Church fees: Waiving with impunity

15 July 2009

Cross-dressing: Synod members relax outside the debating chamber at York

Cross-dressing: Synod members relax outside the debating chamber at York

THE lively topic of ecclesiastical fees returned to the Synod on Saturday morning, when the draft legislation had its revision stage.

Introducing the take-note debate on the report by the revision com­mittee, its chairman, Tim Allen (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich), said that there had been “a substantial bundle” of amendments. The com­mit­tee had accepted representations from the Association of English Cathedrals, asking for fees to be paid to cathed­rals’ corporate bodies; and from the Ecclesiastical Law Association, re­flect­ing the underlying concerns of registrars. Sympathetic account had been taken of their sensitivities: registrars did “essential work for the Church, for, in many cases, inade­quate recompense”.

Proposals that had not been accepted included that of fees’ con­tinuing to be paid to the incumbent: the Synod had overwhelmingly approved making them payable to the diocesan board of finance.

The Revd Dr John Hartley (Brad­ford) said that the question he had asked of the committee, whether it was moral for a PCC to receive the fee for a crematorium service in which it had not been involved and where there was no pastoral follow-up, had not been answered.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that diocesan secretaries were concerned about the practicalities and the costs of collecting fees.

The Archdeacon of Lancaster, the Ven. Peter Ballard (Blackburn), moved an amendment that would mean that the incumbent, not the diocesan board of finance, would receive the fees. “Replacing the flawed system by another flawed system is not a way forward.” The diocesan board of finance would have to set up a collecting sys­tem, because no system existed other than the clergy and PCC. Forty out of 43 diocesan secretaries were seriously concerned about the collection of fees.

It was also difficult to explain to people that their fees would go to “them” in the diocese. The process would also leave no audit trail. The diocesan board of finance would not know where the fees had derived from, how many funerals had been taken, or how many fees had been lost to the Church. “It is not a simple solution: it is a bureaucratic night­mare that will create chaos,” he said.

Clive Scowen (London) said that the Measure should make clear that the incumbents should be collecting agents for the fees.

The Revd Stephen Trott (Peter­borough) said that he had no difficulty in explaining to people that the fee was to pay for the incumbent, and they found that acceptable. “When I say that the money belongs to the diocese, that is much more difficult to explain.” When he said it was being collected on behalf of the PCC, which had played no part in the service he had provided, they found it almost impossible to accept. He rejected the report’s suggestion that for retired clergy to accept fees was simony. It was right that their work received its proper recognition.

The Revd Paul Benfield (Black­burn) said that collecting fees cent­rally made sense only if funerals were booked centrally; but the incumbent was not an employee of the DBF, and the DBF could not direct the incum­bent. Nobody was under a duty to collect the fees. “We will end up with chaos.”

Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) said he was concerned that Mr Trott had said that the incumbent was receiving a fee for a service, because that could attract VAT.

The Revd John Plant (Leicester) said that he did not find the present system of collecting fees simple, and so opposed the amendment.

The Archdeacon’s amendment was put to the Synod and lost.

Dr Graham Campbell (Chester) then put amendments that would have allowed the fees to be set for two years or three years; but his amend­ment fell.

Barry Barnes (Southwark) put an amendment so that the incumbent would not have to consult a person nominated by the bishop of the diocese before he or she waived a fee for a funeral or a wedding. He said that if an incumbent’s churchwarden died, or if his or her curate got married, the incumbent might want to waive the fee, and should not have to consult the diocese.

He said that it was unclear what would happen if an incumbent did consult and was then refused. Would he or she be subject to a disciplinary procedure?

Thomas Benyon (Oxford), speak­ing for the steering committee, said that the fees belonged to the DBF, but a decision to waive a fee was a pas­toral matter, hence the need for con­sultation. The duty to consult meant that the incumbent had “at least to find out what the diocese thinks about it”. But only the parish priest knew the pastoral situation, and it would be his or her duty to ignore that advice if he or she thought it was necessary, pastorally, to do so.

From time to time, clergy came under considerable pressure to waive fees. The provision for consultation allowed them to say: “I have consulted the folk upstairs, and they said, ‘No.’”

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suf­fragans), said: “I suspect this is over-legislation.” Bishops were used to being backstops, and they could con­tinue to be so in these cases without the need to have a consult­ative pro­cess that had to be employed willy-nilly. “Let’s not be worrying about fail-safe mechanics.”

The amendment was carried. An apparently similar amendment put by Mr Benfield, which would have left out the need to consult with church­wardens, was not carried.

The debate was adjourned and re­sumed on Monday. Mr Hind moved an amendment on the assignment of fees which would give some “back­bone” and introduce some clarity, he said. His proposed change to Clause 5 would make assignment of fees the default position. About 25 per cent of the clergy had no evidence of having made a deed of assignation, even if they thought they had done so. Clergy who didn’t opt for the new arrange­ment would automatically receive the fees and have them deducted from their stipend.

The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, urged support for the amendment. It restored the opportunity for incumbents who wanted to opt out actively, and gave them more generous time to do so.

Mr Benfield raised the question of National Insurance contributions, which were not payable if an incum­bent chose not to assign the fees. He estimated that it would leave an incumbent about £300 worse off.

Bishop Broadbent called for “a bit of joined-up” to ensure that incum­bents were not being chased over assignation at the same time as hav­ing to supply statements of their particulars for common tenure.

Dr Campbell highlighted a con­cern that, although National In­surance contributions would be saved if fees were not assigned, pension in retirement would be affected by re­ducing income from the state pension scheme.

The Archdeacon of Berkshire, the Ven. Norman Russell (Oxford), sup­ported the amendment. The new Measure brought clarity to grey areas.

The vote was carried. It completed the revision stage.

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