Why Leslie Chadd will not be going to the Crematorium

I HAVE JUST WRITTEN to some Funeral Directors to tell them that I am mothballing my funeral holy gear. “No more” I have said, “Unless it’s a really personal request, someone I have known. Or if you are really in a fix and just can’t get anyone”. They are none too pleased at this, and I realise that it cannot be of the slightest interest to readers of New Directions, but the reason for it may well be, if not now then in the future.

The Bishop of Portsmouth has issued an Edict on the subject of Fees Paid to Retired Clergy. They are too complicated to go into here, but one of the rules is that if I take a funeral service at the Crematorium or Cemetery I must pay one third of the fee back to the diocese. That’s twenty-two pounds. Moreover I must sign a form to say that I have read and accept these rules and will do as they ask.

I have been this way before. It has been a long-standing management moan that if retired clergy take funerals they are doing the incumbent or the diocese out of the fee. Would that it were that simple; the reality that I see is very different. The Funeral Director will phone me to ask “Can you help? The Crem is booking two weeks ahead, I’ve managed to get a slot provisionally for next Tuesday at ten, the family wants to get it fixed as they are coming from Glasgow and I am at my wits’ end.” “Which parish ?” I ask, “And who is the Vicar ?’ “It’s Reverend A.B. from St. X.Y’s ” he replies, “But I can’t get hold of him. He doesn’t even answer his answerphone”. “It’s probably half term” I suggest, for ever since I retired I have noticed a tendency for some priest to take every school half term holiday in addition to the usual quota.

And that, quite simply, is the problem. In some parishes the clergy are just not available. Nine weeks holiday including half terms and a full week to recover from Christmas and Easter. Add another seven weeks total Sacred Days Off (some priests will never, ever, take a funeral on their day off), stick on the same amount for the fast-track career-clergyman sitting on diocesan committees and we are talking Half-Time Parish Clergyman on Full Pay. Add on the problem of vacant parishes with no priest at all and saving the diocese a lot of money with retired clergy doing the work and you can see that the Funeral Directors do have a problem.

Of course there are wonderful exceptions. There are still some parish priests who earn their corn, who are always available for parish funerals and funeral visits and who think themselves lucky if they ever get a full day off a week and two or three days after Christmas when there is always a spate of funerals. And, have you noticed ? they are often the ones who do not get an assistant, perhaps because they do not have time to sit on committees and so, it is thought, they do not need one. But such priests do not pose problems. The Funeral Directors know they can always get hold of them and the diocese loses no fees.

When I did respond to Funeral Directors’ pleas for help it involved not just a lot of work but a fair amount of expense as well. One phone call to a bereaved family set me back five pounds recently because the only contact number was a mobile. The visit can be anywhere in the diocese, anything from twenty to forty miles return. It is true that the Bishop’s Rules say that “Full Reimbursement of Expenses must be made” but without going into detail of what and how. In the past I have felt lucky if I have been offered travel costs between home and crematorium, four pounds say, but if we are talking “Bishops’ Expenses” here I could rack up twenty pounds with no problem at all, what with house expenses (bereaved families sometimes ask if they can come to see me at my home), robes, stationery and so on. In the past I have never thought to do that because I reckoned that the funeral fee was pretty generous and could absorb the cost, but not any longer. And isn’t it just breathtakingly insensitive for the Bishop to have launched this topic just as we are reeling from the revelations about Bishops’ Expenses ?

Yes I know that Dr. Beaver assures us that we are getting absolutely splendid value for money from the bishops. That’s all right then. But I just wish that someone would tell us sometimes what value for money we are getting out of retired clergy.

Looking after a vacant parish for a year, claiming only travel expenses, can save the diocese many thousands of pounds in unpaid stipend. Not bad value for money . But lose the goodwill of those priests and the Bishop will find that he has shot himself in the foot. And what if I decline to sign the Bishop’s Little Form ? Is there an implicit “OR ELSE ” ? There must be surely or what is the point of it ? Incidentally it is the first time in over fifty years in the priesthood that I have been required to sign a form, apart from legalities, before I could be trusted to do the work for which I thought I had been ordained. But yes, the Bishop could withdraw my Permission to Officiate. If so, and here’s the really neat bit, I could not then help in an interregnum and so save the diocese money. So that’s a shot in the other foot. Yes I know that there are plenty of other retired priests, but not to do funerals . If Funeral Directors have a hard time finding CofE clergymen they will turn increasingly to the Free Lance Funeral Minister, anyone willing to make a nice little earner by doing whatever funerals are required, so the diocese loses the fee anyway. And it is happening already.

The Bishop defends his actions first, by warning that without such skim-offs there will not be enough money for clergy pensions. He does not say that Bishops’ Expenses may be at risk, or Management costs. (In this diocese we have three archdeacons where before we managed with only two. We also have fewer priests in parishes. Funny way to run a railway, you might think, when you have so many managers that you can’t afford train drivers ) The Bishop also says that it is not his fault: he is just responding to a nationwide urge to get a Common Policy, master-minded by the Archbishops’ Council (wouldn’t you have guessed ?)

So be warned ! It may not have reached you yet, but it’s coming your way

Leslie Chadd is a retired priest in the Diocese of Portsmouth