Purple into Red

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if newspapers were devoid of the salacious and the sensational. Perhaps the readership would be better informed, or, on the other hand, perhaps nobody would read them and then the readership wouldn’t be informed at all. The thing is that newspapers do pander to their readers’ prurient interest in disaster and misfortune. A good slanging match always awakens interest (and sells newspapers); trying to pin the blame on some hapless soul for something that should or shouldn’t have been done is fair game, but agreement, harmony and good things don’t seem to interest anyone.

Increasingly these days The Times, rather than standing aloof, simply joins the pack and so it was that in the middle of May, I found myself reading that ‘Churches face closure and clergy could be sacked because the Church of England’s leading diocese is in financial “meltdown” and is facing bankruptcy within ten years.’

Well, what a load of hype! Which diocese do you think would qualify for the title of the Church of England’s leading diocese? Canterbury? York? Durham? Winchester? It turns out that Ruth Gledhill has awarded the accolade to the Diocese of London – though according to the article London appears to be leading in a direction which many might not wish to follow.

The deficit in 2002 hit half a million pounds and is expected to exceed £1m in 2003. Apparently such financial problems are affecting the entire church dioceses need more money each year from parishioners to pay clergy stipends and pensions, and this at a time of declining church attendances. Strangely though, I seem to recall that in recently published statistics, the Diocese of London claimed to be growing, so why are they so severely affected?

It appears that the problem has reached a critical point in London because the diocese has suffered the withdrawal of nearly all the help it once received from central funds. Welcome to the real world, London!

The response to this looming doomsday scenario is that the Bishop has ordered his archdeacons to assess the viability of the diocese’s 415 parishes. Those with fewer than 75 regular worshippers will come under scrutiny and could face possible closure.

Given that there are 465 stipendiary clergy in the diocese and 56,000 adults attending church each week, each clergyman has to be supported by 120 attenders. The report states that these good folk donate ‘little more than 2 per cent of net income’ so at a conservative estimate the parishes have available about 2.4 times average income to support each clergyman. Clergy aren’t that well paid, so where is the rest of the money going, you may well ask.

Obviously parishes have to maintain their buildings and support the diocesan infrastructure and all the non-parochial posts, but surely this is a question of priorities?

Some years ago, I remember the then Rural Dean of Great Dunmow explaining the facts of life very simply to the Deanery Synod. ‘In this deanery we have 22 Anglican places of worship,’ he said. ‘There are twelve parishes and we have twelve clergy in the chapter. By way of comparison the Catholics have one place of worship and two clergy, but their electoral roll exceeds the aggregate of all our electoral rolls.’ I don’t think he was advocating a Beeching-style approach, but clearly there are alternative models of ministry from the one we have inherited from our forbears.

At least the Diocese of London is calling a halt to the rake’s progress. The Bishop of Willesden revealed rather coyly, ‘What we have done so far is sell the family silver to bridge the gap. Selling houses has worked for a few years, but it can’t carry on. Therefore we need an increase in giving from people in the pews or else we have a possible meltdown.’

However, there appear to be deeper problems. He continued, ‘There is a common fund out of which clergy are paid. Some parishes give nothing to this fund because they cannot afford to; others give nothing because they prefer not to. This is about parishes that are taking the mickey. They expect us to pay the clergy but they are not contributing – either because they are in dispute with the diocese or because the clergy are obstinate.’

One hopes that he wasn’t misquoted by The Times. That must be a possibility because halfway through the article the diocese’s deficit for last year was described as ‘£500 million’ which would have truly been a meltdown of dramatic proportions.

Full marks to London for recognizing they have a problem, one that needs a radical response. But will the response be radical enough? By all means ask whether it makes sense for viable parishes to be asked to pay over the odds to subsidize labour intensive ministry to tiny congregations when there may be more sensible ways of providing the ministry required. But how about some serious subsidiarity?

Should not parishes be liberated to decide for themselves how much ministry they need (and how much they want to pay for) and then get on and raise the money themselves. People do like to see what they are getting for their money, and paying for the vicar you see every Sunday is a far more saleable proposition than being asked to pour ever increasing amounts into a bottomless pit called ‘Common Fund’. Of course, there will be places where strategic ministry is required which cannot be funded from within the parish, but a modest diocesan augmentation fund should cover that. Such a system works surprisingly well across the river in the Diocese of Rochester.

There could be scope for twinning arrangements whereby well-funded parishes might support an inner-city parish as a mission situation. Again people are far more willing to support a defined cause than to throw large sums of money into the ether. At present, some parishes must suspect that the current funding that they provide is being used to sustain ministries with which they would find it difficult to identify.

Finally, will the Diocese of London be looking at its own expensive infrastructure? How many non-parochial posts are more important than having clergy in parishes? How much does the diocesan office cost to run? Are there services that could be shared with neighbouring Southwark and Chelmsford?

It seems a bit rich for an area bishop to slate parishes and threaten to close them down if the diocese is not prepared to look critically at itself, as many other dioceses have already done.

At least the Bishop of Willesden realizes that you can’t live forever by selling the family silver. The question is really whether we are prepared to market ministry to the person in the pew and persuade them that it really is worth paying for. That will require a creative and innovative approach, which sadly we see far too little of in the Church of England.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.