The Church of England’s future is threatened by a lack of clergy, according to the Archbishop of York, despite leaked plans revealing a move to cut the number of rural vicars.

Giving his opening presidential address to the General Synod last week, the Most Rev Stephen Cottrell said that a shortage of clergy would hinder the advancement of the church.

His comments come amid fears that the parish church is in danger of “collapse” in rural communities.

Last year, The Telegraph reported that rural parishes are struggling to pay their vicars, with clergy and wardens urging the Archbishop of Canterbury to “act now to save the village church”.

Just weeks later in January, an internal Church document suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for “radical change” that could result in the loss of the parish church model was leaked.

However, the Archbishop, who is leading Vision and Strategy – the Church’s plans for how to remain sustainable – is now facing criticism from angry parishioners after calling for increased clergy numbers despite the recently leaked documents suggesting he plans to cut them.

Revitalising the parish system

Speaking before the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, he thanked clergy and lay leaders for their faithfulness and perseverance in difficult times, adding that he was “deeply, deeply sorry if anything that has been said from the centre ever caused anyone to doubt this.

“Apparently, in some quarters it has been suggested that, somehow, clergy are a limiting factor on church growth. I think I want to agree. A shortage of clergy would really limit us. We need more vocations. That is my prayer: priests to serve a priestly people.

“It is the vision given to us in the Ordinal. It is also at the heart of the vision and strategy we will discuss on Monday: that, centred in Christ, the parish system of the Church of England will be revitalised in such a way that we will all discover the part we have to play in God’s mission, and find new ways of serving our nation with the gospel.

“And of course, it will come under the oversight of bishops, shared with incumbents.”

In response to his comments, parishioners across the country have insisted that the Archbishop is “dooming the parishes to failure” after angry parishioners pointed to plans outlined in the leaked document.

People want ‘properly trained, properly resourced clergy’

“What people want are properly trained, properly resourced clergy,” one said. “The turkeys won’t be voting for Christmas.”

The parishioner, who did not want to be named, added: “The Archbishop’s apology is one of those ‘if anyone has been offended’ apologies…

“Churches can run themselves like they used to if you don’t despoil them of their assets and strangle the life out of them. Some will go wrong – but you need to trust and enable people. There is no trust in the diocese. No one loves the diocese. They love their local priest (sometimes) and their local church.”

Another added: “There is an arrogant elite at the top of the church which is deaf to the loyal volunteers… It sometimes feels like banging your head against a brick wall.”

The leaked internal Church report, sent to the 42 diocesan secretaries and entitled Money, People and Buildings, warned that up to 20 per cent of regular worshippers may never return and questions “the sustainability of many local churches” as well the continued financial subsidy given to 5,000 loss-making parishes out of the total of 12,000.

It also said that most dioceses intend to “prune [the] number of clergy and diocesan staff” amid fears that the number of paid priests could be cut by up to 20 per cent and replaced with volunteer clergy.

In response to the criticism, the Archbishop said: “I stand by my statement that we need more clergy and we are working to that end.

“What is needed is faithful witness to the gospel, generous giving and then we will be able to support the church in every parish, and also start new churches.”