Avon Ladies

That the Church of England is facing a financial crisis is no news to anyone who reads this paper. That the crisis is more serious than anyone in authority has thus far admitted will equally come as no surprise. That it involves one of the financial world’s most sensitive areas – pensions – is equally predictable.

The Diocese of Salisbury has recently taken well-publicised steps to deal with this mounting problem (a deficit of £650,000 in 2001). Its promotion video (made by the amusingly named Bluestocking Productions) is an education in itself. You should get a copy.

‘101 Donations’ (geddit?) is a game in which three neophyte clergy are sent out into the darkest recesses of rural Wiltshire to raise their own pensions.

Vanda Rowe (b63, d98, p99) is the veteran of the bunch – a ‘Vicar of Dibley’ after a fortnight on a health farm run by Cadbury’s. Her colleagues are Lorraine Dobbins (b72, d01, p02) and William Hughes (b76, d01, p02). Sparing Will’s blushes, these are the ‘Avon Ladies’ (after the river of course!) who are shown calling on parishioners to initiate the new diocesan programme of pyramid selling – two of them, rather poignantly for the purpose, priested in the very year the film was made. They are learning early the harsh realities of life in the nation’s Church – episcopally led, archidiaconally directed; but essentially self-financing.

The rules of the game are clear from the start. Punters (every punter is a potential contributor!) are allowed to ask questions. But no-one is allowed any answers. The aim is to show a fistful of pledge cards at the end of the exercise, pour encourager les autres.

This is an exercise embarrassing in its triviality. Yet the questions of the parishioners of Salisbury diocese deserve better treatment than they get at the hands of Bluestocking Productions. They are real and searching questions, which go to the heart of the problems of the Church of England. They are questions about reliability and accountability.

The fear, expressed in different ways by different people in the video, is that to give to the CofE in its present condition is to throw good money after bad. Is there an intelligent business plan which is regularly reviewed against actual performance? Have the hard decisions about the relationship between staffing ratios and property costs been confronted? Is the diocese taking steps to make itself more directly responsible to those in the parishes who pay for it all?

Sadly, they are all questions expecting the answer: No.

And paradoxically the questions were posed most acutely by the one person in the video who articulated none of them directly. A faithful soul – a parishioner of young Will’s – spoke movingly of her gratitude to God and her desire to be obedient to him by tithing her income. That she said, was what the Bible teaches and God demands. It was a moving moment.

But does it really, the intelligent audience of the video will go on to ask? A tenth to God, certainly. But a tenth to David Stancliffe and his minions? Hardly!

The matter of pensions (the very root of the crisis which is the presenting issue for the video) is a delicate one. Vanda is jovial enough about it, with a winning joke about the longevity of the clergy. But she must have spoken through gritted teeth or out of sheer ignorance. The essentially unfunded scheme operated by the Church Commissioners has been something between a joke and a scandal for some years. Young clergy – perhaps even Vanda, Lorraine and Will – have been in receipt of letters from private companies citing the vulnerability of the present arrangements and suggesting private alternative provision. Ironically, Equitable Life was one company suggested.

Nor is it clear that diocesan posts – the so-called inter-parochial ministries, which so seldom have real impact at the parish level – are being cut back to answer the crisis. The dignity of a bishop is often seen to be enhanced by the number of diocesan posts and appointees which surrounds him. But the provision, for example, of a single ‘youth officer’ for say two hundred parishes is questionable in itself. As a wag remarked at a recent diocesan synod: ‘If butter is to be spread so thinly on the bread, why have butter?’

It is hard, in short, to take the Salisbury video seriously. There is the flavour of the huckster about it, from the recitation of the General Thanksgiving at the beginning to the holy muzak and rural idyll with which it ends. The unanswered questions become deafening, as they are across the whole Church of England.

Since the Second World War the history of the Church of England has been the history of the sale of historical assets. Parochial closures and amalgamations have multiplied and ‘Old Vicarages’ everywhere are inhabited by Jeffrey Archers. The Durham Zurburans are under the axe and the Diocese of Truro is rumoured to be selling off its Deanery and Treasurer’s house. The mystery is that abject poverty pursues every sale, and that assets which were given to support the local church no longer even defray the expenses of an ever-expanding centre.

The star of this Bluestocking Production, however, is not a bright young thing but an old stager who ought to know better. Will Hughes’ Vicar, Tony Watts (b46, d84, p85), concludes the piece by suggesting that if only parishes could give a single per cent more than the required Parish Share the effect would be ‘liberating’. ‘It would transform our whole understanding of this Share,’ declares the gushing Canon, ‘from being a tax that’s levied upon us to something we gladly give and give generously. It would absolutely transform our whole attitude to giving.’

Indeed. But liberating to whom? The history of democratic institutions is the history of fiscal accountability. The principle applies as well to David Stancliffe as to Charles I; and as well to the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council as to both. Anybody who wants a Supreme Soviet has only to fund it indiscriminately.

And beside the principle of accountability is the other good Christian principle of subsidiarity. The life of the Church is in its parishes, where, so far as is possible, the decisions governing its well-being should be made. Bishops who have little or no direct experience of parochial life (Stancliffe, David Stainforth, b42, d67, p68 c93 C Armley St Bart, Ripon 67-70… ) are best kept on a short leash.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.