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Leader comment >

A Church in deficit

THE Church of England is not recession-proof. This is clear from the latest financial statistics, released on Tuesday, which cover the year 2011. There is material for a good headline: parish income hits its highest total ever, £916 million. But, when inflation is taken into account, this is the lowest figure in real terms since 2002. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the downward trend has been continuing. There is customarily a time-lag in parish funding. Giving is such an important item to congregation members that they will go without other things before reducing what they put in the collection plate. But over the past four years, few salaries have kept pace with inflation; and many churchgoers are on a fixed income. Thus the regular pep-talks to encourage increased giving, at least in line with inflation, have met with less success than in the past. Many congregations are simply poorer than they were in, say, 2006-07, when, adjusting for inflation, parish income was the equivalent of more than £1 billion. The other problem, of course, is that investment income remains severely depressed. In 2008, before the credit crunch, this added £58.3 million. In 2011, this was down to £32.8 million (it had been as low as £30.4 million in 2010).

The year 2011 is the third in which C of E parishes operated in deficit, drawing £13 million out of their reserves. In 2010, however, the deficit stood at £20 million, suggesting that, although expenditure rose overall by 1.3 per cent, a degree of realism is being displayed. The troubling element here is where parishes have chosen to hold back expenditure. Often, of course, there is no choice: church buildings have a tendency to make demands that cannot be refused. Out of a total spending of £930 million, £201 million was capital expenditure. This now consumes nearly one quarter of parish funds. In contrast, parish-share contributions (for the payment of stipends and central administration) rose by only 0.2 per cent, a fall in real terms. And charitable giving to other bodies, such as overseas aid agencies and domestic charities, fell in real terms to its lowest figure since 1998.

Within a short time, the cheerful ordinands listed in our Petertide supplement will be in posts where they have influence over parish finances. They have been ordained as deacons and priests, not accountants, and most will rely heavily on the financial acumen that can, thankfully, be found in most parishes. But their example and teaching will be vital to the Church's fortunes. It is evident that large numbers of churchgoers continue to give generously, and often sacrificially. This is not universal however, as a comparison between dioceses shows. Parishioners need four things: information about need, confidence that what they give will be used effectively (see Canon Ritchie, Features), participation in decision-making, and, of course, a sense that they have a long-term future in the C of E. An informed congregation is a concerned congregation; and a concerned congregation is a generous one.

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