Robbie Low examines the implications of the recent report on bishops’ expenses

There are moments when I wish I had followed Princess Diana’s example and had the word ‘obey’ omitted from the marriage service. Your editor, to whom I am thus sacramentally related, seems to entertain the idea that the ‘O’ word was part of my promise to her. So, when the tasks were handed out last month, I heard, ‘You’re our Reports man, and brought us within an ace of the courts on your bishops’ expenses articles. You can write up the ‘Mellows’ Report’. The sight of humble obedience coupled with the sound of short straws being drawn was, in my view, received with unnecessary enthusiasm by fellow members of the Editorial Board.

Never mind, I thought, the Perry report had been a rattling good read, perhaps I was getting the hang of Church of England officialdom and would enjoy this one too. So innocent!

Dear reader, bear with me. It is not that the report, Resourcing Bishops, is a bad one; it is just… well… too much. It attempts to be encyclopaedic. So detailed does it attempt to be that you expect to discover that episcopal cucumber sandwiches will henceforth be smeared with Anchor rather than Kerrygold. And it is so long. Two hundred and eighty pages must afford a cure for the most ferocious insomniac. And, wait for it: this is just Volume One! There is another whole opus in preparation, dedicated to the needs of the Archbishops alone. That, one is tempted to assume, will not be counted so much as weighed.

Warning Shot

But let us go back a bit.

Three years ago the bishops were presented, by their civil servants, with an uncomfortable document, rejoicing under the modestly anonymous title of Appendix 4. It was a list of every bishop’s expenses claim, broken-down into constituent parts (though no names were attached to the columns). It was the first sight any bishop had ever had of how his colleagues spent the Church’s money. As that expenditure had doubled during the nineties and was shortly projected, with episcopal housing costs and stipends, to overtake the Church Commissioners’ total spending on the parishes of England, it was political dynamite and a clear warning shot across the bows of the big spenders. For a year Appendix 4 eluded the hands of the press, until one fateful Monday in October 1999 when Jonathan Petre (The Sunday Telegraph) and I became simultaneously (and, strange to say) from totally different sources, proud possessors of ‘A4’, as we came to call it.

We met and compared intelligences, knowing full well that Jonathan, being a ‘national’ and a ‘weekly’, would get the scoop. This, as luck would have it, worked in New Directions’ favour because, once Jonathan had published, additional information came our way from those who had hesitated to speak before these matters were in the public domain. By the time we published we were in a position to make life acutely embarrassing for several leading bishops. We chose not to do so, but restricted ourselves to the case for general reform arising from ‘A4’ itself. Our reward for reticence was the threat of legal action, by the establishment, under the Data Protection Act. I need hardly tell you that The Sunday Telegraph received no such threats.

Bizarre and amusing as these persistent public relations own goals by the authorities were, they did underline the major and all too familiar problems we were facing as a Church – secrecy masquerading as confidentiality and a complete lack of accountability.

Our case was not that the bishops (and their wives) don’t work hard, or that they were all on the fiddle. It was simply that, like ordinary clergy, their costs should be attributable and in the public domain. Only then could the Church make an assessment of whether that money was being spent wisely and how much more we could afford to spend, from rapidly dwindling resources, on a hierarchy that has continued to grow while Church attendance and parish priest numbers have severely declined. Transparency, we believe, aids understanding – which, in turn, engenders confidence.

A Curious Definition

It was in this atmosphere of free and frank discussion that the Mellows Committee (Chairman: Professor Anthony Mellows – Law, Kings College, London) met to produce their mighty work.

The report opens with a summary of its recommendations, 108 of them! We are then treated to a survey of the earliest development of episcopacy by the former Bishop of Norwich, Peter Nott. This is thin and written with half an eye on avoiding embarrassment for the Church of England. Careful, in the wake of Porvoo, not to put too much weight on Apostolic Succession by laying on of hands, it defines ecclesiology as ‘the way the Church of England does things’ and adds a weighty threefold disclaimer from any recommendations which might change that ecclesiology.

Would that Brother Nott and his colleagues had been so cautious in weightier matters in 1992.

At the other end of the report is ‘a theology of episcopacy’ by the former Bishop of Ely, Stephen Sykes. It is difficult not to see such writings from recently retired bishops as an apologia for their own ministries and it is, I find, a sure provocation to turn back to the Book of Common Prayer and the Fathers.

There is a useful chapter on the legal role of bishops by Peter Beesley, their senior legal man, which, in passing, reminds us how fragile the Act of Synod is and how scarcely tolerant of it most bishops are.

Accountable To Whom?

But what, I hear you cry, about the cash? Our cash? The Church’s cash?

Here a little opacity intervenes. I give you recommendation No. 1 in full: ‘The provision of all resources should be measured against standard principles.’

We are referred to Chapter 9 where we learn that a bishop should have what he ‘needs’ and such needs should be determined ‘ objectively’. He will be able to determine that need according to his various ‘gifts and skills’. (In a frivolous moment, wrestling with this worthy verbiage, I picture a particularly gifted episcopal juggler putting in for a set of Indian clubs to enhance his street theatre evangelism.)

It should be ‘cost-effective’, simple, properly categorised and, wait for it, ‘accountable’.

Before you throw your hat in the air and celebrate old Mellows’ perspicacity, it then adds ‘primarily to the Commissioners but, where applicable, to the Diocesan Board of Finance’. So no progress there then. The poor old punter in the pew (or in the pulpit) is no more likely to know whether his bishop is a wise virgin or a wastrel than before.

Excitement mounts though when we come to Chapter 10 entitled ‘A New Regime’. Here, dear reader, I advise you not hold your breath. Prefaced by words like’ partnership’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘empowerment’ we learn that 94 percent of episcopal costs are met by the Commissioners, and six percent by dioceses (mainly suffragan housing costs). The Commissioners propose to continue to pay bishops’ stipends, diocesan housing upkeep, all central and national episcopal resource costs and to operate a contingency fund. In future dioceses will be given a block grant for their bishops; expenses, based on an accepted staffing formula and assessment of travel, hospitality, etc. It will be largely up to the bishop how it is spent. There will be no penalties for under spend. (Indeed there is a positive incentive to do so, because diocesans can keep the savings to set against future needs and plans.) Any overspends will be met by the dioceses themselves – so not a popular move! Mellows acknowledges the ‘beam end’ condition of most dioceses. Bishops’ meetings these days seem to be less to plan the conversion of England than to stave off the bailiff.

The report (which after all was set up to confront part of this crisis) is occasionally aware of its context. Having agreed block grants and discretionary spending it does add the rider that future financial stringency may prevent full payment. In that case burdens would fall on the dioceses, and here there is a momentary chink of light. Note 10.33.1 records: ‘If Commissioners were unable to fund working costs at about their present level, but no other alteration was made to the present circumstances, then there would need to be any or all of:

a) an increased contribution from diocesan sources

b) procurement of support from other local sources or

c) a redefinition of the role of bishops.’

Front Line Cuts

This is the heart of the matter. The flaw in the report is that it fails to address c) and is predicated on ‘business as usual’. It is precisely because the situation is anything but usual that the report was required and, if it was not narrowly going to look at cost-cutting, then it ought to have been much more radical. So much of a bishop’s burden removes him from his central Apostolic tasks that it is surely time to take up the pruning knife – not only to the tasks but to the numbers employed doing it. How can a shrinking Church possibly justify 113 bishops? The ratio of Chiefs to Indians has been going in the opposite direction to reality for years.

A diocese which had 150 priests but a few years back will shortly be reduced to 80! I need hardly tell you that it will still have two bishops, both of them career men imposed from outside with no experience of the diocese and little affection for it. My present diocese will have had a reduction of 80–100 priests over the next decade but will still rejoice in three bishops and, now, a third archdeacon. Another, traditionally one bishop diocese, had such a disastrously unsympathetic appointment dumped on it that a face saving operation was effected by the additional appointment of a more sympathetic suffragan.

In 1901 there were nine suffragans. In the dramatically smaller church of 2001 there are 65!

The opportunity to prune and radically reorder the episcopate has been missed here. It is missed, I suspect, for the very simple reason that Mellows’ brief appears be to keep the show on the road. His brief is ‘resourcing the bishops’. The real brief is ‘resourcing the Church of God’ of which bishops could be an important and extremely helpful part. Unhappily in their present incarnation they are all too often an unfortunate mixture of financial burden and pastoral and evangelistic irrelevance. This is bad for the Church and bad for the bishop. But it is becoming apparent from reading this report that reform can only be forced upon an unwilling establishment by serious financial breakdown. Even then, it seems clear that everything else will suffer before that is allowed to happen. The cost of the bishops is the equivalent of putting 600 priests in front-line ministry. It also painfully equates to the annual deficit in the pension fund.

(One of the other remarkable figures in this report is the combined cost of the Archbishop’s Appointment Secretary, Adviser on Bishop’s Ministry and Clergy Appointments Adviser which comes in a fraction short of £300,000!)

Bricks and Mater

Two chapters are dedicated to bishops housing and costs. There are proposals for opportunities to change the ‘See house’ and its ownership and upkeep to be transferred to the diocese. The modification of house specification (4 private bedrooms instead of 5) is largely cosmetic.

(Some of the housing demands over the years have been disgraceful. But I doubt if we will ever see a repeat of the request, put in some years back by a diocesan, for a summer house. Apparently the palace windows didn’t let in enough light and his wife was getting depressed.)

Some clergy and bishops operate the ‘private house with office attached’ model of ministry. Others operate the ‘public house/open house’ model. As I have never understood why anyone operating the former would want to be a priest, I must confess a prejudice. It is the former model which has seen the wholesale destruction of the English vicarage, with all its benefits to the community, and its replacement by ‘ticky-tacky’ boxes and clerical accommodation units. The See houses can only justify their existence if they are genuinely ‘public houses’ and part of the ministry. They will only be that if they are occupied by priests (and their wives) who have a track record of such evangelistic, pastoral and encouraging ministry.

I mention wives and here Lou Scott-Joynt (‘Mrs Winchester’) has done a sterling job in getting them recognized. Perhaps the least appreciated, most enduring and hardest working members of the CofE are committed clergy wives. But even here a trick is missed. The Church does not take seriously the vocation of a priest’s wife. There is no preparation towards it, no training in it and no encouragement for it. It is no good having a wife in the vicarage or in the See house who assumes she can lead a separate existence and not be involved in her husband’s life’s work. One of the most significant ways in which the Church can resource her bishops (and her priests) is in the support, fellowship and assistance to our wives. It would also help if we were not so poorly paid that they were obliged to work to pay basic bills!

What more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of gardeners, half-chauffeurs, fleet sales, outsourcing, bishop’s resource groups, catering, mentoring, consecration reception costs (£15 per head), micro-management and episcopal income tax relief. No-one can fault the report for thoroughness. As a map of the present it is exhaustive and first rate – an excellent introduction to the debate. It may well be what was asked for. As a prophetic pointer to the future, however, it disappoints. It is not what was required if we are to reform the episcopate. But the truth is that this cannot take place in the abstract on a piece of paper, no matter how well intentioned the authors. It has to be done by giving the episcopal task to those who are prepared to be radically orthodox in rediscovering the apostolic vocation in our land and in our time.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Alban’s.