As old Christendom models continue to decline, the Church of England is scrutinising the role of bishops and other senior posts in a review which could result in significant cuts and produce more focus on mission.
Senior figures are concerned that the hierarchy is top-heavy as church membership decreases and some believe that as many as 35 top jobs should be shed, freeing up millions of pounds in the Church's annual budget.
Particularly vulnerable could be the Church's 69 suffragan bishops whose numbers have more than doubled in the past 100 years despite declining church attendance. The review is being undertaken by a top-level working group established at a private meeting of the House of Bishops in Liverpool last week, reports the Daily Telegraph.
The meeting was chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is anxious to divert hard-pressed resources into new forms of mission. Dr Rowan Williams is to give a keynote address on the theme of fresh expressions of church to around 300 delegates at the 10th National Anglican Church Planting Conference next week.
He is said to be keen to promote new schemes and develop "mixed economy church" with diverse ways of being and doing church as set out in a recent report "Mission Shaped Church", which was welcomed by the thinktank Ekklesia and the Church of England's general synod.
A Church spokesman confirmed the existence of a bishops' working group but said that there were currently "no plans" to axe any posts. One senior figure said: "The subject has to be tackled as a matter of urgency but obviously it will not be easy to bring about as there are so many vested interests."
While bishops are unlikely to be sacked, their posts could be left unfilled when they retire or they could find their jobs merged with those of other senior clergy or shared with neighbouring dioceses.
Critics of the hierarchy point out that in 1900 there were 57 bishops (31 diocesan and 26 suffragan) and about 24,000 clergy.
While the bishops now number 110 (44 diocesan and 66 suffragan), there are only 9,000 full-time parish clergy, supplemented by 9,000 other clergy and licensed lay people.
The average annual cost of supporting a bishop's ministry is now £160,000, taking the total annual bill to about £18 million.
The Church is already preparing to sell some of its ancient bishops' palaces and houses, which include Auckland Castle in Durham and Rose Castle in Cumbria, as part of a cost-cutting review.
The Church Commissioners announced in January that it would introduce guidelines to maximise the income from its properties and those proving too expensive to maintain might be put on the market. The new House of Bishops' working group is one of a number set up after a scheme to divert £5 million from supporting bishops and deans to new schemes was rejected by the General Synod in London in February.
Senior clergy believe that small dioceses such as Portsmouth, Sodor and Man and Truro could be swallowed up by larger dioceses. Bradford and Newcastle could also be under threat.
A number of dioceses were created in the early 1900s but none has been abolished in modern times.