Gerry O’Brien deplores an economic system which rewards sloth

IT WAS BACK in November, in a Synod Insider article entitled “Of Chiefs and Indians”, that I raised the issue of how many bishops and other dignitaries the Church of England really needed. It is easy to slip into an ecclesiastical mindset and to assume that bishops and archdeacons and residentiary canons and deans and diocesan registrars and bishop’s officers and industrial chaplains and all the other non-parochial posts we have accumulated over the years are absolutely indispensable for the maintenance of the Christian faith in our land.

Until, that is, you look over the parapet at the world beyond the C of E. The first thing you discover is that most Christians belong to groupings with far less infrastructure and overheads. With a comparable number of churchgoers to us, the Roman Catholics seem to manage with far fewer bishops, clergy, buildings, administration and everything else – even if they do seem to be somewhat overprovided with Archbishops.

Whilst our parishes labour under huge burdens of diocesan tax (euphemistically called quota or family purse or parish share) most non-Conformist congregations pay but a fraction of an average Anglican quota to their bureaucracies.

The house churches and independent fellowships, which have mushroomed in recent years, pay nothing at all to anyone – though many of them do make substantial gifts to mission work. The Anglicans by contrast are declining, whatever spin our Bill and his henchmen try to put on it, and are investing rapidly increasing amounts in maintenance, rather than mission.

You don’t have to be a brilliant economist or an accountant to realise that you can’t go on indefinitely raising quota by two or three times the rate of inflation each year, as some dioceses have been doing for ages, and still expect parishes to cough up in full.

You don’t have to be an inspired sociologist to come to the conclusion that the laity simply won’t pay spiralling sums for diocesan bureaucracies that add little perceived value to the church’s work of proclamation, discipling and pastoral care in the parishes.

Our laity are definitely not happy. How sad that dioceses do so little to help themselves. In many dioceses, mine included, the quota demanded from a parish is a function of the parish’s income. It works like this. Parish A decides to have a stewardship scheme – and boosts its income by 50%. Parish B decides to appoint a full time youth worker and sets about raising the money to pay him and house him – perhaps £30,000 per year. Parish C, being a slothful lot decide to bury their talent in the ground and do nothing. When the quota for next year is assessed, Parish A and Parish B will likely find that their quota has been jacked up steeply whereas Parish C will probably find that theirs has been reduced. It is hard to find words to describe the iniquity of a system that so penalises effort, disparages mission and rewards indolence and inactivity.

The diocese will happily siphon off money from all its parishes to feed the diocesan machine that is always demanding more staff, more budgets, more bishops, more archdeacons – in short all the things that parishes could most easily manage without.

I guess it makes sense to have a Board of Social Responsibility at Church House in Westminster. When moral questions arise in the life of the nation the Church needs someone to make informed comment and articulate the Christian view on an issue. That surely is the irreducible minimum if we are to be salt and light in our society.

It is clearly desirable to have a body that addresses mission issues centrally, but why do we have to pay for forty three bodies to reproduce much of the work locally?

Back in November I asked the question why Chester diocese was able to serve its 48600 electoral roll members with three bishops, two archdeacons and one diocesan office, whilst Newcastle and Durham dioceses combined found serving their 44900 electoral members required four bishops, five archdeacons and two diocesan offices.

In 1997, the latest year for which I have figures available, there were 114 confirmation services in Chester diocese. In Newcastle and Durham there were a total of 97. If bishops in the north west can each manage 38 confirmations a year, how come the bishops in the north east can only do 24?

Is it possible that the quota payers in the north east are paying through their noses for a structure that they don’t really need and are reluctant to afford? In 1999 I understand that out of the 254 parishes in the Diocese of Durham no fewer than 83 defaulted on their quota. When over 30% of parishes don’t pay their quota in full it must surely be a sign that the wheels are coming off the cart. I don’t know what the Chairman of the Board of Finance can say to mollify his bank manager about the £478,000 shortfall, but trying to claw it back by upping the quota by an extra £2000 per parish next year, or hoping that the Church Commissioners’ cavalry will come galloping to the rescue, doesn’t strike me as being a particularly credible strategy.

Every diocese employs a Diocesan Secretary at a salary of at least £40,000 per year, and probably quite a lot more than that. So why do we indulge in the luxury of dioceses in Bradford and Ripon/Leeds serving 32,000 electoral roll members between them, Leicester and Peterborough serving 35,600 electoral roll members, Birmingham and Coventry serving 37,000 electoral roll members, whilst five dioceses have over 50,000 electoral roll members? The average quota payer in Oxford clearly pays far less towards his Diocesan Secretary than an average quota payer in Birmingham.

When the new General Synod meets in the Autumn, we really need to grasp this nettle. We need to go back to first principles and ask what structures the church needs to be equipped to fulfil the great commission, rather than to perpetuate ecclesiastical infrastructure. The Archbishop’s Council is already asking a lot of the right questions, but there will inevitably be howls of anguish when somebody tries to take the knife to some cherished fiefdom. One of my colleagues on Synod told me a long time ago that the Church of England found it very easy to extend work into a new field, but it found it very difficult to close down valuable work in order to give priority to work that was even more valuable.

It is very likely that we shall find that it is cheaper, more effective and more efficient to do some things centrally rather than in forty three different places – and that won’t be popular in forty three places. It is likely that we shall have to give the Dioceses Commission some real teeth. At the moment, it is quite impotent, merely being able to give its blessing to things that diocesan bishops are minded to do. Someone needs to blow the whistle on the Church of England’s rotten boroughs. We simply cannot afford to go on cutting mission to indulge ourselves in maintenance. We have an ancient structure that has never really come to terms with the twentieth century, but in case nobody at Bishopscourt has noticed, it is already too late to catch up with the twentieth century – the twenty-first century is already breathing down our necks!.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod and a member of the Bishop’s Council in the diocese of Rochester.