What price stewardship?

If you are a member of your Diocesan Board of Finance you will probably have taken some time over the summer to reflect on the financial health of your diocese. What percentage of the diocesan quota was actually collected last year? Was it a matter of ‘can’t pay’ or ‘won’t pay’? What level of increase may parishes have to bear in 2005?

Some dioceses are faring better than others, but it is difficult to make reasonable comparisons because each diocese is a separate charity and by and large runs itself as it sees fit.

The major expenditure that a diocese incurs is the cost of stipends and pensions for the clergy. The number of clergy is mainly determined by the Sheffield formula, which takes into account factors like the population of the diocese, the number of church buildings – and to a modest extent the number of worshippers. It is a formula devised over a quarter of a century ago to stem the drift of clergy to the south. At the time, the church regarded clergy provision as a kind of social service and, since most of the costs were borne by the Church Commissioners, it could probably afford to do so.

However, over the years the Church Commissioners have paid less and less – and church members have had to pay more and more. In many dioceses today the whole burden of clergy stipends and pensions falls on the quota payers. Rochester currently has a system whereby most parishes pay for their own clergy directly. The upshot is that we have a clergy to laity ratio of 1:127. In the northern province the ratio in Durham is 1:90 and in Newcastle 1:92. Is it pure coincidence that these dioceses still enjoy hefty subsidies from the Church Commissioners?

Some dioceses are run far more efficiently than others. Southwark, for instance, finds it necessary to have no fewer than six archdeacons and three area bishops, each with a well-staffed office. Other dioceses manage to be far more economical in their staffing. The Dioceses of Newcastle and Durham have between them about the same number of church members as the Diocese of Chester. Yet Chester seems to manage fairly well with roughly half the number of dignitaries.

Every diocese has a diocesan office and a number of officers, a Diocesan Secretary and a Director of the Board of Education, for example, and it stands to reason that if a diocese like Newcastle has only 13,500 church members to bear the cost, whilst a diocese like Oxford has over 50,000 – then each church member in Newcastle is going to have to stump up rather more than the average church member in Oxford.

At this summer’s Group of Sessions, the General Synod agreed to cease paying ‘guaranteed’ annuities (from which parishes in all dioceses benefited) and redirect the money solely to designated poorer dioceses.

An analysis of the Church of England’s problems would show that we have a deep-rooted ambivalence between dioceses operating as independent charities on the one hand and a desire for some measure of corporate uniformity on the other. Dioceses try to deploy clergy where they are judged to be needed, but the centre controls how many clergy a given diocese can deploy. The percentage of costs that a diocese has to raise from the parishes varies widely. Many dioceses are insulated from the full costs of their activities by generous subsidies from the Commissioners. Only a small proportion have to raise anything like their true costs.

The problem is that over the years a kind of welfare state mentality has grown up. We are powerless to control our own budgets, because even if we make major economies where we can, we find that quota has to rise by well above the rate of inflation because historical support is being withdrawn and we are being asked to cross-subsidize increasing expenditure elsewhere. It simply doesn’t make sense to ask dioceses to be financially prudent and responsible, and then add into their budgets lots of items over which they have no control.

Then of course the rubber hits the road when you find that, though a diocese can ask parishes for quota payments, in practice those payments may not be forthcoming. Last year the Diocese of Durham, for instance, collected only 91% of its parish share. Despite its very high clergy to laity ratio, despite all the subsidies from the Church Commissioners, despite the reallocation of monies from southern to northern dioceses, the money still did not come in.

Perhaps we need to take a leaf out of the book of the Anglican Church in Australia. Their no-nonsense style does not stand for financial non-performance. If you can’t pay your way there, the parish is declared an area of mission and the diocese steps in to sort things out. It’s a bit like a bankrupt company calling in the receivers. Why on earth don’t we tackle non-performing dioceses in the same way?

The simple truth is that you can only have cross-subsidies so long as some dioceses can afford to be net contributors. In the present circumstances the resources of the net contributors are increasingly strained and the appetite of the net recipients is increasing. It can’t go on indefinitely.

Sadly, it can go on for quite a long time. There is still family silver to sell and many dioceses could probably balance the books by selling a few rectories every year. But a day of reckoning will surely come. We do seem to be very shy of thinking radically. When will we shake off the mindset of managed decline and seriously address the possibilities of growth? No, I don’t mean another decade of evangelism. The last one reduced our congregations by over ten per cent and we can’t afford to do that again. However, if we are serious about making disciples, we will have to think about some radical restructuring. We need to encourage good practice and reward success. One parish I know decided to employ someone to work with young people – a strategic area for any parish. The plans were discussed with the Archdeacon who noted that the financial case being put to the PCC involved raising an additional £36,000 for salary, housing, expenses and so on. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you can raise that amount, you can obviously raise an extra £4,000 for the family purse.’

The parish was frustrated to discover that the effect of doing so would be to reduce the family purse for all the other parishes in the diocese by an aggregate £4,000, thus taxing effort and rewarding sloth and indolence.

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