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:
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.
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.
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.