I suspect we have all heard the phrase ‘to know the price of everything but the value of nothing’. In our small corner of Christendom, those words have never seemed more apt than they do at this present time. Conversations are dominated by the full cost of a stipendiary clergy post, the benefit provided to an individual by a house-for-duty role, and so on and so forth. It is disorientating and bewildering.
I am not for a moment saying that the Church can afford to ignore economic reality, but it does need to ask itself the question for what purpose it exists? And for whom it exists? If, like me, you come to the conclusion that it exists for sinners, for the poor, for the lost, for all of us in fact and what it can offer them – us – is a glimpse of something more than the merely transactional, then the economic debate takes on a different flavour.
It seems strange to be writing these words as I have spent the last 20 years as an accountant balancing the books in the world of municipal administration but that makes my point for me. We are not in the business of setting council tax or demonstrating value for money from frontline services. The business of souls is different from that.
This has led me on to think about the example set by the recently retired priest Fr Beresford Skelton who was the parish priest of St Mary Magdalene, Millfield, in Sunderland for 34 years and for roughly half of that time undertook an additional parochial role as the parish priest of the Good Shepherd, Bishopwearmouth. Fr Skelton’s selfless priestly service to that community in the North-East, and to the wider Church, is an inspiration to us all.
The Diocese of Durham has decided not to appoint another parish priest as a like-for-like replacement for Fr Skelton in Millfield and Bishopwearmouth, and there are no doubt very sound financial reasons for not doing so. I wonder though what this says about the Church: who we serve and what are our priorities are?
I appreciate that there are no easy answers given the extent of the challenges faced by the Church of England, but we do have to question what our continued existence should look like, what that should mean to people and what it is indispensable and what is not.
I would not claim to be an expert on the finances of the Church of England, but now must surely be the moment for significant funds held by the Church Commissioners to be released so that there really can be a presence in every community rather than us just saying it because it sounds good.
I am not aware of a body of opinion saying we have to maintain one priest for each parish (already long gone in many places) but there does need to be something beyond the incredibly sparse and superficial which is unlikely ever to amount to anything meaningful or effective. Parish life is sacramental; that cannot be achieved by having someone on the end of the line a 45-minute drive away and only really to be deployed for the occasional offices. The Bishop of Chichester writes forcefully this month in these pages about the nature of ministry, its fruit and for whom it must be.
The Church of England has opted to follow the example set in other sectors and to set aside significant sums to be allocated through bidding processes. The focus is on initiatives which seek to grow the Church’s witness, whether that be through church plants, or expanded parishes, or more youth work. Often the emphasis is on new forms of witness. Bishops gathering in Canterbury this month have much to consider, and this growth focus is a given but must also be analysed for how it works.
Critically, though, there remains a string of unanswered questions arising from this new approach. Do the costs associated with the bidding processes justify the outcomes achieved? Are the forms of religious expression being adopted likely to last beyond the generation of young professionals at which they are aimed? Can this new happier, smilier version of being Christian cope with the realities which we all face of serious illness and of death? What have been their ‘pandemic consequences’?
I cannot provide all of the answers. I do know, however, that is I shall be travelling later this month to the Shrine at Walsingham for a weekend pilgrimage beginning on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene. It seems like a God-given opportunity to give thanks for the ministry of a good and faithful priest. Even some accountants know the value of lives well spent.