Want a Church for all? Be prepared to engage with the nitty-gritty.
“Don’t ever come to me with a problem again unless you can at least have a stab at suggesting a solution!” I still recall my secondary school headmaster’s voice resonating with these words to me, his least favourite pupil, in one of his more memorable moments.
Fr Sam McNally-Cross’s recent article regarding the challenge facing many poorer parishes (https://allthingslawfulandhonest.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/for-the-love-of-god-dont-sacrifice-the-poor/) motivated me to put pen to paper, not because I disagree with what he has written in his excellent piece, but more to suggest that this is a line of thought which deserves further development. Here, I argue that those who value the parish system must be prepared to engage with the financial realities of the Church. We must offer workable solutions to preserve and promote the parish system, because if we don’t, we risk being ignored or overruled.
The Church finds itself currently in a financial position that threatens its very role and capacity for bringing close the Kingdom of God for everyone. Fred Kahn’s words ‘to sing and live Magnificat in crowded street and council flat’ might seem rather hackneyed some fifty years after they were written, but the challenge of being the Church in every place, for people from all walks of life, is ever-present. If we believe this to be the Church’s calling, it is a considerable and demanding one. It requires prayer, worship, insight, and maybe just a smidgen of romanticism at times – because a little of that never hurt anyone. But it also demands something rather more tedious: practical application, planning, an engagement with the realities of life and – dare I say – occasionally, someone to mumble, ‘this isn’t working, let’s try something else’.
We face a recognised need to combat a long-term narrative of decline. As the historic assets of the Church have been eroded, first by inflation, and now by pressure particularly on pensions, the ability of the Church Commissioners or dioceses to subsidise the provision of stipendiary clergy has substantially diminished. Dioceses have previously sought to ameliorate this problem by cutting posts and encouraging laity to give more generously. The response to the latter has been significant. Dioceses developed a system which allowed poorer parishes to pay less than richer parishes, and most managed to meet their share.
The problem we face now is that parish share receipts are diminishing once more, and dioceses have continued to cut posts, often on the pretext that there are insufficient numbers of younger clergy available to replace those retiring. Whilst this might be correct, the issue is also a financial one. One only has to see the numbers of SSM posts being advertised to surmise that there might well be some of these who would prefer not to have to rely on income from their spouse or a second job. That problem, at least, is not lack of clergy: it’s lack of funds. And for laity with a long history in a parish, the threat of pastoral reorganisation always seems to be looming. It’s like a dismal game of cards: every time a member of the clergy moves on, the deck is shuffled and yet another card removed, with all the other players – ordained and lay – having to make up the weight.
To merely bemoan the above, however, would be to ignore the crucial issue. It’s not the case that our funding is miraculously provided from on-high and that the diocese is somehow being mean-spirited in reducing stipendiary posts. Rather, we must face the fact that, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, there isn’t enough cash to fund the level of stipendiary ministry that there was twenty years ago, let alone fifty. No amount of moping is going to change that, and diocesan bishops and their advisers have started listening to those with interesting ‘solutions’, because they too are tired of decline management. They want to hear something positive.
The key issue is that, thus far, most of the solutions which have been offered within dioceses have come from those who, I suspect, do not really value the breadth and depth of the Church. Whilst such people might think it a nice thing that there are churches in every parish in England, they also believe that, ultimately, the circumstances demand this model must be sacrificed. Why? Because, they argue, merely to continue as we are will not lead to growth and may end up with very little being left at all. This has led to an idea gaining traction, not least in my own diocese: the imposition of a form of flat-rate parish share. Almost no matter how wealthy or poor a church is, it would be expected to meet the true costs of ministry in the parish, plus another 25% or thereabouts for diocesan expenses. This is a rather frightening prospect for many, as it would undoubtedly lead to huge disparities in the availability of stipendiary ministry.
Opposing such a view are those who believe that parochial ministry is vital and that we must find a way of strengthening it. Fr Sam offers us some useful and practical ideas for how dioceses could economise, but the truth is that these alone would be insufficient to solve the problem. Much as he does, we must all urgently provide positive suggestions for how to strengthen the parish system, probably with fewer stipendiary clergy, and not merely rail against those who would dispense with it. In doing so, I suggest that we need to be sufficiently self-aware to identify some bear pits into which we all, not least myself, might be prone to fall on occasion.
Can parishes can be divided into the rich and the poor?
Some parishes in the Church of England are wealthy; others have no funds whatsoever, or huge liabilities. However, the majority of parishes are ‘just about getting by’. This broad category is largely ignored by those on both sides of this debate, yet it is the category that must be convinced most by our arguments, if we are to succeed. Therefore, we need to think carefully about what needs such parishes have. The sweeping changes to central church grants agreed by General Synod in 2015 were designed to remove subsidy from parishes that are just about getting by, and provide more subsidy for very poor parishes. In some ways this is laudable, but it is beginning to create huge problems for ‘normal’ type parishes, which received some subsidy before but are now facing a huge bill or losing their full-time priest. We need to formulate our argument in a way that is positive for the people of these parishes, because they are important – to the Church and to God – and are often the most put-upon of all worshippers.
Does everyone value stipendiary ministry?
Many people don’t know what a stipendiary priest does during the week. Some do not always value the less ‘active’ elements of a priest’s role. Increasingly there are alternatives for people to access when in need, where they might otherwise have approached their parish priest. SSM clergy are amazing gifts to the Church and often work long hours – this can sometimes lead to questions such as ‘why bother with stipendiary ministry?’ being raised. We have to recognise that such questions are legitimate and ought to be asked, even if we disagree with the implication. Yet, too often they are met with needless defensiveness by stipendiary clergy. We should be ready to be positive about our roles and to explain them to people who question. We must be prepared to advocate for our distinctiveness and worth, and for our place within the parish system. However, we must also recognise the immense levels of work that others – lay and ordained – undertake on behalf of the Church, being ready to praise and thank them sincerely. We ought not to bewail, as some do, the fact that ministry in some areas is ‘left to the elderly and those with other jobs’. We simply must not disparage these hard-working priests and laity in such a manner, for their burden is surely great.
What about the rural church?
Talk of the plight of the poor within church circles does not always recognise that poverty and ministry issues can be less easily-identifiable in rural settings. What remote villages lack in brutalist architecture, they often make up for in dearth of opportunity. In ecclesiastical terms, the extent of resources required to maintain eight or more mediaeval churches can mean that, even with a reasonably middle-income congregation, paying for the cost of a stipendiary priest is a huge burden, let alone if a benefice is also expected to subsidise ministry elsewhere.
Rural ministry undoubtedly has a low profile in the Church. There was little training provided to me as an ordinand on the nature and practice of multi-parish ministry (one session in three years), and surprisingly little encouragement from my diocese to try it. Many feel a call to inner city ministry in poorer communities, and this rightly attracts scores of the brightest and the best clergy. Yet, I have been struck by the highly sacrificial ministry of a friend of mine in his thirties, who ministers singlehandedly to twelve tiny parishes in an unfashionable and rather remote part of the Midlands. In so doing, he will never be vaunted by the church press or hierarchy. He might not have as many romantically gritty stories to share of his ministry as those of us in more urban areas (being myself a curate in a fantastic, but very ordinary, outer-London suburb, I hold my hands up to some hypocrisy here). Yet, plainly, we need so many more people like that young priest! We need to praise people like him. We need to be suggesting that there is great worth in people like him, to the brightest and best of our ordinands and curates. Because it is people like him who are sustaining the parish system, and we are running out of them, fast.
Even in my own diocese, almost all of which is within reasonable commuting distance of London, rural multi-parish benefices can easily sit on the vacancies page for a year. So, if we don’t want to forget the poor and marginalised, we need to start thinking about how we support clergy and laity in rural benefices and encouraging more clergy to take such roles.
Are stipendiary clergy too costly?
As a member of the clergy more erudite than me recently pointed out, a serious ‘elephant in the room’ is that many of us in full-time stipendiary roles really enjoy rather a high standard of living, compared with the general population.
Our stipend alone is sufficient to place us comfortably within reach of the middle mark of earnings. Added to this, we are provided with a substantial, rent-free home; payment of council tax and water rates on our behalf; and we bear almost no commuting costs. Unlike most people, we pay no income tax on those perks either. We also have a non-contributory pension scheme – almost unheard of in the modern world. Ultimately, our standard of living probably places us above vast swathes of the population. In the 1980s/90s, the ‘stipend-plus’ 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 per annum in 2020, would be able to provide all of the above and still retain £1,700 or more (per calendar month) of net income, as we do.
Yet – again, anecdotally – it seems that some clergy actually feel they are insufficiently provided for. Given the indisputable evidence on this issue, I feel we’re incredibly blessed that our congregations are so generous-hearted to us, as it is. If the clergy’s only answer to preserving the parish system is that everybody is going to have to contribute more to fund us, maybe we need to seriously examine our own positions. Of course, many clergy already contribute financially to their churches, but this is not the point. We cannot speak prophetically about sacrifice if we ourselves aren’t prepared to make a sacrifice too, and be thankful for what we receive. We must recognise that, even if our stipend were considerably less, it would still be more than most other Christian ministers receive in the UK, let alone Anglican clergy in poorer nations.
Are all dioceses equal?
Due to the historical development of the Church of England, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we have found ourselves in a position where some dioceses have significant capital reserves, whilst others have almost none. This has always led to a degree of inequity regarding the extent of ministry provided to parishes, which is now being exacerbated. This issue must be addressed, although it is difficult to see how.
It’s worthwhile, however, not to overstate the importance of capital assets to dioceses at the expense of income and cashflow. Compare Lincoln and Guildford dioceses. Guildford has very limited historic reserves, but due to high levels of parish share collection, it has almost no multi-parish benefices. Lincoln has vast levels of capital assets, yet has almost no single-parish benefices. Some of this has to do with settlement sizes, Surrey villages tending to be larger and more self-sustaining than Lincolnshire hamlets, but nonetheless – income is liquid, capital often isn’t. Just because a diocese has capital assets, doesn’t mean that it can easily move to provide funds to kickstart ministry. The reality is, we’re not going to get complete parity, but we needn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in calling for some redistribution of capital between dioceses.
Do ‘the other side’ have a point (occasionally)?
There is a danger of two silos of thought on the future of the Church dominating this debate, forever talking at cross-purposes and failing to recognise that they will need to work together to find a solution. Whilst many evangelical church plants have undoubtedly ended up attracting rather a middle-class crowd, Anglo-Catholics often fail to acknowledge that many of their congregations are also highly middle class; equally there are good examples from across the spectrum of churches which do not fit that stereotype. It is sometimes claimed that evangelical Anglican parishes do not care about social issues or are not visible in their communities. I’ve often found the reverse to be true, even if they do not talk about it quite as much as the rest of us do. Inescapably, there are very significant differences in theology and ecclesiology which underpin our actions and these cannot be ignored. However, there is wisdom in recognising that sometimes there are elements of good-practice on ‘the other side’.
Although we must argue for a system which enables the Church to minister in all areas – rich, poor, etc. – we would seriously fail in our calling if there was no mechanism for holding parishes or clergy to account in cases of what appeared to be considerable decline. We cannot be so enamoured with the blessings of priesthood that we maintain that any priestly ministry whatsoever justifies a stipend. Yes, it is always difficult to measure the effectiveness of ministry. Yet we cannot always fall back on the measurement argument because, if we do, the exigencies of the situation will mean that we are eventually ignored. Whilst ‘bums on seats’ is not the ultimate measure of ministry, it is nonetheless important. Not because we want to treat parishioners as means to the ends of our success or our stipend, nor because we believe that church attendance is a route to salvation, but because we believe that the Church is Christ’s body on earth, and that the people who are the Church are a crucial part of that body, to be built up in numbers and in spirit. This sometimes means that we will have to engage with difficult questions about when certain ministries really are unsustainable and whether spending on them has started to become deleterious to the Church’s mission elsewhere.
A final thought
In what is hopefully not a complete non-sequitur, my grandfather was a public schoolboy in the 1920s and I expect he was fairly typical of his generation, until his life was indelibly altered by exposure to the East End of London. He volunteered in Anglo-Catholic churches’ boys’ clubs, where he largely coached boxing (sadly none of his prowess was passed on to his somewhat feeble grandson). This kind of rather tough, no-nonsense faith might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it seemed to embody something that was both immensely practical and hugely spiritual at the same time. It was positive, it was go-ahead and it invoked meaningful spiritual change in people’s lives, but it also engaged with how people are – it existed in a world where realities, and money, mattered. I’m not suggesting in this blog post that we ought to somehow recreate the past, but what we do need to do is find a voice which is not defensive on the issue of decline. We have to be solution bringers. The irony is, of course, I have not brought a solution. However, I’m sure the combined intelligence of the Church of England, in prayerful discernment, will be able to do a far better job than I can.
The Rev’d James Gilder is Assistant Curate in the Parish of St Edmund, Chingford.