Around 10,000 new churches and communities without vicars could be established under controversial new plans to attract more congregants.

The proposals, which cover the next decade, are among the ambitious targets to be discussed at General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, which will begin its sessions on Friday.

However, the plans have sparked debate among bishops and Christians across the country, who have criticised them as a "cost-cutting" exercise, arguing that lay people – who are not ordained – are no substitute for parish priests. 

Their comments come as Church leaders are trying to recruit new churchgoers amid a declining number of congregants.

Most key measures of church attendance fell by between 15 and 20 per cent from 2009 to 2019, and a median church has an average weekly attendance of 31. For one quarter of churches, this figure is 11.

Blueprint for the future

On July 19, the Archbishop of York, the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, will deliver an update on Vision and Strategy, his blueprint for the Church’s future over the next decade.

Last year, he drew criticism for his project amid accusations that he was "dismantling the parish church system", despite his stated aim being to "expand, reimagine and revitalise" it. 

However, under the latest church plans outlined in a General Synod paper entitled, "Simpler, Humbler, Bolder", officials reiterated the aims for "a revitalised parish system within which new and inherited worshipping communities flourish together". 

"We think this could result in 10,000 new communities starting by 2030, reaching people in all spheres of their life – home and local community, work and education, social and digital," the paper reads. 

"To do this would mean that most churches and all dioceses would start something new to reach people in their contexts."

‘Groovy’ churches

This is the first time that the Church of England has put a number on the amount of new religious churches, groups and communities it hopes to establish. It also builds on the concept of "fresh expressions of church", which are non-traditional church gatherings. 

Responding to the proposals, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, former bishop of Rochester, said: "It’s important to have ordained ministry in every church. We need their leadership, faith, and ability to liaise with the wider church."

One rural parish volunteer, who did not want to be named, added: "There is some success in groovy, evangelical churches. But we don’t know if that will last, and you can’t do it at the expense of traditional parishes if you don’t want to lose the rural communities. This plan is basically condemning the parishes to die."

Further detail regarding the 10,000 new churches was provided at last week’s MultiplyX 2021 church-planting conference, held online by the Bishop of Islington, the Rt Rev Ric Thorpe. 

The initiative has been given the title "Myriad", and is led by Canon John McGinley, a priest in the diocese of Leicester, who is also head of church-planting development at New Wine, a network of Christian churches.

‘Tight’ definition of a church

In his talk, reported by The Church Times, Canon McGinley described "Myriad" as a vision that people could join, rather than a project or initiative. 

He said that many of the 10,000 churches would start small, and some would remain as 20 or 30 people meeting in a home. 

But the definition of a church was "tight", he said, adding that it must proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, have regular worship, be open to everyone and sacramental, and have more than 20 people.

In response to the criticism, Dave Male, the Church of England’s head of evangelism and discipleship, said that the General Synod paper "does not specify 10,000 lay-led churches". 

Asked if the new 10,000 communities would be churches which are not led by a member of the clergy, he said: "Not necessarily", adding: "We expect that most of these new groups will arise from existing parishes and so would be under the oversight of clergy, even if meetings are not directly led by the parish priest. 

"It is similar to how at the moment a church youth group might be led by the youth worker not the vicar, but still under his or her oversight."