It’s worth knowing who your friends are

As we know, the Church is all about spiritual things. Worldly things belong elsewhere. So in the Church we concern ourselves with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, doctrine, liturgy, ethics and the things of the world to come. Synods, too, major on these spiritual subjects. But nothing brings a Synod to life like a debate on money.

There are two burning issues at the moment in the Church of England as far as finance is concerned. One is the appropriate level of clergy stipends and the other is the appropriate provision for clergy pensions.

For years this was a matter for the Church Commissioners, but as the burden of paying for stipends and pensions has been steadily transferred to the parishes, it is now a matter of concern for everyone in church on Sunday. An increasing proportion of their giving is finishing up in the pockets of the clergy.

The Rochester Experiment

The Free Churches must wonder what all the fuss is about. They have always had to pay and house their clergy. If a church couldn’t fund ministry, it didn’t have a minister. No subsidies from the Commissioners or glebe income there. However, the economics of this brave new world is still unfamiliar territory for many Anglican congregations.

For many years Rochester diocese, alone in the Church of England, has asked parishes to pay their clergy costs separately from the parish share which funds diocesan administration. That has a number of advantages. In the first place, you pay for what you get. If you have a vicar, he costs you. If you don’t have a vicar, you don’t have to pay. That at least has the merit of fairness in the eyes of the parishes. It also means that, during an interregnum, the money that would have been earmarked for stipend costs can be put towards the costs of renovating or redecorating the parsonage house (as opposed to being lost in the diocesan machine).

Secondly, we find in practice that very few parishes fail to pay their clergy the full diocesan stipend. No-one wants to appear to be saying, ‘Having a clergyman in the parish is far too expensive. Could we share him with another parish, or perhaps you could take him away?’ In fact, it becomes a kind of virility test that no parish wants to be seen to fail. There are, of course, some UPA parishes that need ministry they can’t afford – and a modestly sized augmentation fund comes to the rescue. But the augmentation fund is surprisingly small in comparison to the diocesan payroll.

Thirdly, the system works – and it works very well. Clergy in Rochester diocese are amongst the least worst paid in the country. I won’t say ‘best paid’ because stipends are not generous, but most other dioceses pay significantly lower rates.

Diocesan Divide

At a recent meeting of the Diocesan Synod we were invited to vote on our response to the Archbishops’ Council’s consultation on clergy pay and pensions. The staff had helpfully sorted out the main issues so we had a series of votes on differentials, level of stipend and so on.

Some of us thought it might be interesting to vote by houses so that we could discover how the House of Laity in particular felt on these issues. There was the usual silly comment about whether we were suggesting that the clergy didn’t contribute, which wasn’t the point at all. As it happens in our diocese we have a lay/clergy ratio of about one hundred to one, so it is likely that laity would contribute ninety something per cent of the income. The real point at issue is that none of the laity stand to benefit from higher stipends and pensions. Therefore if they vote in favour, it is hardly out of self-interest.

We had the usual naïve comments from one or two clergymen who were embarrassed by the current levels of stipend (which they felt was very generous) and the assured pension (the likes of which many of their parishioners would not enjoy). Some people just don’t seem to appreciate the expense of supporting a family. Then there were calls to withhold part of the stipend if the clergyman had a wife in employment and calls for allowances for children and this, that and the other – as though treating clergy like benefit claimants was likely to improve their self-esteem and job satisfaction.

Worth their hire

I, for one, am more than happy to see clergy paid on a generous basis. After all, we do serve an amazingly generous God – and I’m under the impression that he expects us to become more like him. If any clergyman feels that his remuneration is over-generous, he has a very simple remedy and has merely to write a cheque to the charity of his choice and sign a Gift Aid declaration. The same goes for women clergy who draw a stipend, but there are a disproportionate number of women clergy in NSM jobs – presumably they have other means – but why on earth should the Church of England expect to get their services on the cheap?

When it came to the voting, the increase proposed for assistant clergy was approved unanimously in all three houses. Only two clergy in the assembled company of 110 voted against increasing the clergy stipend from £16,910 to £17,640 per annum.

Then we turned to the proposal to raise stipends to £20,000 per year. There was a health warning with this one which stated that the cost to the church, including additional pension contributions, would amount to £43 million per year. This was a fence that some of the clergy refused to jump, but the House of Clergy still passed the motion by 41 votes to 15. In the House of Laity however, the motion sailed through by 49 votes to 3.

Paying for pensions

The next vote was on pensions. No prizes for guessing that the clergy voted strongly in favour of leaving the defined benefits scheme as it is. The figures were 47 to 9. Again there was a health warning, this time that the contribution rate might have to rise still further to sustain the benefits presently on offer. Again the laity voted in favour, but this time by the narrower margin of 31 to 24.

How have the other dioceses voted? No doubt the figures will be circulated with General Synod papers before too long. However, in Rochester at least, the laity seem to be fairly determined to continue to demonstrate Christian generosity to their clergy – even at considerable personal expense. We were voting for something not far short of £1 per head of our membership per week. I suppose it is just possible that the laity of the diocese are saying that they not only value the parochial ministry, but they are prepared to pay for it.

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