It was the news that a Church of England benefice in Dorset had 16 parishes that got me thinking.
For those of you not up to date in C of E-speak, benefice comes from the Latin for "it's for your own good". It's what happens when a single parish can't afford to pay for a full time vicar, rector or Perpetual Curate. (Do they still have Perpetual Curates like Mr Quiverful, I ask myself. And if not, in what sense were they "Perpetual"?) So they get requested to share a minister with a neighbouring bunch, and have to come up with some folksy name like "The Nightshade Benefice" or "The Rundown Group of Churches" or some such. Saves money, but that's the only bit of arithmetic that is beneficial - ho, ho - about the arrangement.
By the time you get to 16 churches, you're in trouble. If all else stays the same, that's 32 Church Wardens. 96 or something PCC meetings. 16 thermometers advertising 16 building funds. And, when the total population of the benefice is 6000 people, that's your problem. It's not particularly the occasional stuff - christenings, weddings, cremations, firing Uncle Bill's ashes into space - they're pretty well proportional to population. It's the administration, the meetings multiplying and, of course, the services doing likewise. And all the travel.
So always happy to help our ecumenical friends with useful suggestions, here's some ideas to help our rural Anglican neighbours, with one or two ministers scattered across huge chunks of prime real estate in our great nation's grain and oilseed belts. They're not a combined package - you can pick and choose, as they achieve different things - but I offer them for what they're worth.
1) Sell off any church with a congregation less than 30. The savings you'll make on maintenance, together with the chance to cash in on rising property prices, will pay for a fleet of taxis to bring people in from the sticks forever.
2) If all your churches have fewer than 30 people, you will now have no buildings. Pull out of the sale on the biggest one, quick! You're gonna need it. Always jumping the gun, you are.
3) Combine all PCCs into one giant one, with two wardens per church and one massively over important treasurer. Defer any discussion of building matters to the next meeting. Forever.
4) Only have communion at each church once a month. Tell the congregation to organise the other three Sundays. You'll still need to have mass 4 times on a Sunday, but with a bit of help you'll be OK. If they won't organise themselves, I refer you to suggestion 1.
5) Have a massive revival so the Churches are full and you can afford more vicars.
6) Ordain Everybody. Then they can always have communion. Or, if not everyone, maybe all the Readers, Evangelists, Local Lay Ministers. They've all done courses, they're all free. Let them be priests too. Then every church can have Mass. If all else fails, ordains a relatively active retired person, as long as they have the right basic theology. They'll still be more orthodox than some Popes. When I say "ordain everybody", I don't mean at the point of the sword. We're not Franks or something. Give them the choice.
7) Pray a lot.
8) Get any remaining local shops and pubs to offer special discounts for retired ministers. Ideally, move the benefice to the South Coast. That way, you should be able to attract some support for the incumbent
9) Get the council to massively improve your roads, so clergy can get between services quicker.
10) Shorten the length of all services to 19 minutes.
11) Encourage all Church Schools in the area to defect to the Unitarians. Let's see how they like all those governors' meetings and cheese and wine parties.
12) Realise the important thing is to maintain the status quo. The vicar must continue to be the centre of each parish. Without the vicar, nothing must happen. Leave the clergy exhausted, the congregations feeling their own parish is unimportant because the minister spends all his/her time elsewhere. Have the situation where, to fit in all the disparate needs, services are at random times on random weeks, with a combined benefice service once a month that wanders round the different churches, but only people from the host church go. Offer a vision of the Kingdom that is based around being the last village institution standing. And then close down later when the vicar, and the vicar's car, have both had breakdowns