“Yet, approaching a winter where many face a bleak choice between heating or eating, some CofE bishops are demolishing community. Wanton destruction of the parish system by dioceses is accelerating. Parishes are being bundled into “mega-parishes”, across which vicars are spread increasingly thin, making weekly Sunday services in every church impossible, breaking holy habits and diluting communities.

In Cornwall, half the parish clergy in some areas are being cut by a church hierarchy appointed from elsewhere with no apparent understanding of local culture.”

Emma Robarts


5 Comments

Admin · 26 September 2022 at 6:45 pm

PLIGHT OF RURAL PARISHES
Sir, Emma Thompson (“Church needs to do more to support rural parishes”, Credo, Sep 3) lays out the wrong direction being taken by the Church of England. Our church in Benington has been asked for yet another increase of £1,000 in our “parish share”. We already pay £17,000, by far the largest item on our annual accounts, which just balance year on year. Where are we expected to find this extra money? Our vicar has five parishes and is rushed off his feet. It is vital that more resources are devoted to rural churches; it is not right that the latter, with 24 per cent by population, contribute 44 per cent of parish giving.

Harry Bott
Benington, Herts

Admin · 26 September 2022 at 6:46 pm

PLIGHT OF PARISHES
Sir, Emma Thompson’s Credo (Sep 3; letter, Sep 5) hits the nail on the head. The Church of England seems intent on culling its frontline ministry while refusing to look at the hefty costs of its own hierarchy. As she says, in 2020 the Church Commissioners, Archbishops’ Council and 42 dioceses had an investment income of about £500 million but gave a paltry 9 per cent of that to parishes. It is anyone’s guess what they spend the other 91 per cent on, because no one has yet seen fit to provide an explanation. Instead, parishes are constantly urged to “be more generous”. Yet we all know how much time and money parishioners across the country give to support the churches they love.

Emma Brooksbank
Malton, N Yorks

Admin · 26 September 2022 at 6:46 pm

PARISH SUPPORT
Sir, Emma Thompson’s Credo (Sep 3; letters, Sep 5 & 6) acknowledges that the Church of England has announced a 30 per cent increase in funding for 2023-25. Much of this will help to support local parishes as they serve their communities, including 35,000 social action projects, ranging from food banks to debt counselling. Her column omitted some important details. In 2020 dioceses spent £547 million, including £376 million on clergy stipends, housing, pensions and other direct costs and also essential support costs such as training future clergy, community and youth workers, and safeguarding. Parishes contributed £319 million, or 58 per cent, with dioceses’ investment income providing £70 million and national Church grants £83 million.

Grants to support strategic development projects in churches contributed £177 million from 2014-21, most of which was in existing churches, with the rest funding new churches. While many of these projects are still at a relatively early stage, I am pleased that outcomes appear to be in line with the original plans in most cases. Moreover, the article rightly highlights the support that parishes will bring to their communities this winter.
William Nye
Secretary-general, Archbishops’ Council, Church of England

Admin · 26 September 2022 at 6:48 pm

Sir, Our rector has recently been required to take on a second benefice; he is now responsible for 14 parishes. Rather than reduce our parish share, the diocese has billed both benefices in full for the incumbent’s stipend, national insurance, pension, housing and training costs. The rector now costs us more than £1,000 for every service he takes in our church.

Andrew Purdy
Treasurer, Upper Wensum Benefice; Great Ryburgh, Norfolk

Froghole · 28 September 2022 at 10:32 am

Sir,

Further to earlier communications on this thread, whilst I note that the Commissioners are increasing their subventions, these are to favoured and select projects. It is my understanding that bids must be made for such projects, and it is generally only the better resourced and more adept parishes which will be able to make bids. These subventions will therefore be sporadic, and there is no evident promise of comprehensive support. Thus, benighted areas risk falling further and further behind, with there being a risk of these schemes having a regressive impact in the aggregate.

Moreover, there is more of a whiff of the Lady Bountiful about the Commissioners’ increased (and extremely overdue) subventions. The Commissioners were, until 1995, responsible for almost 50% of the stipends bill and, until 1998, for 100% of pension accruals. Both those liabilities were passed to the DBFs (i.e., to parish share). The Commissioners’ assets were approximately £2.6bn in 1998; they are now about £10.1bn. Whilst I have no doubt of the Commissioners’ abilities as investors, how could they have failed to grow their fund at such a rate when they had liberated themselves (with the assistance of a supine Synod) of their major liabilities? It could be argued that the subventions are effectively returning to certain favoured parishes capital which has been appropriated, albeit indirectly, from the parishes as a whole via parish share over the last generation.

The basic fact is that the Commissioners’ assets have grown on the backs of the parishes. This has been a massive and regressive implicit subsidy of the wealthiest tier of the Church by the weakest tier. The folly of this has been compounded by the fact that, with the liberalisation of Sunday trading in 1994, the parishes needed to increase their investment in local mission to offset the impact of other activities becoming available. Even if parishes had there wherewithal to effect such investments, they could not do so in most cases because parish share demands crowded out the ability to effect such investments. The results of this are plain for all to see (as I have seen in more than 5,000 churches), which is that young people are as common as snow in summer in the overwhelming majority of churches.

Thanks to this ‘Himalayan blunder’, the Church is now in terminal run-off almost everywhere, and what must now matter is securing the buildings (financed by past taxation) for public benefit and Christian witness and worship. The projects announced by the Commissioners will not come even remotely close to offsetting the impact of this disaster, and anyone who thinks they will almost certainly needs a reality check.

However, the baleful decisions taken in 1995 and 1998 were a grotesque over-reaction to what happened in the late 1980s. Why did the Commissioners speculate as they did? It was because the demands placed upon them by Synod in the 1960s and 1970s became increasingly insupportable. Clergy were on fixed incomes, and these were eviscerated rapidly by the inflation of the 1970s; this, then, created an overwhelming demand for the Commissioners to index clerical incomes or else to enhance them regularly. The asset base was not strong enough to support these demands, to the extent that speculative investment became necessary. The bench, especially under Ramsey and Runcie, exhibited a striking complacency and want of attention with respect to these problems.

We now risk a repeat of the 1970s, only this time what embers of the parish system remain are in peril of being blown away by higher prices for labour, materials and energy, and by the demands of the clergy for protection against inflation. Yet the Church seems determined to increase the numbers of stipendiaries in the wholly misguided belief that increased numbers of stipendiaries will result in increased attendance (opportunistic and rather self-serving use has been made of the evidence collected by Voas and others in 2014); this greatly increases the risk profile of the parishes. This is despite the fact that attendance was in freefall during the 1970s and 1980s when there were many more stipendiaries than there are now. No, what matters is that the provision of worship and pastoral support is maintained, but this need not necessarily be undertaken by stipendiaries; indeed, it has been my experience that the quality of stipendiaries is very variable (especially relative to their cost), whilst non-stipendiary clergy, readers, pastoral assistants, etc., are often just as effective and are, of course, far less expensive. If the Church remains determined to increase the number of stipendiaries on current financial terms and conditions (with defined benefit superannuation) whilst prices continue to rise, then the clergy risk devouring their own parishes. Indeed, that was not only a lesson of the 1970s and 1980s, but of the period before the Endowments & Glebe Measure 1976, when many freehold incumbents sold their glebe (as they could do after 1888), because the loss of tithe and other income meant they have to ‘burn the furniture to keep warm’; this resulted in a devastating loss of acreage for the Church.

I have seen the future, and it is the diocese of Lincoln, where every church is being graded from 1 (full provision) to 5 (closure). Only a tiny handful will be graded 1, whilst vast numbers will be graded below 3. Indeed, the Church has effectively closed down across large tracts of the diocese over the last couple of years (in a diocese which had already suffered devastating losses after 1968). The diocese has a £4m operating deficit, which the Commissioners might cover subject to plans to prevent a recurrence of such deficits; that has meant the local Church has taken the hit. Yet again, the local Church must suffer, despite the fact that the Commissioners (who have profited significantly from their endowments in Lincolnshire) could redeem the operating deficit in a trice. Lincoln is also a diocese which has about £100m in consolidated glebe, including in areas of good pasture along the coastline, where some of the most devastating contiguous closures have occurred, and where a number of churches have effectively been abandoned by clergy in the last few years without closure schemes being made. The DBF, evidently anxious to imitate the Commissioners’ in keeping what it has, and doubtless anxious about its fiduciary responsibilities (for the parishes are different trusts), seems satisfied that the parishes will take the hit. An example of the baleful consequences of the neglect of parishes may be found in an area of South Lindsey which included the first ever team ministry (1949). It comprised some 15 or so churches, supported by three clergy, one of whom was also archdeacon of Lincoln. In 1960 almost 60 services were provided. Although several churches have since closed, the old team now has one priest, and there are now 3 services a month, most of which are comparatively short. Thus, more than about 60 hours’ worship pcm has been reduced to about 2 hours. Does attendance decline because of a lack of provision, or does provision decline because of a lack of attendance, or do the two tendencies operate in some sort of toxic symbiosis? There, retreat has turned into rout, and then to something approaching silence. Large tracts of the diocese are losing even their residuum of Christian witness.

Lincoln is a striking example of the Church functioning as a multiplicity of small trusts, the interests (and fiduciary obligations) of which are often in conflict with each other, resulting in a form of ecclesiastical cannibalism. What is now necessary is a major act of risk-pooling in order to insulate the Church as a whole against the coming inflationary storm. Collective insurance is always and everywhere vastly cheaper than self-insurance, and the parishes – being supposedly self-sufficient – effectively self-insure, and so dissipate far more capital than might otherwise be necessary if all assets were pooled collectively, and if the management of the Church was rationalised drastically as a function of such pooling (which would also realise significant economies of scale: a single national body would have the bargaining power to procure discounted labour and materials in an inflationary environment more effectively than a distressed and puny PCC). This task is now urgent, and time is slipping away, as the Church risks slipping into its final demographic endgame.

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