Jonathan Redvers Harris considers the report of the Clergy Stipends Review Group, ‘Generosity and Sacrifice’

The year is AD 2008. At last, after a hitch when the House of Bishops initially blocked it, the legislation enabling the admission of women to the episcopate has achieved a two-thirds majority in all three houses of General Synod, and Parliament will shortly be giving its approval to the Measure. For ‘traditionalists’, however, the arrangements being put in place to protect those opposed to this further development are far from satisfactory – and, this time, the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament had been packed by liberal modernizers.

And so the Free Province of the Church of England – a notion adopted several years ago by Forward in Faith as the consequence of this further innovation – reluctantly but inevitably becomes a reality. Buildings are proving difficult to bring over, although some dioceses have been prepared to release certain churches and benefice properties from their ‘portfolios’. But we do have priests – old and young, determined to continue in the faith, so that an ecclesial structure, with a guaranteed sacramental life, exists for our children, grandchildren and beyond. The big question, though, is what do we pay these priests? Resources are scant. How much should they receive from the traditionalist faithful by way of stipend – a meagre maintenance allowance or a decent remuneration package which recognizes the responsibilities of the office?

The point is simple. Wherever we fall in the scheme of things in today’s turbulent Church of England, the issue of stipends will not go away. When at least 5% of clergy families have to rely upon Working Families Tax Credit to bring the stipend up to a level upon which they can actually live, and while certain senior clergy, with arguably no more responsibility than an incumbent with civic and educational duties in a large parish, enjoy significantly higher stipends, it is a subject where passions run high.

Not the same Turnbull

It is into this emotive field that the recommendations of Generosity and Sacrifice dare to tread – the report of the Clergy Stipends Review Group, released on 27 September, and chaired by the Reverend Dr Richard Turnbull. Its terms of reference were multi-faceted, including a consideration of the concept and definition of the stipend, and an examination of the remuneration package. Interestingly, it was not part of the Group’s remit to examine the concept of dignitaries’ differentials – only ‘to review the size’ of them.

Setting the scene for the study, the Group surveyed some of the recent history of clergy remuneration, including the 1943 House of Bishops’ definition of the stipend as ‘a maintenance allowance to enable the priest to live without undue financial worry,’ together with the 1967 Fenton Morley Report principle that the stipend ‘should relieve every clergyman of financial anxiety and enable him to discharge his duties to his family.’ Next, the Group considered that ‘detailed theological reflection’, including ‘significant engagement with Scripture’ should take place, and the reader is led through details of the provision for priests and Levites in the Old Testament, the principle of ‘first fruits’, portions of sacrifices and offerings and the ‘tithe of the tithes’. The conclusion drawn from this material, together with principles from the Gospels and the epistles, is that there is no evidence of material provision being at or near subsistence levels, that the responsibility for provision for ministry lies with the offerings of the people, and that those with particular responsibility for teaching and preaching (in the New Testament) were entitled to more than a basic maintenance allowance, and this, claims the Group, ‘at least opens up for us the discussion of differentials.’

The Bible tells me so…

What is at first sight somewhat startling – and welcome – in a report in 2001, is the apparent reliance on Scripture (especially, when compared to Scott-Joynt’s utter lack of direct scriptural engagement). The Group, of course, acknowledged that the Bible could not contain directly applicable teaching for the remuneration of the Church of England’s stipendiary clergy today but that, ‘nonetheless the Bible remains the basic building block of the Church’. All this is highly commendable. One wonders, however, how the data of the Old and New Testament was chosen; what criteria were applied to determine whether a passage had any relevance to stipends? Why not include the text of Galatians 3.28 (‘neither male nor female’) – the touchstone text in the women’s ordination debate; if this teaches both equality and sameness between the sexes, then surely, equally ‘in Christ there is neither residentiary canon nor assistant curate.’ And what about the parable of the workers in the vineyard – conspicuous by its absence? Perhaps the Church in paying her clergy should express the lavish and gracious abundance of God, giving to the newly-arrived lowliest curate the same rate of pay as the archdeacon who has been toiling in the heat of the day, serving time in all the committees and synods to get where he, or she, is today? There is, in short, a certain superficiality and selectiveness in the biblical data considered by the Group – as though someone has turned up a biblical topical index and looked up references under ‘Ministers, payment thereof’.

The Group next considers theological ‘remuneration models’. On the one hand, there is the counter-cultural model which sees the stipend as a maintenance allowance, implying the removal of differentials ‘of the relatively small number of ordained ministers who hold offices as bishops, archdeacons or other posts of responsibility.’ (Readers may care to reflect on whether a decrease by one quarter of the parochial clergy – from nearly 13,000 to 9,600 – accompanied by an increase of two-thirds in the number of dignitaries – from 231 to over 380 – over the past forty years amounts to ‘relatively small’, but that is just a quibble.) At the other end, there is the contractual model, says the Group, which leans strongly on secular employment and management practices, with implications for assessment, and the prospect of court cases. Recognising that the current system draws upon both these models and hence contains its own tensions, the Group suggests a further model – of generosity and sacrifice: generosity in the setting of the level of pay, by the need for some recognition of responsibility; and sacrifice both on the part of the clergy (not remunerated as in comparable professions) and on the part of those who fund them. This leads the Group to redefine stipend as ‘part of the remuneration package which is paid for the exercise of the office. It reflects the level of responsibility held.’

Like a headmistress

As to precise level of the stipend, the Group drew on the findings of the questionnaire sent to all stipendiary clerics and licensed lay workers, together with responses to a consultation document. A comparison was also made with other churches, and a comparison with other professions (allowing a value of £9,428 per annum for the cleric’s provided house). In the course of this part of the study the Group puts forward the idea that ‘the closest approximation to the role of an incumbent is the primary school headteacher’ and therefore recommends that an incumbent’s remuneration (both stipend and housing) be approximately 80% of the starting salary of the head teacher of large primary school – in other words, £20,000 for incumbents. While not many clerics would quarrel with such a level, the methodology in reaching it does seem rather strange. The analogy with the primary school teacher – usually a woman, these days, so an interesting analogy for male priests – seems a very poor point of comparison. Certainly, an incumbent, like the primary headmistress, similarly represents an institution within the community, has a pastoral role of those in his care, seeks to inspire motivation in others, and to manage resources. But first and foremost, surely, the incumbent is there to give prophetic direction – in preaching and other settings – and a faithful administering of the sacraments in the drama of the liturgy. In this respect, a more accurate analogy might be found in an actor on stage or a barrister in the courtroom. In sum, this analogy with the head school teacher does seem rather arbitrary, as does the 80% (what is normative about 80%?) of the starting salary (why only the starting salary?). Also, teachers have been known to threaten, and implement, industrial action. Clerics, on the other hand, never go on strike – the mark, arguably, of a true profession, driven on by altruism or a vocation which transcends the political realities – and this, too, makes the analogy yet more suspect.

What is ‘responsibility’?

One of the weaknesses of the report is its inability to come to grips with assessing the meaning of ‘responsibility’. Sometimes sheer quantity of work – a vast number of occasional offices – is a significant factor in responsibility, while the responsibility of ‘running’ a diocese, as a bishop, may not be seen as any higher than the responsibility of ‘running’ a huge and busy parish as an incumbent. When briefly surveying the payment of clergy in other churches, the report acknowledges that in some (for instance, the Church in Wales) the clergy may retain their fees, without suffering a corresponding loss of stipend. But this practice is simply not considered by the Group. Yet, surely, enabling clerics to keep fees, or at least part of their statutory fees, is another way of recognising responsibility. The diocesan ministerial education officer, who may also be a residentiary canon, disappears for four or five weeks to Italy, while the local incumbent spends every Saturday in August marrying ungrateful bridal couples, with all the preparatory and rehearsal work involved. Who has the greater responsibility?

Differentials and the diocesan brothel

A major shortcoming of the report was clearly to take differentials as a given. ‘Our terms of reference’, said the Group, ‘required us to examine the levels of differentials but not their principle.’ The report conceded that a substantial minority of the Church did want to see the remove of differentials, but the Group simply accepted the arguments of the 1977 Differentials Report, and the voting of a 1996 General Synod debate on the subject. One is left wondering how critically the Group reflected on those arguments of nearly 25 years ago in the Differentials Report. For example, it rehearses, as an argument for differentials, that ‘different levels of responsibility entail different patterns of expenditure, which cannot adequately be catered for either by a system of allowances or by reimbursement of working expenses in a strict sense.’ But what do these words mean? What ‘patterns of expenditure’ and why incapable of being properly met as legitimate expenses? But is this convincing? Do the structures of Church life also have to embrace every aspect of fallen society? Should there be an ecclesiastical brothel attached to every diocesan office?

The report speaks about professions, but one is not left with an overriding sense that it regards clerics as professionals. ‘Ordination,’ says the Group ‘is the critical “qualification”’. Yet we are paid, not only as priests – sacramental people, with an ontological status – but also as clerics, as clerks – scholars – in Holy Orders. Although standards have slipped – particularly when we look at some of today’s evening class ministerial training schemes – we do still look to the local priest as a man of learning and scholarship. Certainly, we believe in ‘grace of order’, but grace of order does not normally confer an understanding of New Testament Greek, or a study of the synoptics. In other words, some education, some professional qualification has taken place, and yet the report seems to fight shy of this as one constitutive element in the setting of stipends.

Generosity and Sacrifice contains much that is commendable – particularly the way in which it reveals the confusion or tension underlying the present system of payment, while being cautious to lean too much towards certain models of payment. The results of its empirical research by means of questionnaire give a helpful picture of the actual pecuniary state of many clerics and their expectations and hopes for the future. It may well be that the suggested £20,000 is as good a stipend as can be suggested on generous and sacrificial lines, but the 80%-of-the-headteacher’s-starting-salary seems a strange rationale. And the report has its gaps – failing to spell out precisely what is meant by ‘level of responsibility’, not considering the possibility of retention of fees as an expression of responsibility, and, of course, uncritically accepting the principle of differentials.

How will the paying structures within the Free Province of the Church of England address these questions in, say, AD 2008?

Jonathan Redvers Harris is the Vicar of Houghton Regis in the Diocese of St Albans.