George Austin on the changing financial lot of the clergy

Three hundred years ago, in 1704, Queen Anne created what became known as Queen Anne’s Bounty to help the Church face the grave problems of clerical poverty. In the commemorative booklet produced last year by the Church Commissioners, with whom Queen Anne’s Bounty merged in 1948, there is a contemporary description of the lot of the eighteenth-century clergy:

There are a vast many poor Wretches, whose Benefices do not bring them in enough to buy Cloaths. This obliges them to look for other Ways, and those often sordid ones, to get their Bread; and thus the ministry grows scandalous.

The annual income of 13% of the livings was under £10 – under £1,176 in its 2005 equivalent. Since that merger in 1948, the lot of the clergy has vastly improved again. When I was ordained deacon in 1955 in the Diocese of Blackburn, I was on the princely stipend of £300 per annum, which is under £4,000 in modern money. The verger had been given the curate’s house, so I had to pay for my own accommodation.

Income tax of 50p was deducted from a weekly stipend of about £5.75, so that by the time I had paid board and lodging (£3.25) I was left with the princely sum of £2. I was ‘self-employed’, I paid my own NHS contribution, and when I raised this at the PCC, the churchwarden (who drove a Bentley) said he was ‘sure Mr Austin did not want to receive charity’.

Peerless Wigan

To be true, we were exploited, but in those days all in ‘vocational’ work – teachers, nurses, social workers – were similarly exploited.

There were wedding and funeral fees, but these were part of the incumbent’s stipend and where I was it was the parish tradition that the curate took the services and the vicar took the fees. But a curate did receive the Whitsun Offering, copying the Easter Offering for the incumbent – the total collection on those Sundays.

The average incumbent’s stipend was a basic £500, but with fees, Easter Offering and a past-time hospital chaplaincy my vicar boasted that he had managed to ‘raise’ this to £850pa – worth today about £9,700.

There were still vast differences. The rectory of Wigan was said to be the wealthiest at £5,000pa, and much greater than a diocesan bishop’s stipend of £2,000. The rector of Bury had, not long before 1955, had his stipend of a little less than Wigan’s reduced to £2,000 in order to bring the other clergy in the town up to £500.

Is it possible to imagine the furore today if every diocesan bishop received four times the basic stipend of an incumbent and nearly seven times as much as some of the junior clergy? Not to mention the even greater differentials when the two archbishops and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester are brought into the equation?

From 1926, there were preliminary moves towards the stabilization of incomes, and in 1951 a Measure empowered the Commissioners to transfer benefice endowments. It was maybe this that made possible the change in the rector of Bury’s stipend. Then with the Pastoral Measure of 1968 benefice income above a certain level could be transferred to diocesan stipends funds.

The major change came with the Endowments and Glebe Measure of 1976 which ensured that ancient endowments would not in future give some clergy vastly greater stipends, while allowing a maximum annuity of £1,000pa from the endowment. A recent Measure, now on its way through Parliament, will finally abolish these annuities.

Moreover, the 1976 Measure took away the management of glebe lands from the incumbent with the result that a proper rent could be charged to the tenant who farmed the lands. The amount to be charged was the responsibility of the incumbent and it was obviously difficult for him to raise rents when the farmer might be a member of the congregation. Between 1964 and 1970 I had 18 acres of glebe whose rent was not at the market rate.

Dead mens’ shoes

To return to earlier days, in 1957 I moved to the Diocese of London to a deprived inner city parish. The stipend was half as much again as the Diocese of Blackburn at £450, and I lived rent-free in a clergy house, of course paying board. It was still hard to make ends meet, especially to buy clothes, but because of the area the clothes of the departed were often donated to the parish for distribution.

The devout and elderly spinster who dealt with this took me aside one day. ‘We have just been given a pair of shoes your size, so I hope you don’t mind if I ask you if you would like them. And I see your dressing gown is in a poor state too.’ I accepted both with gratitude, wondering how she knew the state of my dressing gown. It was now possible just about to manage, and on a day off £1 would take me into the West End and – with care – pay for two meals and a seat in the theatre gods.

The situation improved in 1961 with a move to Dunstable Priory, where the stipend was £700 (with a free flat), and again in 1964 when I was astonished to learn on a move to my first parish as vicar that I would receive over £1,000 a year.

Previous encumbrances

The pension situation too was transformed in the twentieth century. In 1871, the Incumbents Resignation Act had enabled ‘clergymen permanently incapacitated by illness to resign their benefices with provision of pensions’ with an amount not exceeding one third of the benefice revenues – that is, from the stipend his successor would receive.

However, it was a complicated process, and even when it was approved the money could not be guaranteed for the pensioner where the revenues were too small. In some it meant that when the pension had been charged the benefice was too poor to be filled. Similar enactments at that time provided, rather more liberally, for bishops, deans and canons.

It was not until the Clergy Pensions Measure of 1926 that an incumbent might no longer be required to pay a third of his own stipend to provide the pension of his retired predecessor, though in the richer benefices this still applied. A contributory pensions scheme developed from which after 40 years service a pension of £200 would be paid. Only in January 1955 did the clergy pension became non-contributory.

As a result of the 1926 legislation, diocesan bishops received £800, London, Winchester and Durham £1,000 and the archbishops £1,500. Not surprisingly there was much debate and criticism in Church Assembly about such lavish differentials.

By 1970, the pension for 40 years’ service was £650 which, with the state pension for a married couple, brought a total of more than £1,070, plus a lump sum of £1,000 – interestingly at a time when the average stipend of more than 70% of the clergy was between £1,100 and £1,500pa (though they had a house as well). Even so, it did represent a church pension of about two-thirds of the lowest stipend.

In 1961, the Church Commissioners were able to make better provision for clergy widows and orphans, while in 1963 a loan scheme for a home in retirement and the introduction of the lump-sum grants in 1967 meant that the lot of the clergy and their families was much improved. A report, Clergy Pensions 1871–1971, published by the Pensions Board, concluded with the comment that ‘this account closes in the belief that the final step must be near.’

Housing benefit

In the 70s and 80s, two major steps were taken to provide a decent standard of living for retired clergy and their widows. With the introduction of the compulsory retirement age of 70, it was clear that those who could not otherwise afford housing in retirement must have more adequate provision made for them, and a working party was set up that eventually resulted in the present provisions.

Later, a second working party produced recommendations for a reasonable level of pension. The Inland Revenue normally allowed a maximum pension of half the final salary if a lump sum was also given, and two-thirds if there were no lump sum. It was agreed with the working party that because the clergy enjoyed the benefit of free accommodation, the pension could be two-thirds final salary plus a lump sum.

The differentials it also recommended still face criticism in Synod, with archdeacons, suffragans and deans receiving pensions of 125% of the basic pension, diocesan bishops 150%, the Bishop of London 180% and the archbishops 200%. Nevertheless, I was glad to have served on both working parties, and I feel they were probably the only two useful things I did in 25 years on the Synod.

The wide variations in stipend levels came to an end finally when the Central Stipends Authority was created and a minimum stipend level established. After the many developments in the latter half of the twentieth century, we are now, I believe, at the point at which the Church has, after 300 years, at last fulfilled the intentions of those who framed Queen Anne’s Bounty. The clergy have much to be grateful for both to the Commissioners and to the Pensions Board.

So in those 300 years, much has changed for the clergy, not least in the past 50 years. And for the Church too, if two snippets from the Commissioners booklet are a guide.

In it there is the reproduction of a lithograph from the Lambeth Palace Library of three bishops rowing fiercely down the Thames past Lambeth, with the caption, ‘The race for preferment: rival clerics sculling towards Lambeth in the hope of the ultimate prize – an archbishopric.’ We know that nothing like that could happen today.

Finally, there is a quotation from the preamble to the Bounty’s charter, ‘confirming the ill effects poverty could have on the clergy’:

Divers mean and stipendiary preachers … depending for their necessary maintenance upon the good will and liking of their hearers, have been … under temptation of too much complying and suiting their doctrines and teaching to the humours rather than the good of their hearers…

What a different age we now inhabit!

George Austin is a writer, broadcaster and journalist