WHEN I WAS at University someone in the Faculty of Social Sciences once said that Economics was a strange subject. “You see,” he said, “we sometimes set the same question for O levels (that dates him), A levels and Finals. It’s just that at each stage the answers are different.”
Well, today’s question is a bit like that. The question is what is the Church? In the first and second century the Church was a persecuted sect. In due time, its members became food for lions, but then all that changed. From Constantine’s time onwards the Church became the state religion, and when the Roman Empire was overrun it became the state itself in the guise of the Holy Roman Empire.
That thinking still persists today. The Church of England, being established by law, is particularly prone to modelling itself on the apparatus of the state. Just think for a moment. General Synod has many of the trappings of parliament, with the House of Bishops being unelected, like the House of Lords. The clergy and the laity both have to put up for election, but Synod retains many of its rotten boroughs (and recently created some new ones to provide seats for the appointed members of the Archbishops’ Council), though the House of Commons abolished its rotten boroughs long ago.
The Dioceses think of themselves rather like county councils and the Deaneries function a bit like local District Councils. In Chelmsford diocese, for instance, many years ago we had an Archdeacon who redrew all the deanery boundaries in the London end of the diocese to align with the London Borough boundaries. He even tried the same trick out in the sticks with the result that the Chelmsford deanery contained thirty five parishes and probably had more lay members than the Diocesan Synod.
The trouble is that this thinking distorts and subverts what the church is all about. Once you start thinking in terms of the machinery of government, you start having grandiose plans. You think in terms of “state spending” and you have to fund that spending with “taxation”.
Ask yourself what is the underlying philosophy when your parish receives its next demand for quota from the diocese. Isn’t it just like the Council Tax demand? Some dioceses model it on income tax, some on the poll tax, some tax growth, some tax attendance. Some parishes exercise considerable ingenuity to reduce their liability. Some find they can’t pay. Some decide they wont pay and some just don’t pay. Thank goodness for Archdeacons to take the role of tax inspectors and coerce payment out of those recalcitrants.
Just recently I heard an Archdeacon from
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the Northern province venting his spleen about a parish in his Archdeaconry who had made a reduction in their quota payment because the PCC did not approve of certain items in the diocesan budget. He thought this was disgraceful. It obviously hadn’t crossed his mind that the diocese might cut the expenditure this parish was unwilling to bankroll. That of course was sacrosanct. On the other hand he was quite prepared to cut funds to a struggling inner-city parish and blame the principled parish for the inner-city parish’s consequent hardships.
That mentality is a taxation mentality. We all understand that single people with no children have to pay taxes to fund education. Would you want to live in a society where all the voters were ignoramuses? Healthy people have to pay into the National Health Service, or lots of the people we rely on might not be around. Motorists find it in their interest to pay taxes to fund public transport, in order to encourage other people to leave their cars at home.
It makes you wonder what planet some Archdeacons are living on, doesn’t it? The problem is that you have to pay your taxes because if you don’t there is ultimately the long arm of the law. Those who are unwilling to do their civic duty are liable to be entertained by Her Majesty at considerable inconvenience to themselves.
Members of a church congregation, on the other hand, when faced with a bill for thousands of pounds for services they do not need and to pay staff whose activities add no perceived value to the proclamation of the gospel, may well cast an envious glance down the road to the non-conformist church which is not expected to labour under such an unnecessary burden.
Indeed there is an argument which says I have a choice to give £ 10 per week to St Mugwumps and find the diocese siphons off say £4 of it, leaving £6 for doing the things that a church has to do – or to give my £ 10 per week to a non-Anglican church and find that a far larger proportion of my giving is funding the things that I judge to be the priorities. In fact I need to remember that the £ 10 was never mine in the first place, it was God’s. And ultimately I will i have to give account to him for my stewardship of his money.
Yes, congregations can and do vote with their feet. Unlike the state, which has a near monopoly on its citizens (unless you emigrate), the Church of England does not have a monopoly (or anything like) on Christian worship. The younger generation have precious little denominational loyalty and I can’t imagine why anybody thinks that young people are going to throw in their lot with a Church of England which is groaning under the burden of oppressive taxation by free spending dioceses, when the alternative is to go to the tax free enterprise zone down the road.
The unpalatable fact (for diocesan empire builders) is that the Church of England in fact functions like a voluntary society. The Church Commissioners don’t pick up much of the tab any more, but the laity do. That means we will have to come to terms very rapidly with the fact that the balance of power in the church has changed and will change still further in the years to come.
The mission agency I work for depends on voluntary donations from churches and individuals. We understand very clearly that the support we enjoy will only be forthcoming so long as we continue to do the things that our supporters judge will advance the objectives they hold dear. It really is that simple. If our income were to be turned off, it would only be a matter of months before we were forced to repatriate mission partners, cease funding students and make ourselves redundant.
Diocesan staff and dignitaries don’t seem to have seen the writing on the wall yet. Even dire warnings in The Church Times about diocese after diocese facing a financial crisis have seemingly little impact. If the Church of England is rapidly becoming a charity funded by its members, the sooner it starts functioning like one, the better.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the diocese of Rochester.