishes would also be tidied up in a sustainable team ministry. 

What would help the cohesion of the Cluster?

The challenge is to ensure a growing sense of identity while valuing the uniqueness of each parish.  The original Working Arrangements for the Cluster set out the composition and role of the Cluster Council as follows:

A Cluster Council will meet four times a year, comprising the licensed clergy of the Cluster, a representative of the readers and two representatives from each congregation (ideally members of the PCC).  The Cluster Council will be a forum of communication between the congregations and the licensed clergy team and will be chaired by the Cluster Rector or the delegated Cluster Vicar in the absence of the Cluster Rector.  It has no executive powers, with executive decision making remaining with the PCCs, the priest in charge and the Bishop as appropriate in any situation.

In the event the Cluster Council has largely fallen by the wayside and those who used to attend describe it as lacking purpose, adding an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and turning into an opportunity for everyone to have a good old moan.

Taking on board that experience, there is nevertheless a need for some body of clergy and laity (perhaps wardens) to meet in a conducive atmosphere to give some strategic oversight of the Cluster and to offer some mutual support.  Perhaps it could even have powers delegated to it by PCCs or a budget of its own.  If it was to apportion MMF across the Cluster or Team Ministry, there would be plenty of incentive to attend!

Similarly and given the extent of and appreciation for the ministry of retired clergy and readers across the Cluster, a quarterly gathering for them would recognise their contribution and encourage a consistency of approach to strategy and ministry from all who minister.  They are key people in conveying the direction of travel in the Cluster, not least because at present some of them have more contact in individual parishes than the stipendiary clergy are able to have.

Communication is another issue to address.  The administrator is excellent but can only communicate what is communicated to her, and some churches are better at this than others.  Email makes inexpensive and instant communication very easy.  There is no Eight Saints Cluster website to date, and a Cluster Diary recording village as well as church events would be a valuable means of sharing information and avoiding clashes.

The Key Question

In my meetings with congregations and in the written submissions that I received there were many anxieties.  These ranged from ageing congregations and financial worries to difficulties with service times and declining attendance.  It was therefore quite a surprise in conversation with others to uncover a considerable amount of mission activity and faithful Christian service.  Open the Book, Messy Churches, lunch clubs, youth activities, special services, Lent activities, Christingles, fetes, festivals, music and pilgrimages all happen alongside Sunday worship and the valued ministry of baptisms, weddings and funerals.  Each Church has a real desire to grow but there is uncertainty about how best to proceed, sharpened by the experience of having sometimes tried things which have not succeeded.  So the key question seems to be:

How can the Cluster/Team Ministry best strengthen the mission and ministry of each individual church? 

I suggest a number of benefits that come from sticking with and developing the present arrangements:

  1. Clergy Team.  The Cluster provides the licensed clergy with support and collegiality, and offers the parishes a greater range of ministerial and spiritual gifts than they would have in a smaller association of churches.  A looser and larger grouping of readers and retired clergy would expand this to the benefit of all the churches.  In addition, the present set up gives the right level of responsibility and support for clergy such as Dom, moving from a curacy but for whom the responsibility for a larger benefice could be premature.

 

  1. Resourcing the Parishes.  In addition to the resource of licensed ministers, there is scope for the sharing of resources across the Cluster in a way that can enhance everyone.  Some parishes have greater financial worries than others and could be helped on the New Testament principle of bearing one another’s burdens.  One church may have safeguarding or building expertise that could be helpfully shared with another.  Youth materials, resources for schools, training materials, Lent courses etc can be held centrally and made available as required.  There is scope for bulk buying and economies of scale for printing orders, candles, communion wine and the like.  Similar groups of churches have jointly developed a tourist trail around the churches of their area explaining the Christian faith through their church buildings.

 

  1. Family and Young People’s Work.  A recurrent concern is the absence of families and young people in congregations.  With an Associate Priest with a track record of youth work and the residents of the WAY 2 Project looking for experience in ministry, there is the possibility of well resourced families’ and youth activities across the churches.  In village life there is often not a great deal for young people in particular to do and here is an opportunity the church is well placed to take.  In my experience, youth work can grow easily into a confirmation class and the creation of an attractive peer group, though for that to happen those leading it need to be given the capacity and time to develop it.
  2. Special Interest Groups.  Work with young people is not the only possibility across a Cluster.  There are already retreats, courses and other activities which draw interested people from the various churches.  Being part of a Cluster makes it easier to gather a critical mass for other activities which no church could support alone.  Motivated people have the scope to develop dementia awareness groups, choral music, Julian prayer groups, gatherings for sewing or sports, walking groups aimed at those who do not attend churches … in fact the list is almost endless.

 

  1. Diversity.  There is no reason why each church should feel it has to do everything.  Within a Cluster one church can remain BCP while another offers lively modern worship and another is known for its children’s work or old people’s lunch clubs.  The particular tradition of St Day is respected, Devoran offers choral evensong, other churches no doubt similarly enrich the mix, though I detected little of a more charismatic or evangelical tradition perhaps because those wanting this travel to St Kea.  One concern must be the ability to maintain the current pattern of Eucharistic services (3 or 4 a month in each of the eight churches) when there are less retired or self-supporting clergy and this will need to be addressed by churches working out a sustainable schedule together.

 

  1. Administration.  The provision of an administrator enables communication across the churches and she also deals with wedding registers and relieves parishes of some of the administration.  The post has developed from being in effect a personal assistant to the Cluster Rector to one of developing new initiatives and being the “glue” that keeps the Cluster together.  It is unclear when Diocesan funding comes to an end but this is something that the successor to the Cluster Council will have to address.

 

  1. WAY2 Project.  The paper proposing the WAY 2 community in Stithians’ Vicarage sets out the relationship of the residents to the Cluster like this:

 

They will serve the local churches, particularly in Stithians and neighbouring Perran-ar-Worthal but also across the wider Cluster of churches as may be requested by the Cluster Rector or Cluster Vicar.   They will also develop servant leadership as they work in mundane and routine ways in the housekeeping and catering within the community house.  They may be assigned particular projects with the church and village community, perhaps focused on pastoral care, evangelism, youth work or other aspects of the churches’ Mission Action Plans.  There may also be opportunity to serve and gain experience in chaplaincy with homeless people, with a traveller community and in other social justice projects.

Clearly WAY2 provides a wonderful resource for the Cluster as a fresh expression which helps residents to explore their vocation and grow in faith alongside serving the local church and gaining experience of authentic rural ministry.  It remains a fragile enterprise but it is to be hoped that the Diocese will give it time to develop and flourish.  I have suggested that it can offer a particular ministry to the families and young people of the area and I have heard much appreciation from the congregation of the contribution it has already made to the life of the Cluster.

 

Conclusion

Whether or not it came into being through design or accident, the Eight Saints Cluster does in God’s providence feel an increasingly settled and maturing group which has weathered some anxieties and upsets and now under Fr Simon’s leadership has the potential to act in a more confident and integrated way as the Body of Christ in this area.  It may turn out that the Cluster has been something of an “engagement” for the eight churches, a time of transition and getting to know (and even like) one another before the “marriage” of a more permanent relationship such as a Team Ministry.  No doubt the Diocese will allow the churches to decide that in their own time!

To what extent does this provide a template for future groupings in the Diocese?  Other Clusters already exist, though not of the size of the Eight Saints Cluster, but establishing a Cluster is not an end in itself.  The Cluster is there as a vehicle to further the mission of the church even though it is probably true that in this instance the anxieties around the creation of the Cluster have consumed a lot of energy and not yet led to growth.  There are lessons to be learnt, some of which I have mentioned (and will take on board for myself in Exeter Diocese!) but the principle of larger groupings which can share resources and where clergy can work with colleagues must be the way forward in areas where church life is not strong. 

The most recent Cluster day was led on the theme of being “healthy churches”, that is churches which are marked by faith, hope and love, where the stranger is welcomed, the seeker finds answers, the disciple grows in faith, where worship inspires and the Kingdom of God draws near.  Healthy churches are churches which grow, and my prayer is that as the churches of the Eight Saints Cluster remain faithful to their heritage and embrace the future with confidence, they may know the blessing of God on their life together.