Gerry O’Brien and the case of the pricey prelates

‘Money can make a difference. Not just in how much of it there is, but how we use what there is. Money can make a difference to the ministry of every part of the Church.’ So begins a report entitled Future use of the Church Commissioners’ funds. The seven members of the review group which produced the report include two Church Estates Commissioners and two members of the Archbishops’ Council, but the report is not an anodyne piece of establishment speak. It asks penetrating questions and proposes radical solutions.

What the Church said

The report quotes some of the remarkably candid views that were submitted. One diocesan secretary admitted that there was little accountability in his diocese for the monies provided by the Church Commissioners. There was no conscious attempt to use it for ‘additional provision for the cure of souls in parishes where such assistance is most required’ (the legal obligations covering the use of the money). Another claim was that those areas of the Church which received the greatest subsidies from national Church funds were among the worst performers in terms of Sunday attendance figures. Is the present system actually encouraging the Church’s decline?

The spotlight inevitably falls on the costs of bishops in general and suffragans in particular. The Commissioners currently fund all bishops’ costs with the exception of suffragan bishops’ housing (which is met by dioceses). One diocesan missioner commented, ‘Until all parts of the Church are subjected to its overriding financial pressures, some parts of it would continue to shuffle along in a modern world supported by the funding pattern of a previous era.’

One diocesan bishop said that the commitment of the Commissioners to cover stipends and at least the bulk of expenses of suffragan bishops is a disincentive to dioceses to review whether they still need so many suffragan bishops. Other suggestions included giving suffragan bishops responsibility for a parish, as was the case in the past, and there was even a call for their abolition on the grounds that the declining numbers of confirmations and ordinations could be handled by retired bishops in the diocese and other duties could be handed over to archdeacons.

The response

The review group’s own analysis wryly hints that they clearly see the need for change. In paragraph 43 we read, ‘The Commissioners’ current funding of bishops does not provide any incentive to review the numbers and deployment of senior clergy in a coherent way. For example, there must be the temptation for dioceses, when undertaking a deployment review, to opt to forgo an archdeacon but keep a suffragan bishop because the latter (Commisioners-funded) are “free”.’

It is also a fact that the Commissioners’ expenditure on bishops’ ministry has risen broadly in line with earnings over the last decade, despite the cuts which have fallen on other expenditure categories.

The Church Commissioners pay out about £100 million each year to fund the pre-1997 liabilities for clergy pensions. In addition, they have a further £65 million available for distribution to the wider church.

The recommendations

The report proposes that by 2010 at least £9m per year will be available for mission development. It is hoped that during the period 2005–7 that parish ministry support would be maintained, and that the funds could be used for purposes other than clergy stipends (funding Church Army officers, for instance).

Increased support for mission development should be funded by the reduction of Commissioners’ support for bishops to the tune of £5m per year over the period 2005–10. Dioceses would be expected to assume responsibility for funding all bishops’ working costs and suffragan bishops’ stipends over this period.

Half a million pounds would be transferred to mission development from the present funding of cathedrals. Above all, there would be greater accountability through dioceses divulging exactly how Commissioners’ money is spent.

Finally, there is to be a review of how resources should best be allocated between dioceses. So far, so good, but this last proposal may prove to be the making (or the Achilles heel) of the whole report.

Special pleading

The number of people on the electoral rolls of parishes in the Diocese of Chester is slightly greater than the number of people on the electoral rolls of parishes in the Dioceses of Newcastle and Durham combined. However, whilst the Commissioners currently fork out £480,000 each year to fund bishops in the Diocese of Chester, the bill for Newcastle and Durham comes to a whopping £929,000.

It would not be unreasonable for the people of the North East to have as much episcopal provision as they feel they need, and are prepared to pay for, but I suspect that in reality they may decide that they require the present level of provision – or even more – but that they can’t possibly be expected to pay for it. Other dioceses, like Chester, should be invited to pick up the tab.

Maybe I am being cynical, but there has already been a letter in The Times from a churchwarden in the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich pleading that parishes groaning under the twin burdens of maintaining fabric and paying parish share cannot be expected to fund bishops as well. The Bishop of Dunwich had better watch out.

If Synod were to pay heed to such voices, it would of course defeat the entire object of the changes that are being proposed. One dares to hope that Synod will think carefully about the proposals, and be mindful of the possible consequences. Is there any point in imposing a discipline which can be easily circumvented with special pleading?

This whole area is a minefield. There are many vested interests which will oppose any diminution in their funding, but at the end of the day a voluntary society, such as the Church, will always have inadequate funding to match all its aspirations. It can do the things that its members will it to do, and the largesse represented by the Church Commissioners’ funds needs to be invested wisely to encourage the Church to focus its energies on those activities that are more important rather than on those that are less important.

We have the opportunity not only to address the issues, but also to challenge the culture of dependency. There may be some squabbles between suffragan bishops and cathedral deans as to how exactly the refinancing should be done, but this report is a bold attempt to grasp the nettle and deserves a sympathetic hearing.

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