PAROCHIAL FEES were the subject of a debate with an element of déjà vu about it on Sunday evening.
In February, the Synod had been presented with draft legislation intended to regularise the existing position on parochial fees, and to protect individual ministers and PCCs from legal challenge.
The Fees Review Group’s report, Four Funerals and a Wedding, with its various recommendations, had been presented, too, with the expectation that these could be discussed as the legislation was revised, since they would be possible under the legislation, but would not be put into effect by it. The Synod, however, had asked for first consideration of the legislation to be adjourned, pending a fuller debate on Four Funerals and a Wedding.
Therefore the Synod was now debating a supplementary report (GS 1703), which provided further information about the need for legislative reform in respect of parochial fees.
Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, said that the Church of England had the unique privilege of providing pastoral services to any parishioner: “a gateway into the lives of millions, and opportunities for mission”.
The law served the Church badly: there was doubt over ownership, assignment, and waiver of fees. The legal framework did not reflect the reality that more than 90 per cent of incumbents had legally assigned all their fees to the diocesan boards of finance (DBFs). There was a public perception that the fees went to the vicar.
The position of retired clergy and NSMs was highly unsatisfactory: fair payment for their work made them vulnerable to challenge. A new Measure would make it clear that the fees for ministry belonged to the Church, in the person of the DBF; and those deputising could be properly remunerated. Parish priests would have a clear legal discretion to waive fees. The proposal to abolish fees for the funerals of children under 16 was particularly welcome.
The present position was untenable. Parochial fees were “an enduring symbol of an enduring mutual commitment between people and the Church”.
The Archdeacon of Newark, the Ven. Nigel Peyton (Southwell & Nottingham), said: “In an age of internet banking, cash and cheques in brown envelopes is not really ideal.” If the Church was to challenge the financial behaviour of others, it must ensure its own house was in order.
Alison Wynne (Blackburn) said that if fees were set centrally, they would have to be fixed at a cost that would disadvantage old, expensive-to-heat churches. “Let’s not restrict parishes by central fees.”
A system of diocesan clearing houses for funerals, she warned, would imply that the diocese would provide a minister for a funeral whenever requested, which would put clergy at the beck and call of funeral directors. A Blackburn diocesan synod opposed this report.
Robin Back (Norwich) said that the report was setting broad outlines that would lead to ground rules.
The Revd Stephen Trott (Peterborough) had grave reservations about the report. He asked how the fees set were defensible, when people paid £49 for a funeral in church, but £90 for the same service in a crematorium. Parochial fees should be looked at on a commercial basis, Mr Trott said.
Retired clergy who took services should collect the fee, as should self-employed clergy. Saying that the incumbent had the right to the fees, when someone else was taking the service, was contrary to the modern mindset. “Crem cowboys are well beyond the reach of canon law.”
The Archdeacon of Berkshire, the Ven. Norman Russell (Oxford), was persuaded that there was a need for reform. “It may make sense for fees to be collected locally.”
Canon Carl Turner (Exeter) said: “It is time clergy did not have to deal with the treasury.” He wanted to make the need for ongoing training an explicit expectation, “because of the beautiful ministry we have with the bereaved”.
The Archdeacon of Lancaster, the Ven. Peter Ballard (Blackburn), said that the idea that the cost of taking a service in churches across the country was the same was nonsense. “If we do a good job, offer a high-quality service, they’ll pay for it.”
The Synod voted to take note of the report, and went on to debate the Bishop’s motion.
John Freeman (Chester) moved an amendment recommending that all fees be payable to PCCs, and that they should have a legal obligation to pay the portion currently legally payable to incumbents to the Diocesan Boards of Finance. The motion was lost.
Dr Graham Campbell (Chester) sought in an amendment to ask a modest additional marriage fee from couples marrying under the “qualifying connection”. The motion was lost.
The Revd James Houghton (Chichester) wanted to reconsider the age limit for children’s funerals, perhaps raising it from 16 to 18.
Canon Chris Lilley (Lincoln) believed that there could be no single fixed fee. He was also un-persuaded that a clergy waiver was necessary. The tax position should be made clear in the final report.
The Archdeacon of Salop, the Ven. John Hall, found good and bad in the report, but would not be encouraged to sign a blank cheque.
The motion was carried. It requested the Archbishops’ Council to introduce legislation to give effect to recommendations (a) to (f) in GS 1703; and requested the Deployment, Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee to consult with relevant stakeholders on recommendations (g) to (j) in GS 1703, and report back to the Synod.
ON MONDAY MORNING, Bishop Packer asked the Synod to approve the Parochial Fees Order 2008. Marriage and funeral services were vital to the Church’s ministry, and contributed more than £16 million towards the cost of paying stipends, he said. The increase in fees was three per cent, in line with inflation, and “was acceptable to the majority of the interested parties we consulted”. The Synod agreed the Order.