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:
- personal giving by parishioners;
- fees from weddings and funerals;
- parish rental and investment income, if any; and
- 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:
- 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.
- There are no occasional offices in church at present, and in any case they were in sharp decline before covid.
- 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.
- 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
- Local mission
- Churches, parish buildings and their maintenance
Funds from Commissioners, source 4, go to:
- 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 has 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.
- 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 generous lump sum. Furthermore, for Archdeacons, Deans and Bishops, 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.
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.
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?
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.
- 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,
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.