MANY PEOPLE WERE SURPRISED when Basil Hume was named as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster over twenty years ago. Clearly it was a bold and imaginative choice to propel a humble monk from relative obscurity to the most prominent position in the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. Many must have wondered how someone with neither a track record as a church dignitary nor episcopal experience would cope with the glare of media interest and the massive pastoral and managerial tasks involved. But with hindsight we know that their fears were groundless.
Last month’s disarmingly frank statement that he had cancer and that it was “not in the early stages” was a jolt to a world that had come to regard him almost as an institution. His hope to continue his work until his illness prevented him from doing so, and his determination to see in the millennium were typical of the man. His legacy to his successor will be a Roman Church in England with far fewer fault lines than almost anywhere else in Western Europe.
No doubt the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England have their disagreements and their church is not without its unsavoury episodes, but somehow Basil Hume’s influence has kept them low key. One wonders whether he has not looked into his shaving mirror morning after morning and offered a humble prayer along the lines of, “Thank you Lord that you have not made me Archbishop of Canterbury.”
The Church of England does seem to have an alarming tendency to self-destruct. Having 40-odd diocesan bishops sounding off to the press on all manner of topics obviously doesn’t help. It makes you wonder what they think the Church House press office is for. The sad thing is that far from giving the lead to the nation that we yearn for, they seem to stumble into every elephant trap spread out before them.
Kate Watson-Smyth of the Independent looked into the Church Commissioners’ Annual Accounts last month. She discovered that £8.8m had been spent on bishops last year, compared with £4.3m in 1989. Those figures apparently include the upkeep of the bishops’ personal and office accommodation and the salaries of their 250 staff.
In contrast the amount spent on supporting the parochial ministry had declined from £58.6m to £20m over the same period.
A spokesman for the commissioners explained this by saying, “The bulk of the costs are to help 113 bishops who are employing staff to help them go about their work and as time goes on they are increasingly busy and have more work to do.”
He said the commissioners were legally obliged to pay for the bishops and for clergy pensions, the cost of which has risen steeply in the past 10 years, and that they did not have a legal responsibility to support the parochial ministries. “We have had to cut back on the money we give to the clergy because we are now having to spend £85m a year on pensions as opposed to £49.5m 10 years ago.”
Unfortunately he failed to explain why it was necessary to reduce support for the parochial clergy by £38.6m in order to pay £35.5m extra in pension contributions. There are probably good reasons why the cost of bishops has increased by over 100% in the last ten years, and I am sure that Dr. Beaver could have produced a press release which made a credible case to support this increase. It would certainly have helped Synod members to convince their Deanery Synods that money raised from parishes is being spent wisely.
Unfortunately, and here I quote Kate Watson-Smyth, “the accounts were published as it emerged that one bishop had held a champagne breakfast to celebrate Easter and that others had been criticised for their expenses claims.”
Julian Hewitt, a spokesman for Salisbury diocese, said most bishops tried to keep down costs. He said the Right Rev David Stancliffe, the Bishop of Salisbury, had indeed held a champagne breakfast reception but it had been a ticket event and everyone who came had paid towards their drinks. “The Bishop works very hard and very long hours and it is pretty awful to imply that he is living the high life when, in fact, he leads a very simple life,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “Everyone at Lambeth Palace is very conscious that our salaries are paid for by other people and we are very careful not to waste money.” Sadly though the damage had been done.
There was a quote from the Rev Edward Underhill, of St George’s Church in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, who said that while most bishops led a simple lifestyle, they had become too managerial. “Bishops used to spend time in their diocese doing pastoral work but now they spend a lot of time and money travelling to London for meetings. There is no reason why some of the dioceses should not be amalgamated as long as there was a good administrative team and then they could get rid of some of the bishops.”
I can think of a couple of Deanery Synods who might well vote in favour of that.
Perhaps His Grace will have to resort to one of those Orwellian New Labour techniques and issue his diocesans with pagers. That way Dr. Beaver could keep them “on message” On the other hand, perhaps they would just keep falling into the elephant traps anyway.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.