CHURCH bosses have begun axing vicar's posts and are preparing to merge parishes after being hit by a cash squeeze.

And the Bishop of Blackburn, The Rt Rev Alan Chesters has set up a task force to look at how the financial problems in the church can be tackled.

The extent of the problem was revealed after it was announced that the long-serving vicar at one of Blackburn's biggest churches will not have his post filled for at least five years when he retires at the end of the month.

Instead, bosses at Blackburn Diocese are to appoint a priest, who will be able to cover more than one church if cash gets tight or parish boundaries change. Church bosses said that because of increasing financial pressures facing the church they had no option but to consider mergers and a review of parish boundaries is being carried out in Blackburn with Darwen deanery by a special 10 man commission.

Similar reviews are also being carried out across the Blackburn diocese which covers all of Burnley as well.

A meeting of the General Synod in York in July decided to order savings of nearly £4million in 13 dioceses nationwide, including Blackburn -- which would lose £669,000. There are 9,000 clergy on the Church of England's payroll, and there has been an increase in the number of retired clergy who are paid pensions, which has brought the cash squeeze. The cost of retirements has already added five per cent to church costs.

The cash squeeze has been caused by increased payouts in clergy pensions because clergy are living longer -- and parishioners giving less money to the church.

The recommendations are expected to be considered by the diocese over the next few months and any changes will take effect over the following two years.

Regulars at St Silas' Church, Preston New Road are already unhappy at a decision not to replace The Rev Brian Stevenson, 67.

In a notice to the trustees of the church the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Rev Alan Chesters, has said a new vicar will not be appointed for the next five years after October 1.

Instead a priest will fill the vacant role.

A vicar would have been appointed by the church trustees and could stay in the post until he chose to retire.

A priest on the other hand will be appointed by the Bishop and can be moved to another parish at any time or run more than one church if cash gets tight or parish boundaries are changed. Another parish in a similar situation is St Gabriel's which has also been served with a suspension notice.

The Secretary of St Silas' Trustees, Mr Laurence Loft, said: "We are not happy about the decision to say the least. I can understand why the Bishop would do this, but I have to say we are vehemently opposed to it."

Mr Loft said the decision had been made because of the shortage of both cash and manpower in the Church of England and could affect the support given to parishioners.

A spokesman for the Blackburn Diocese said: "The suspension of the benefice at St Silas and St Gabriels are part of a wider review of the Christian mission with the Church of England in Blackburn and Darwen."

He added: "It is relating to the financial problems which all dioceses are facing and looking at how to realign our forces to maximise use of the clergy and our buildings.

"That could mean there is a possibility that two parishes could be merged. "

He said the average donation by parishioners was £3.60 which was not enough to cover expenses. He stressed the problem was a national one.

The spokesman added: "In the long term this could have a positive effect on the church as more parishioners will be encouraged to take an active part in the life of the church by becoming lay ministers."

Secretary to the Parochial Church Council of Blackburn St Silas', Brian Perry, said: "The Bishop will obviously want to consult with the people at St Silas' as to who this priest might be as we all want to be singing from the same hymn sheet on this. We want a priest who can become our vicar after the suspension is lifted."

Mr Stevenson said: "There is nothing sinister in this at all. It is simply in place while we await the results of the commission."