Despite the ongoing financial problems faced by the CofE, bishops’ expenses and housing costs have risen dramatically. George Austin calls for an investigation of this issue

It was a bit of harmless fun at the bishops’ expense (or perhaps expenses) when last month 30Days noted the amazing contrast between the demands of bishops in the north-west and those of the southern climes. And this month there was the annual tease with the announcement of the Golden Mitre and Wooden Crosier awards for those bishops who have cost the Commissioners the most or least in their working expenses.

In fact it is not really funny at all. Between 2003 and 2004 when the RPI was 3.5%, bishops’ working expenses rose by 5.94%, while those of 2005 showed a rise of 5.6% against an RPI of 2.2%. The cost of the maintenance of bishops’ houses and gardens rose from £5.5m in 2004 to a shocking £8.6m in 2005. The comparable figures in 2002 and 2003 were £3.5m and £4.1m, thus rising in only three years by almost two-and-a-half times. Fortunately the Commissioners can save over £5m by changes in the pensions of retired clergy.

When I was Archdeacon of York, parishes would every spring send in their accounts and reports for the annual visitation and it was always clear that finances were tight. As my secretary, my wife (who was paid an hourly rate which never increased in the seven years she served!) would open the mail and was often upset by the letters from churchwardens, which would mention the desperate financial difficulties they were facing. They would add words to the effect that ‘it is hard, but with the Lord’s help we will come through.’

Hard to explain

Why was she upset? Because she knew too that episcopal demands in housing and working expenses were far greater than those expected by the parochial clergy and of course by archdeacons -whose administrative duties are inevitably greater than those at least of suffragan bishops. Now of course parochial clergy do not need the kind of office and working expenses of a bishop, but that is not the point. What is the point is that the clergy sometimes know they cannot be fully reimbursed simply because the parishes cannot afford it and they accept that this is so.

Archdeacons, as members of diocesan boards of finance, are aware that dioceses have to watch every penny and could not – and would not – begin to meet the standards set by some of the bishops. This still continues: in 2005 the total expenses of the three archdeacons in one diocese were £23,487 and those of the three suffragans £108,955. If this is put into the terms used in the 30Days survey, this puts each archdeacon on average expenses of £21.44 a day and the suffragans on £99.50 a day. It is quite simply impossible for this differential to be justified in terms of need.

No wonder when nationally the suffragan bishops are asked to consider letting their expenses be paid by dioceses there is always vehement resistance. And it would make interesting reading if clergy readers could send in details of the 2005 working expenses of their archdeacons to see if this is a national trend.

Closer scrutiny needed

Bishops, of course, must be properly supported in their working needs, but the wide differentials in the demands of bishops for the same job do suggest a need for closer scrutiny. As one bishop – since retired – put it to me, ‘You have to realize that some of them ask for what they can get whereas others of us just claim what we need.’ I once asked a staff member at the Commissioners why he never said ‘no’. ‘If I do’, he replied, ‘they simply go over my head and I’m overruled.’

Perhaps there should be an examination and comparison of such needs. In the diocese of Southwark, for example, the staff costs for each area bishop are identical at £25,300 – almost certainly the cost of the salary and pension plus other contributions for one secretary each. Should other dioceses do this? And if archdeacons manage easily on a part-time secretary – or no secretary at all – what are the additional needs of a suffragan that full-time help is required?

To take this further, in these days of reducing clergy numbers, should the post of archdeacon and suffragan bishop be combined? In York, when; a suffragan and an archdeacon were coming up to retirement, I suggested that either this should be done or that we reduced to two of each, but it was not thought appropriate. But it might be so in a diocese where the bishop is not also archbishop of the province.

Housing costs

It is when the cost of housing is examined that deeper and perhaps more intractable problems arise, especially when the annual cost of maintaining the houses, office premises and gardens can escalate in three years from £3.5m to £8.6m. There is by the very nature of his work something to be said for a bishop having his office ‘in house’, and that of course means a larger house than would otherwise be needed. But alternatives ought to be carefully considered.

I have visited bishops at their homes in North and South America, in South Africa and a Lutheran bishop in Sweden where it would be unthinkable for them to occupy houses of the grandeur of English bishops, and usually their offices are at a central diocesan office.

That £8.6m was spent in one year in this field does not of course mean that each of the 44 diocesan bishops had nearly £200,000 of such expenses. It is natural – and reasonable – to expect that the ancient palaces and castles enjoyed by some bishops will require a far greater expenditure to ensure they are kept in reasonable condition. But on the other hand is it reasonable to expect that they be kept at all?

The present pattern cannot continue, either in housing or in expenses, for it is rapidly becoming a scandal, if it is not that already – unacceptable in these days of financial strain. It is surely time for an independent commission to be set up, totally independent, that is, of the Commissioners, the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council, whose contribution should be by attendance as required and not by membership. Those in the parishes on whose financial support the Church depends deserve no less.