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Poured out in costly service

13 December 2013

"Further to your columns on finance and small churches. . . It's a nightmare. Is this the ongoing result of the Church Commissioners' fiasco of 20 years ago?" (Gazette, 25 October)

AFTER one of those times when I realise that my information has been gleaned inaccurately over a decade or two, I now have a more accurate view of what happened to the Church Commissioners' money. Although I did not really think it went south in a scandal in the early 1990s, I had never really heard exactly where it went.

To clarify: the money did not go anywhere. In the '80s, someone realised that the accumulated funds would soon run out if spent at the current rate. Assets were only equal to half the liabilities. An actuary did the sums, and predicted 2016 as the year of doom. So there had to be change. The responsibility for future pensions passed over to dioceses.

Most of us remember the '90s for the huge incremental increases in diocesan quotas, primarily in order to pay clergy pensions. Clergy pensions are covered by the Commissioners for service up to 1997. After that, they are funded by parishes in the quota system.

These days, there are two main areas of Church Commissioners' expenditure. The first is pensions (and there are large numbers of retired clergy); and the second is ministry related, and is spent on supporting poorer dioceses, bishops and their expenses, some bishops' houses (those owned by the Commissioners), and some costs at cathedrals.

If you, too, wondered where all the accumulated pension money went, here is the answer. A person's pension "savings" in a fund are calculated in such a way that the capital is used up - as well as the income from the savings, to provide the pension - by the time he or she dies. There is no residual savings fund carried forward.

All of this means that the situation in which congregations pay the approximate cost of their clergy, including the pension, will continue. But we still have the challenge that some churches look, on paper, to be unsustainable - to the actuarial mind, that is: one that focuses on finance, and numbers present.

Looking at heart and soul and strength makes unsustainability a different matter. The lost sheep was in a parlous state if no one went out to look for it. The 99 others looked after themselves. We have many churches that are muddling along when our management - and calculating - skills could help the middling and wealthy churches support all our little churches. The New Testament churches did it.

After all, we are the Body of Christ, not a series of little bodies of Christ, failing, middling, and thriving. We belong to one another, body and soul, in the service of Christ.

Send your issues and questions to maggiedurran@virginmedia.com.

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