I've been doing a bit of research on the Sheffield formula, and thinking about the implications of it (and I'm aware of coming late to the party so if people know of good discussions of this elsewhere, I'd be grateful for pointers in the comments). For those in a blissful state of non-initiation into the arcane mysteries, the Sheffield formula is a way of calculating how clergy should be deployed. It was developed by the eponymous Bishop in a report published in the mid-1970s and takes four factors into account: local population, area, church buildings and church membership. To quote Gordon Kuhrt, "The greatest emphasis was given to population and reflected the priority given to the idea of the Church ministering to the whole nation, not just to its members."
I'm coming to see that decision as possibly the prime disaster of the post-war church, principally in terms of mission. A few bullet points on the dimensions of that disaster:
- Where population is given that strong weight, there is no direct link between staffing and growth (or diminishment) of the congregation.
- There isn't even a direct link between population and workload, for the missing link between them is culture - a smaller population of more traditional culture will likely generate a larger workload for clergy than a larger population that is completely secular.
- It can cosset comfortable churches and set ceilings to growth, making it very difficult to reinforce success.
- It entrenches centralised management of resources rather than enabling local initiative.
- It confuses the mission of the church with maintenance of the status quo (that is, it equates the former with the latter) - and the status quo that was assumed in the mid-1970s is very far from being a healthy assumption to make about the church in the 2010s.
In my view the central diocese should step back from making such determinations, and hand over the responsibility for funding clergy to the parishes themselves, supplemented by a mission fund to support churches in more vulnerable areas. Failing that, we could at least shift to a system that excluded population from consideration, and tied the deployment of clergy directly to the size of congregations.
However, there is one aspect of population that I think would make a useful measure. There is, presumably, an average figure for how many from a local population are likely to become part of an Anglican church - let's say that it's 2.5% for ease - so for every 1,000 population we might expect a congregation of 25 people. We might then set up a system whereby any church which has a congregation of between 2% and 3% of the local population is considered 'average'; those with a congregation of less than 2% are less than average, those with more than 3% are more than average. This would give a rough and ready guide to how churches are doing (and obviously, other factors would need to be taken into account, along the same lines of the 'culture' mentioned earlier. Mission posts would not be expected to be 'average'!)
At the moment, a town of 20,000 people with a single church might have one that seemed to be thriving, with a church membership of 300 and all sorts of activities and services, whereas a small village with a population of less than 500 might seem to be failing, with a church membership of 16 - yet the latter would be 'above average' and the former quite significantly below. A formula for deploying clergy that places emphasis upon population will never challenge the former to grow, and will continue to reduce the resources available to the latter despite their progress in advancing the cause of the Kingdom.