For the love of God, don’t sacrifice the poor.

An article appeared on 24th May 2020 in the Sunday Times purporting to be privy to a recent House of Bishops meeting, in which the new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, was given a national portfolio to look at the future shape of the Church of England, which could result in fewer dioceses and a reduction in the number of Bishops. Whilst it appears that this article is inaccurate and has been refuted by some Bishops (notably Bishop Philip North, Burnley and Bishop Pete Broadbent, Willesden) on social media, it is not that meeting that I wish to address, for it has made me consider what the Church of England might do, regarding its financial prospects, decisions that will painfully have to be made, unenviably, by the House of Bishops. 

There have been significant financial issues in various dioceses up and down the country prior to the pandemic, and the onset of this virus and the impact of the lockdown, suspending public worship and gatherings, have seriously dented the income of parishes – which the dioceses rely on for central costs and the payment of the clergy. Some of the dioceses, especially those that are less historic and cannot rely on ready to hand reserves, are going to feel the pinch even more. It is already happening that there are more parishes clustered together being served by a single cleric, or a House for Duty post is seen as the way forward rather than a full-time Incumbent, and we could argue until we are blue in the face about the possible merits and very obvious issues with these models.

When changes are made and it is decided if parishes are to remain open, it will be largely a money issue. The small parishes that are unable to pay their full quota in parish share will be the ones deemed to be less financially ‘self-sufficient’ – which is, of course, true. Poorer parishes cannot pay for their priest – and are subsidised by more affluent parishes. Surely, this is a Christian principle, one we see from the very early formation of the Church, where those who followed sold what they had, laid it at the feet of the disciples and it was distributed to those that were in need, as their needs required.

The parish I serve is in the affluent borough of Kensington and Chelsea. There is a perception of the area driven by places like the King’s Road, Made in Chelsea and multimillionaire house owners who are largely non-resident. But as we saw in summer 2017 and the fire at Grenfell Tower, there is a very different story to be told as you ‘cross over the tracks’ and take a stroll to the North. My parish is the 208th most deprived in the country, the top two percent of deprivation, a mere 15-minute walk from another deanery church that is in the bottom two percent. The wealth gap is enormous, the cost of living is extortionate, services are more expensive than anywhere else in the country so arguably poverty is felt more acutely and even if I filled my church with 150 people, we would not be able to pay the parish share in its fullness.

My small parish church is prime for closure, nestled as it is between various other Anglican churches. And yet, the closure of the church, or the lack of investment in the parish regarding personnel or the like will send a very strong message: you do not matter. In the time of lockdown there has been much celebration, rightly, of the swift way in which ‘the church’ has been able to get itself organised to offer online worship (though we must not overlook the many people, especially from the disabled community, who were already inhabiting that space, and have been for some time) – but too much focus on the online assumes rather a lot. That firstly, everyone has access to the internet – they have the money on the meter, the broadband paid (or even installed) and a safe home environment in which to access it. It also assumes that worship can be transferred to the digital realm with little problem: we can, after all, pray anywhere, sing in the kitchen and chant in the hallway – this is right and good – except when it comes to the sacramental. We cannot cram communion wafers through the CD-ROM drive. Online church can, if we are not cautious, be very middle class, casually ignoring the situation of those whose lives look different.

So when the Church of England comes to make some difficult decisions around finances and the affordability of its mission – to be a presence in every community – I make a plea that we do not sacrifice the poor on the altar of progress, streamlining and management. Don’t take away the frontline staff from those that need it most of all.

I would ask that the Bishops and those in the echelons of power, for whom these decisions are par for the course, consider the following suggestions:

Stipend

The stipend of the cleric is not a reward for the work that they do – like a salary – it is the payment to prevent them from needing to work elsewhere. That they can be ‘Vicarious’ for the church, in the place of those that cannot be because of the needs of the world. Since I was a curate sitting on the Diocesan Synod, I have been vocal about the preference that all clergy should be paid the same basic stipend. Whatever role you are filling, whatever the mission you are engaged in looks like. There is no reason why a Bishop, Archdeacon, Cathedral Dean or Incumbent should be paid differently, they are still being paid NOT to do the same work. Of course there would have to be expenses of office depending on what role they were filling to ensure that they were able to function. The Bishop is going to travel more than the Incumbent, that is just a fact and should be recognised, but it would do a lot to address the balance of power and the chequebook. Also, imagine the powerful image of the Archbishop of Canterbury taking home the exact same amount of money each month as the most newly ordained curate and how that speaks potently to the world that your worth is not about your status or productivity but about your very being.

Diocesan Management 

As an impoverished parish, as I scratch around for finances from grants and the occasional generosity of benefactors here and there, one line I am told often at training events is that we, small parishes (code for ‘poor’) should look at working together with other parishes to pool our limited resources and get at least 0.25 of a youth worker or 0.5 of an administrator, shared with our neighbours. If this pandemic has highlighted anything, it is that there are a number of roles that people are very capable of filling remotely. Does every single diocese need to have its own programmes of Initial Ministerial Training? If the Common Awards are supposed to be rolled out across the board for training colleges then surely the same could be done with the post-ordination training. Does every diocese need to have its own Clergy Discipline and Safeguarding team? I am not for a moment suggesting that this is something we can simply cut, because it is of paramount importance in the protection of the most vulnerable, but taking it out of the budget for each diocese and having more central hubs would cost less. It would also mean that there is no conflict of the pastoral interest of the bishops who have to preside over these processes whilst also trying to be pastoral to the very person they are potentially reprimanding. The Church has mismanaged safeguarding and the CDM process and this could be an opportunity to effectively streamline it in such a way as to improve it – in efficiency and cost. If parishes are supposed to share administrator roles or the like, perhaps the diocesan Church Houses should model from the front.

Church Planting

I am not, for a moment, going to suggest that the work done by Church Plants should be dismissed out of hand and that they don’t have their place. Sometimes, there is a real need that can be best responded to by a very particular type of ministry or, indeed, minister. When these align the results are wonderful. But I am concerned that there has been an over-correction. The Church had not done very much planting for a long time and so now we throw everything at it, to the next big, bright project – and that is at the detriment of those parishes that are struggling anyway. There was, for example, a large fund amassed in one diocese after the retirement of a Bishop; it was to be given to various projects. Every single pound was given to a church plant, a fresh expression or to expand the work of an already established Evangelical congregation. We need to look at how our resources are distributed. Once again, I caution, that many of the church plants that are to fill the quota (in London Diocese it is 200 new church plants, for example) are painfully middle class, or, if they are working on estates and in more impoverished areas they can feel like a parachute ministry – where a missionary is dropped in behind the lines to do the stuff, and then retreats back to the lovely, leafy suburb they live in. I don’t wish to be disparaging, at all, but as someone who grafts on an estate, I have seen this happen. How a lack of local knowledge and understanding does little to heal broken communities – and instead disempowers people and treats ‘the poor’ like a charitable project, making them ‘other’ to ‘us’ in an even more prominent way. If the same energy, enthusiasms and resources were poured into our estates and places of deprivation, I believe there would be much fruit – we just need the harvesters.

Don’t sacrifice the poor, for the love of God.

This is a guest post by The Rev’d Sam McNally-Cross, a parish priest in the Diocese of London, working and living on one of the estates in North Kensington.

8 thoughts on “For the love of God, don’t sacrifice the poor.

  1. Thank you. For reminding me as the rector of seven “small parishes” that this not only means the urban poor, but also includes the rural poor though for some their poverty comes in different forms – time, access, community etc (I could go on but few people believe there is poverty in the countryside). I had almost given in to abandoning my original calling to demonstrate that God is also in the countryside and look to reducing the burden, but this makes me think again. Church is more than the internet, the buildings say as much to people about God as I ever can but they use a different language, the Sacraments are “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace” so surely cannot only ever be virtual. Just like this pandemic, we have never done this before, so how do we prevent the church becoming a worldly domain of the haves, rather than a gift, freely given for the whole world and all that are in it?

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  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting piece. You make an excellent point re. sharing resources between dioceses and much like you, I find it bizarre and indefensible that some posts receive more stipend than others, given the supposed nature of the stipend (it’s always particularly puzzled me why residentiary canons receive an uplift, but the same really goes for any other post).

    I think the problem with all this is, even if all full-time clergy were to be paid the same stipend, and even if a significant cost saving could be made by sharing some back-office costs (and I believe some of this already goes on in IME2 for example), these combined would sadly not be sufficient to address even 1/10th of the issue, namely that most dioceses don’t have enough income to meet their current clergy costs. I appreciate that nowhere are you suggesting that those solutions alone would rectify the issue completely, but equally if we want to influence a solution to this which is a genuine alternative to some kind of highly unfortunate flat-rate system of parish share for all parishes (a kind-of ‘poll tax’ equivalent is being seriously mooted in my diocese, albeit with a few exceptions for the very poorest parishes), we have to address the whole of the problem and suggest a workable solution, otherwise we are open to the argument that such a flat-rate is the only solution that adequately addresses the issue. I commend your article and pray that it might be the start of such work.

    A few things that I feel need to be addressed:

    1. There is sometimes a tendency to think of this problem by dividing parishes into ‘poor’ and ‘rich’, whereas in reality I think the vast majority of Anglican parishes fit into a fairly wide ranging category of ‘just about managing’. Whilst it is absolutely vital that parishes in the poorest areas are sustained, I believe that there is at least some money earmarked for this and the change in funding arrangements for dioceses as approved by General Synod in 2015 should have made some steps in addressing this, though I am sure not nearly enough. However, the ‘just getting by’ parishes fund a huge proportion of their own ministry and have – in my own (admittedly rather anecdotal) experience, often tended to be the parishes to have first experienced cuts to ministry, which have often been detrimental to parish life.

    2. Your own experience is of urban ministry and it’s absolutely right that you highlight the problem from your ow experience. However, I think that poverty and ministry issues can sometimes be less easily-identifiable in rural settings, and can equally be less well-resourced or even discussed within church circles. If one has eight mediaeval churches to maintain, even with a reasonably middle-income congregation, paying for the cost of a full time clergy person is a huge burden, let alone being expected to subsidise ministry elsewhere. Even in my own diocese, almost all of which is within reasonable commuting distance of London, rural multi-parish benefices can sit on the vacancies page for 12+ months. Many of my cohort at college ultimately wanted to minister in poor parishes, but most viewed multi-parish rural work as not being for them – and that needs addressing. If we don’t want to forget the poor, we need to start thinking about how we support clergy in such benefices, but that too would probably come with a financial cost, which would need to be borne elsewhere.

    3. As a member of the clergy more erudite than I recently pointed out on Twitter, a big elephant in the room is that we in full-time stipendiary roles really enjoy rather a high standard of living, compared with the general population. Our take-home stipend alone is probably sufficient to place us in the top 50% of earnings. Once one adds to this the provision of a substantial, rent-free home; payment of council tax and water rates on our behalf; little to no commuting costs and a non-contributory pension, not to mention that none of those perks are taxed; plus the fact that many clergy families can claim tax credits due to the way we are provided for, rather than the extent we are provided with, our standard of living probably puts us all in the top 20% of the population. My contribution to that debate was to point out that, in the 80s/90s, the stipend+package was viewed as being equivalent to the wage of the headteacher of a small-ish primary school. I doubt that any such a headteacher, earning say £50,000 pa in 2020, would be able to provide all of the above and still retain £1,700+ pcm of income, as we do. Yet – again, anecdotally – it seems many clergy actually feel hard-done-by, and that their stipend is below what it ought to be. Given the above, in some ways I feel we’re incredibly blessed that our congregations are so generous-hearted to us, as it is. Asking them to provide yet-more, if they are already giving a lot, perhaps ought to be more embarrassing than it appears to be for many.

    4. As the article mentioned, there is an extreme disparity of capital wealth between dioceses, and in many cases it would appear this has meant ministry to the leafier counties has been protected at the expense of certain poorer rural areas and many urban dioceses. This is plainly inequitable and needs to be addressed.

    5. Although we must provide a fair system which allows the church to minister in all areas, rich and poor, we equally would fail in our role if there was no mechanism for holding parishes or clergy to account in cases of what appears to be considerable decline and equally we need, in my view, to be able to resource success and not be afraid that seeing it as such is somehow ungodly. Of course, such success is always difficult to measure but if we are going to exist in a world where money also exists and matters to us and our ministry, we do have to engage with such questions of when some ministry really is unsustainable and whether spending on it has started to become deleterious to ministry elsewhere.

    6. I have no idea what the answer is 🙂 but hope the above points don’t shed more heat than light on the discussion. Thank you again for the article.

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  3. I am very much enthused by this piece, and also by James Gilder’s brilliant remarks.

    In France bishops and parish priests alike get a monthly stipend of approximately €1,000. So less than half the take home pay of an Anglican priest on the NMS. In Italy they get a a little more, and there is a modest differential (of a couple of hundred euros) between bishops and parish clergy.

    Also, in France retired priests get a few hundred euros a month – almost the worst superannuation of all jobs. In England, beneficiaries of the CEFPS sometimes get more than they did in stipend. And, as Mr Gilder has noted, Anglican clergy do not have to contribute a penny to their pensions. Even the civil service scheme requires significant and increasing contributions.

    In much of rural France clergy are spread even more thinly than they are in England, and it is not uncommon for a country priest to have responsibility for up to 30 parishes/communes.

    The CEFPS is obviously far too expensive and generous. Yet, there will be some clergy who will be thrown onto the housing market at retirement without adequate savings, and who will struggle to find a unit even with the lump sum.

    Mention has been made of tackling the social care and care home funding crises by means of applying NI to all retirees (mostly DB members) who have incomes in excess of a certain amount. I wonder whether a similar approach could be applied in the CEFPS: if a beneficiary is in receipt of x, the trustees will deduct y, and y will be applied to augmenting either the lump sum or the incomes of vulnerable retirees who lack a sufficient competence to enable them to subsist.

    It might be argued that an arrangement of this kind amounts to means testing, or that it creates moral hazard by encouraging prospective retirees to dissipate their capital, or that it is otherwise inequitable. Well, there are lots of inequitable things about the CEFPS (notably its generosity relative to the inferior entitlements of most of the laity who fund it via the parish share). Clergy who haven’t actually had to contribute anything to their pensions can scarcely complain if they are ‘tithed’ for the sake of supporting their erstwhile colleagues who may not have got lucky with an inheritance or a second income.

    I am also greatly exercised by the future of the buildings. I see the ‘celebration’ of virtual church as a ramp for those who would slough off the buildings (even in a discounted market) in order to use the proceeds of the privatised stock to preserve their pay and rations (i.e., that what it is, in reality, is a zero sum game between churches and clergy which the latter must win). Note that many of the buildings have been paid by previous generations of local taxpayers: not only would the capital be diverted from the community that will lose its church, but the profits will be privatised by the present generation of stipendiary clergy and by the purchasers who are often able to ‘flip’ the unit purchased for an inflated price. This is immoral on a number of levels. Some might call it theft.

    The Church desperately needs to educated the public about Church finance. I have noted that whilst compulsory church rate was abolished in 1868, vestries were still entitled to levy voluntary church rate (for the upkeep of everything bar the chancels). Such voluntary levies are still applied on occasion (such as in the City of London or the Isle of Man).

    However, a parish rate will never generate adequate economies of scale; indeed, the sustenance of both churches and clergy by the parishes dissipates much capital and energy because it is, perforce, highly inefficient.

    Other parts of the national heritage have been exposed by the crisis – not only churches. The Swedish state still applies a mandatory church tax for the benefit of the Church of Sweden (disestablished in 2000) to all taxpayers who do not opt-out of the levy and, therefore, their membership of the erstwhile national church. Whilst we do not have a tradition of church taxes as that prevailing in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Alsace-Lorraine or most of Switzerland, we do have the precedent of the old voluntary rate. In order to make the support of churches and cathedrals palatable in the current political climate, why not have HMRC administer a voluntary levy as part of the income tax (i.e., PAYE and the annual return)?

    Taxpayers would therefore be invited to opt-in to a ‘national heritage’ fund. Also, there could be other opt-ins, in support of various charities.

    The proceeds of the revenue generated would be vested in a government trust and would be applied for the purpose of insuring, maintaining and repairing historic buildings. This would relieve incumbents and PCCs alike of the anxieties they have about what will happen when they move off the scene, and the time/energy thus released could be applied to pastoral work and mission. However, in order to receive this support, the beneficiaries would have to demonstrate public benefit, including by having a minimum number of services and by making the buildings open and available for use by the public and for parallel uses (there could be an appeals process if the parallel use were deemed to be inappropriate).

    In this way, the footprint and the Church’s mission to every community could be conserved, and the trust would be able to generate economies of scale in the procurement of labour and materials (at bulk discounts) which ageing PCCs will never be able to generate.

    The scheme would cover the whole of the UK, as parish churches are arguably even more vulnerable in Wales and in Scotland (where the Church of Scotland’s Radical Action Plan is in the process of effecting a dramatic rationalisation of the historic stock).

    Economies of scale could also be generated by appropriating parochial and diocesan endowments to the Commissioners. The administrative and financial functions of the dioceses would therefore be abolished, and the needless duplication of diocesan and central bureaucracies would cease. The dioceses would become purely pastoral agencies. The relative importance of the parish share would diminish, meaning that certain party parishes would be less able to hold the bench to ransom in order to advance their partisan agendas. Bishops and clergy alike would be able to focus their attention on the work for which they he been trained and for which I assume they took orders in the first place.

    Apologies for the length of this comment. However, your remarks and the responses above have been very stimulating.

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