WE HAVE SOME delightful euphemisms for money we pay to our dioceses. I’ve heard it called Quota or Family Purse or Parish Share – even Parish Scare! Whatever its called, its basically a way for parishes in a Diocese to share the costs of certain services which are deemed to best be done jointly rather than individually. For instance it makes sense to run a clergy payroll system professionally, rather than having every parish treasurer struggling with PAYE, National Insurance and so on. And its only reasonable to pay someone to do it. In fact the lion’s share of our quota payments is paid out in salaries.

Human nature being what it is, people in general are very happy to call for increased expenditure on anything – particularly if they don’t have to pay for it personally. Most of us, for instance, would cheerfully support higher rates of income tax provided the threshold was set just a little bit higher than our own salaries. Likewise in the church, we can be quite cavalier about voting through a Diocesan budget, but very concerned to see that the Diocesan system of apportionment ensures that payments fall to other parishes at least as much as to our own.

Most Dioceses are all too aware that quota has been rising faster than inflation for many years. The reasons for this are well known to those familiar with the dynamics of church finances, but in recent years there have been signs of lay resistance to ever-increasing demands for cash. The popular response has been to make General Synod the whipping boy, but the requirements of the Church nationally pale into insignificance compared to the demands of the Diocese. In any event most of what is done at Church House would cost the Church a lot more if the responsibilities of the Centre were cloned in 44 different places. With parishes being asked to stump up another £2500 per clergyman per year from 1998 for pension contributions there is little prospect of relief for hard pressed parish treasurers.

So what is to be done? We could look at the pathetic level of giving from our own congregations. In my own diocese electoral roll members contribute a mere £4 per week each. If stewardship and tithing came back into fashion there could be a spectacular increase! However before we invite everyone to make donations into what many perceive to be a bottomless pit, those of us who are members of Synods might do well to mount a value for money campaign.

The process of setting 1998 budgets will start in the New Year and we owe it to those who elect us, to ensure that we are good stewards of the money that they have given. There will be the predictable cries of “Wolf!” from those who equate any cut in budgets with redundancies, but I’m not talking about an arbitrary cut in Diocesan budgets, I’m talking about a thoroughgoing reappraisal of what work needs to be carried out in a Diocesan office. We need to ask the standard management services questions. What needs to be done? How is it being done? How else could it be done? Why does it need to be done here? Who else could do it?

For a start we could ask why we need all the Diocesan Boards and Councils. Is it necessary for the structures of General Synod to be replicated in Dioceses? Rochester and Canterbury Dioceses, for instance, have a joint Diocesan Council for Social Responsibility. Could not other dioceses follow this lead?

Somebody needs to ask what value is added to the Kingdom of God by the various non-parochial posts on the Diocesan budget. There is of course added value, but the question is would there be greater added value if some of the postholders were to be redeployed into parochial ministry? We could ask why relatively simple procedures in the Church, appointing a new Bishop for example, cannot be accomplished without the not insignificant expense of a coterie of highly paid legal officers in attendance. We could question why it costs so much to issue a faculty. If a conveyancer can do the legal work of buying a house at a discount to a solicitor’s rates, surely there must be a cheaper way to issue faculties.

Services offered to parishes by a Diocese must be perceived as supportive and enabling of the parish’s mission. If the quota is perceived as a tax on ministry, it will encourage all the wrong attitudes. At General Synod level too, the same kind of exercise needs to be carried out. As things stand the Synod has partial control of expenditure and has to live with the House of Bishops authorising some expenditure directly (meetings of the Doctrine Commission, for example) and simply sending the bill to Synod.

If the Turnbull proposals go through in anything like their expected form, this state of affairs will be exacerbated. Laity paying their quotas should demand that the Executive is more accountable to their representatives, not less. Turnbull deserves to be defeated for this reason alone, never mind the deficiencies in its theology and its models of the Church. So let 1997 be a value for money year.

The Executive will find it uncomfortable coming to terms with the new era of “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” but the Laity are increasingly being asked to pay the piper. Let their representatives use their influence in the budget setting process next year. If they are disinclined to do so, remember that elections for new Diocesan Synods are not far off. Caveat elector.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.