Church Crisis

The Church of England has a problem. Money.

The English public, if it thinks of the Church of England at all, assumes it’s phenomenally wealthy, and that the church receives funding from the state or from taxes.

None of this is true.

The church is at a crisis. The history of how it has come to this is long and complex involving mediaeval laws and customs, agricultural and land legislation, economic changes, societal and cultural changes, the impact of scientific endeavour, and more.  But though the history is interesting, we must move on from where we are now.

Funds come from:

  1. personal giving by parishioners;
  2. fees from weddings and funerals;
  3. parish rental and investment income, if any; and
  4. subventions from the Church Commissioners whose funds are also dependent on rental and investment income.

As a result of lockdown, church closures and economic effects of government response to the virus:

  1. Giving has plummeted. Although some churchgoers give by standing order or direct debt, more do not, instead putting cash on the collection plate week by week—which of course has completely dried up. Most churchgoers are elderly and many know nothing of online banking.
  2. There are no occasional offices in church at present, and in any case they were in sharp decline before covid.
  3. Church halls are shut, so there is no rental income. Income from residential and commercial property is significantly reduced. Investment income has been decimated by the stock market crash.
  4. Commissioners’ funds have taken a big hit for similar reasons.

Funds from parishes, sources 1, 2 and 3, go to:

  • Pay, pension and continuing training for all clergy except bishops and cathedral deans. 
  • Diocesan advisers, administrators and secretaries
  • Parsonages
  • Local mission
  • Churches, parish buildings and their maintenance

Funds from Commissioners, source 4, go to:

  • Cathedrals
  • Bishops
  • National mission initiatives
  • Central administration (Church House London, Lambeth Palace), large and Byzantine.
  • Subventions to dioceses to help plug the gap between what comes in from parishes and what goes out in pay and pensions. Such subventions do not close that gap.

Most dioceses are using reserves or are already bust. 

  • Liverpool and St Albans have furloughed some clergy. 
  • Sheffield even before covid was aiming to reduce paid clergy numbers by almost a half in the next few years. 
  • Worcester has asked the public for donations to pay clergy. 
  • Chelmsford has told parishes if they can’t stump up £60K annually, they won’t get a paid parson, and has announced that paid clergy will be cut by a third.
  • It’s acknowledged or rumoured that Truro, Hereford, Sodor and Man, Blackburn, Manchester, Newcastle, Derby, Leicester, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Southwark, Rochester, Portsmouth, and Guildford (Surrey of all places!) are at the edge or just tipping over. Others too possibly. 
  • One source who knows Carlisle diocese said that the only reason it isn’t bust yet is because it doesn’t spend anything – and as a Carliolian by birth and Cumbrian by descent and upbringing, I see this as admirable prudence.

Clergy pay and pensions

Consider these figures.

  • 1 Archbishop of Canterbury £85,070 
  • 1 Archbishop of York £72,900 
  • 1 Bishop of London £66,820 
  • 39 other diocesan bishops £46,180
  • About 60 suffragan (assistant) bishops £37,670
  • 43 Deans £37,670 (Dean of Oxford not remunerated by the Church)
  • About 100 Archdeacons £36,100
  • Ordinary paid parsons £25,265 minimum (about 5000 I guess)

Although the typical parson receives an annual stipend of just over £25K, the cost to the parishes is about £60K since the parish share also funds the parson’s pension and continuing training, parsonage maintenance, and diocesan staff such as mission advisers, safeguarding advisers, vocations advisers, and other advisers, administrators and secretaries. The church collects the money and passes it to the dioceses that then pay the clergy. Wealthy parishes that pay more than £60K in theory subsidise poor parishes that can’t afford to. Some do. Other wealthy parishes resent giving their money to an organisation that they disapprove of and withhold what they are asked to pay as a form of blackmail.

Since income from parishioners (source 1) has now dried up, the Commissioners recently loaned the dioceses £75 million to tide them over the covid crisis. Note: loaned—I’ll return to that. The pension is a significant call on funds, for it is a non-contributory defined benefit pension with a very generous lump sum. Furthermore, for Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons, the pension enhancement that comes from their increased pay is backdated to the year of their entry into clerical orders—this could amount to 20 years’ worth enhanced pension. That is scandalous.

Pensions used to be the responsibility of the Commissioners, but in 1997, after the Commissioners had had their fingers burnt, they were passed to the dioceses, that is the parishes. Parish income having now collapsed, the Commissioners will have to pick up the cost, and this will leave a big hole in their assets—unless of course clergy pay and pensions were to be slashed.

Sources 1, 2 and 3 also fund the building. Think ancient, damp, roof, structure, stained glass, organs, plumbing, electrics, heating, and more. Think of a building the size of a small cathedral, often to be found in inner city deprived areas, sustained by a regular congregation of say 25 people all over the age of 60. 

Remember that the vast majority of congregations are numerically tiny, elderly, and on pensions. As a result of the lockdown they have lost the habit of weekly attendance. Lost habits are hard to re-establish. Will they want to return given the anxiety that will persist about catching the virus? How many will still be alive next year? Another issue is that many churchgoers have loyalty not to Christianity, nor to the parson, but to the building and, in rural areas, to the graveyard where they wish to be buried with their ancestors. 

Why would these people continue to give to church funds if they’ve stopped attending? And it’s unwise to put any faith in online worship: it brings in no money, it requires web access and equipment, it is yet another task, and it is questionable how well supported it will be when people are able to resume “normal” activities.

Church Commissioners

The Commissioners fund, in short, cathedrals, bishops, central administration, training institutions and mission initiatives. In 1997 their assets were about £2.5 billion. After they stopped funding clergy pensions, assets grew to about £8 billion. As I said earlier, that’s being eaten into as I write: property prices and rental incomes are slashed, markets are depressed, and with working from home here to stay, rent from commercial properties is in short supply. And now they will have to take back most or all the pensions burden.

So far, then:

  • Parishes are in the red and reserves are being gobbled up.
  • Dioceses are in the red and reserves are being gobbled up.
  • The £75 million loaned to the dioceses some weeks ago won’t last long – it may already have run out. How can dioceses be expected to pay back this loan?
  • Prospects are gloomy.

You can see why there’s a money problem.

And I hope you can see that the biggest drain on funds is clergy pay and pensions.

What to do?

Closing and selling off churches has been suggested.

Who wants them? Few are amenable to other uses. They wouldn’t raise much cash given present property prices, and once a church is sold, it’s sold.

If they are sold, the heritage brigade will be up in arms: national heritage, part of the landscape. belong to the community, the people’s patrimony – all this they will cry. Morally, selling them to fund the religious activity of a dwindling sect is questionable since the buildings over the centuries were largely funded from taxation or levies and so can indeed be said to belong to the people.

Most significant of all, many—most—people are emotionally and atavistically attached to churches whether they attend or not: churches are community temples and memory deposits; they are often focal points of community cohesion. People care about churches and graveyards, but they don’t care about a resident parson. To them, buildings matter more than clergy or doctrine. Many clergy, and I suspect bishops too, find this difficult to stomach: they regard churches as inconvenient and expensive money pits and would rather worship in a warm industrial unit.

If churches were to be closed and/or sold, how would decisions be made and by whom? Many of the poorest churches are in the most deprived areas—the very areas where the churches do the most valuable work. Will the well scrubbed and well heeled of leafy suburbia be happy to see their money going to needle-strewn inner city parishes?

In summary, selling off churches would be a once-off; it wouldn’t raise much; and it would be hugely unpopular with a substantial and vocal section of the public. It would, truly, strike at the nature of the culture we have inherited. 

So how about reducing pay and pension costs?

  • Since all clergy will in future have to be paid by the Commissioners, change the whole basis. Abolish all differentials. Pay all clergy the same, bishops the same as parsons, and reimburse expenses in full according to the nature of the work. It’s worth noting that clergy in France, including bishops, get less than a half of what a C of E parson gets. Yes, French clerics are unmarried, but then most C of E clerics have earning partners.
  • Restructure the pension scheme to be more in line with almost every other: contributory, DC, realistic lump sum. 

Cull paid clergy

  • Reduce numbers by at least two thirds, those remaining being sited strategically in accordance with population or geographical factors. Most churches could be served by unpaid clergy living locally, selected by local agreement.
  • Stop – now – recruitment to paid posts. A few years ago there was a national drive to recruit more young people to the ranks of stipendiary clergy. This was immoral then, and is much more so now. There is no way that the church will be able to fund them for say 40 years, let alone provide a pension. 
  • All other paid clergy to take early retirement, packages funded by the Commissioners.
  • Ordain nonstipendiary ministers as required on the basis of local recommendation, and after rigorous training.

But: do turkeys vote for Christmas?

Administrative costs

Within one hour by road of where I sit there are five, maybe six diocesan offices, finance departments, safeguarding teams, mission teams … and so on. So:

  • Merge all 42 diocesan administrations into one central body, sited in the midlands or the north. Think of the likely savings and increased efficiency.
  • Dioceses should retain only pastoral functions.
  • Ordained diocesan staff now surplus to requirements should serve in parishes or use their skills in other careers.

Buildings

  • Bishops don’t need cathedrals (Lutheran style), so cathedrals to become merely churches with historic titles only (Presbyterian Church of Scotland). Deans, chapters, residentiary canonries to be abolished. Musical and other mission activities could – should – survive, appropriately funded. 
  • Fabric and maintenance of large churches and “cathedrals” to be funded centrally, perhaps with the introduction of a voluntary church tax (continental style) to support only the fabric (but not the activities within). Maybe HMRC would deal with this. Or perhaps, French style, fabric could become the responsibility of the state given the payment by the Commissioners of a suitable dowry. Unfortunately, available funds are unlikely to be adequate, and the economic and political circumstances are far from propitious.
  • All other churches to be run by unpaid clergy and/or lay minsters living in their own homes. 
  • There are too many churches, especially in towns, so churches could be offered to local communities. Unwanted churches should be abandoned or demolished.
  • Sell all parsonages no longer required.

Bishops and dioceses

Some say we need fewer, some say we need more.

  • Option 1: reduce the number of dioceses and diocesan bishops from 42 to about 17, and the number of suffragans from about 60 to 14 or so, suggested * below, on the basis of population and/or area and communications.
    • Durham, Newcastle *
    • Carlisle, Blackburn, Sodor & Man  *
    • Liverpool, Manchester, Chester *
    • Lichfield, Coventry, Birmingham *
    • Hereford, Worcester, Gloucester 
    • Bristol, Bath and Wells, Salisbury *
    • Exeter, Truro *
    • Winchester, Portsmouth, Guildford
    • Southwark, Rochester, Canterbury *
    • London * *
    • Norwich, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich *
    • Ely, St Albans
    • Oxford *
    • Peterborough, Leicester *
    • Lincoln *
    • Leeds *
    • Sheffield, Southwell. Derby *

This would run the risk of fewer bishops feeling more important with a regrettable further increase in clericalism.

  • Option 2: 
    • Increase the number of dioceses and bishops from 42 to about 150 – maybe each deanery as at preset becoming a “diocese” (do we need the title?). 
    • No suffragan bishops needed, nor Archdeacons or Deans since a cathedral is now no more than a church with a history. 
    • No fancy titles. No House of Lords. No pay differentials. No purple shirts. No clericalism. No establishment. Perhaps these “bishops” would be the only paid clergy.
    • Increase the number of unpaid clergy. Ordain on the basis of local recommendation and need,

Training

A difficult business, especially given the shortage of funds. At present there are nine residential institutions and a multiplicity of local part time courses. Some clergy are trained for three years full time, others (like me) for two years part time with a few residential weekends. There is no agreed national curriculum. Some students are grounded in New Testament Greek, some are not. Some are fed the arcane enthusiasms of course staff.

I don’t know what the future of training will be, but online learning and e-resources are essential. We don’t need so many training institutions, but we do need:

  • Standardisation with agreed curriculum.
  • Academic rigour.
  • Intelligent study of Scripture.
  • Instruction in basic liturgical history and praxis.
  • Instruction in church history.
  • Extensive e–resources in the widest possible sense.

And finally …

This is a great opportunity for radical action. The church does not need a sticking plaster, but rather a scalpel wielded mercilessly to drain the abscesses. “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

I thank many people for stimulating me to think about this, and am particularly grateful to “Froghole”, Rupert Moreton, Andy Sparrow and Susan Monkhouse.

6 thoughts on “Church Crisis

      • Yes but realistically that aint gonna happen unless a totalitarian government so decrees. We’re not at that stage yet. How about congregationalism? No dioceses. Ask the “parish” does it want the church and its maintenance costs? If so, give it them. If not, take off the roof and let it rot. Ask them if they want a cleric? If so, let them pay and house the cleric directly. But I’ve given up caring really. I’m glad I wrote the piece since it’s been niggling at me. Now I can let it go.

  1. I would retain the buildings, the ancient ones were built with money extorted from people, so they do not belong to the church, least of all a small sect run by an oil company executive. Let them be used by communities, different Christian groups could use them on Sundays

    Cease all non-parochial posts and start shifting parochial positions to non-stipendiary ministry. Having started again from scratch, with nothing, I know it is possible for clergy to start again. Redundancy would not be the end of the world.

    Disestablish as soon as possible, then there would not be the complaint about the burden of ministry that must be borne.

    Of course, they will try to muddle through, but the congregations are so aged now that the whole thing will collapse, anyway.

    • Ian,

      I am very grateful to Stanley for his extended, comprehensive and extremely articulate summary of the problem.

      You use the word ‘extorted’ to explain how the buildings were financed. That may be true, up to a point.

      This has been the subject of some recent scholarly research: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/church-building-and-society-in-the-later-middle-ages/DCEC5534C2B25F682CB7F778E4B0C86A. Essentially, the lion’s share of the capital used to construct the buildings came from voluntary giving, either from wealthy donors or from community events, such as church ales or, or from societies of religious laymen. Many artisan and peasants benefited from the work afforded by the construction process, and whole communities sometimes engaged in competitive church building: churches were symbols of civic pride. Significant portions of many parish churches were chantries, which were private sections of the building (the first class section, if you like) which were generally incorporated into the rest of the church following their wholesale abolition in 1545 and 1547.

      So, if there was ‘extortion’ it was indirect: the income wealthy landowners received from their peasants would be recycled into the buildings. It should be noted that a large part of the parochial map across much of Europe (and including the British isles) memorialises landholding patterns extant prior to 1000: essentially, a large portion of the stock originated as manorial chapels which subsequently metamorphosed into parish churches (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-proprietary-church-in-the-medieval-west-9780198206972?cc=gb&lang=en&, https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-church-in-anglo-saxon-society-9780198226956?cc=gb&lang=en& and https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Pastoral_Care_Before_the_Parish.html?id=EZPYAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y)

      However, once the buildings were constructed they were supported by two forms of parish taxation. The chancels would be maintained by the rectors (prior to the Reformation these would often be religious houses, and after the dissolution these would usually be lay landowners – impropriators – or corporations. The ‘rectors’ (whether clerical or lay) would receive the income of the greater tithe (i.e., the tenth of the corn harvested), whilst the vicar (if the rector was an absentee) would receive income from the lesser tithes (on eggs, fruit, milk, etc.). Whilst they would keep most of the profits for themselves, they would allocate small amounts for the incidental costs of maintaining the chancels. Prior to 1836 tithe was often paid in kind; after 1836 it was gradually ‘commuted’ to a fixed money payment (or rentcharge). This continued until 1936 when rentcharge was abolished, but there was supposed to be a 60 year period in which it was wound down (or ‘redeemed’); actually, that process was brought forward 20 years, and all remaining tithe liability was extinguished in 1977. The liability of rectors to maintain chancels has never been abolished, and this led to some unfortunate litigation at Aston Cantlow (Warwickshire) where the PCC asked an unwitting lay rector (who owned the nearby manor house) to fund the repairs. The Law Commission had already reached the view that chancel repair liability was onerous and should be abolished; the government decided that this is what would happen, but PCCs would be given until 2013 to enter the liability as an enforceable interest on the Land Register. A relatively small minority did so. This is to simplify the history of tithe, which was often much more complex!

      Everything bar the chancels would be maintained by means of church rate. Church rate was a tax which had no statutory basis, but it was a customary tax and universal. All property owners – the rate would fall to property owners – would vote on the levy in the ‘vestry’ (the organ of parish government, whether secular or spiritual, prior to 1889). During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many people deserted the Church for the chapel, but they remained liable for church rate; this was politically problematic (indeed it was one of the most pressing political questions of the age), so compulsory church rate was abolished by statute in 1868, but a voluntary rate remains legal, even if it is very rare.

      In Ireland church rate was much more problematic, as the Church of Ireland was almost everywhere a small minority, so you would be right to call tithe and church rate a form of extortion by the largely Anglo-Irish Ascendancy of the Catholic majority (or, in parts of Ulster, the presbyterian majority).

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