Why can’t money be shared more equally between dioceses?

by
13 May 2009

The present system means many parishes have unfair burdens, says Dennis Warwick

PARISH SHARES, set by dioceses to cover costs such as their contributions to the stipends and pensions of clergy, inevitably cause PCCs and regular givers serious bouts of indigestion. One commentator from an affluent parish in Berkshire noted last year the horror at the annual meeting, when it was announced that the share had gone up in one year from £60,000 to £90,000.

Some parishes are serial defaulters, which adds to the share burden of other parishes in their diocese. Others worry that the increase in parish shares is diverting money that could be going to charities and overseas support. Diocesan administrators wryly point to the increasing difficulty they have in balancing the books. The recession is not making life any easier for them, nor for the Church Commissioners, in meeting the needs of the Church of England.

I write from a relatively affluent parish in the diocese of Bradford. For the first time in many years, our PCC (of which I am a member) has opted reluctantly to default on its parish share.

Our total income from every source in 2008 was £163,103, of which £27,845 is restricted. The diocese has requested us to pay £126,300 in 2009, but we would not have enough left to pay for all our other immediate mission commitments in the parish if we paid our share in full.

We are also concerned that the requested share is taking an increasing proportion of our income. Over the past 50 years, our parish share as a percentage of annual income has risen from 14.6 per cent in 1960, to 50 in 1983, to 59.3 in 2003, and to 77.4 this year (or 92 if we deduct restricted funds).

We are not alone. Other parishes in a similar economic situation in our diocese are faced with large requests. In its summary of the share system in November 2008, the Bradford Diocesan Board of Finance noted that “some dioceses have substantial reserves or local trusts, which provide significant income for various areas of expenditure, which in Bradford need to be funded through share. As a result of lack of such funds and the relatively small number of parishes in the diocese, it is acknowledged as a fact that share is higher per member than in most other dioceses.”

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THIS situation prompted me to find out what is the situation in other dioceses. Some diocesan websites provide information about parish shares, but generally the data is very sketchy. In consequence, I have undertaken a survey by contacting people across the country in the past two months to look at the distribution of parish shares.

The table below attempts to draw comparisons between parish shares in other dioceses. The parishes are not named, but I have given an indication of their character.

The most interesting column, which shows the contrasts most clearly, is that where an attempt is made to assess the amount of share per giver. In the parishes where the number of active regular givers is known, this seems to be roughly two-thirds of the number on the electoral roll, so I have used 65 per cent as the multiplying factor. The column “share per giver” is computed by dividing the parish share by 65 per cent of the number on the electoral roll.

This is in no way a scientifically drawn sample. There are 43 dioceses in England, and they vary enor­mously in the his­torical, social, and economic factors that will determine how much each diocese requests of its parishes. There are gaps in the table, where respondents have not been able to tell me what the parish income for the past year is. Not all the parishes have a similar social composition or parish population.

I emailed a number of diocesan boards of finance to ask what their highest parish share is, but only one replied, giving a figure that was slightly less than that in my parish. Generally, however, the information suggests that the Bradford director is correct in noting the inequity that exists among dioceses.

On a local level, the principle of richer parishes supporting poorer ones is one to which we are com­mitted. We believe that mutual sup­port is essential: the strong carry the weak, and the rich help the poor. On a national level, I note, how­ever, that there seems to be a reluctance to apply this prin­ciple to dioceses.

THE then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, set up a com­mission 26 years ago to look into what the Church was doing about the urban poor. The ensuing report, Faith in the City (Church House Publishing, 1985), identified the huge inequalities in incomes, life chances, education, and family life in Britain at that time.

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On a local level, the principle of richer parishes supporting poorer ones is one to which we are com­mitted. We believe that mutual sup­port is essential: the strong carry the weak, and the rich help the poor. On a national level, I note, how­ever, that there seems to be a reluctance to apply this prin­ciple to dioceses.

THE then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, set up a com­mission 26 years ago to look into what the Church was doing about the urban poor. The ensuing report, Faith in the City (Church House Publishing, 1985), identified the huge inequalities in incomes, life chances, education, and family life in Britain at that time.

Faith in the City asked the Church to strengthen its presence in Urban Priority Areas. It noted, however, that the existing framework of financial support was not equitable.

“Dioceses, as well as parish churches, must be outward looking: they should not seek to rest comfortably on a financial cushion provided by the generosity of past Christians or by the vagaries of history and population movements,” the report said. It recom­mended that parishes within a dio­cese should work in partner­ship, and dio­ceses, too, should seek to iron out inequalities between them.

It is difficult, of course, to find out what historical re­sources dioceses have. Most of the 43 do not pub­­lish de­tailed finan­cial statements on their web­sites. They play their cards close to their chests, particularly since the Church Commissioners have thrown much of the cost of maintaining clergy pen­sions back to the dioceses.

The Church Commissioners used in the 1960s to support dioceses for up to about 80 per cent of their needs, whereas now it is about 18 per cent. There is some discriminatory support for those dioceses that have needy parishes: Bradford diocese, for example, receives extra financial help because of this.

THE Financial Times published last July what was described as a financial portrait of the Church of England. It stressed shrinking congregations, soaring costs, and crumbling buildings. Nevertheless, it noted that “the Church Commissioners’ land, property and stock market invest­ments were valued at £5.7 billions at the last balance sheet date and last year (2007) contributed £177.8 mil­lions to the Church of England revenues” (Richard Tompkins, “A religion in recession”, Financial Times Weekend Magazine, 12/13 July 2008; Press, 18 July).

The resources held by the dioceses contribute about a quarter of the total of the Church’s annual spending needs. Much of the rest comes from the parishioners, and they are declining in number.

The fact remains that some dio­ceses are much better placed fin­ancially than others to meet their running costs, just as Faith in the City said nearly 25 years ago.

WHAT should be done? There needs to be a thorough and transparent review of the resources available to the Church of England and its dioceses, together with some forecasts of future trends and ways in which the Church might respond.

The new Dioceses Com­mission, set up in 2008, has a primary duty to keep under review the provincial and diocesan structure of the Church of England, and in particular:

• the size, boundaries, and number of provinces;

• the size, boundaries, and number of dioceses, and their distribution between the provinces;

• the number and distrib­ution of bishops, and the arrange­ments for episcopal oversight.

It will be of no permanent value, however, if the Commission looks only at administrative structures. Clearly these have financial implications.

Surely the crucial dimension is in equalising the wealth of dioceses. It is not right that some parishes in relatively poor dioceses should have to bear their present inequitable burdens.

Dr Dennis Warwick is a retired Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Leeds University, and a member of the PCC at St Mary’s, Burley-in-Wharfedale.

Surely the crucial dimension is in equalising the wealth of dioceses. It is not right that some parishes in relatively poor dioceses should have to bear their present inequitable burdens.

Dr Dennis Warwick is a retired Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Leeds University, and a member of the PCC at St Mary’s, Burley-in-Wharfedale.

 

 

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