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Cash requested to combat the ‘doomsday machine’

13 February 2015


BREAKING the rules on borrowing from the future is necessary to stave off the "existential crisis" of ever-declining congregations, members of the General Synod were told this week.

The First Church Estates Commissioner, Andreas Whittam Smith, said on Tuesday that for 20 years the Church Commissioners had "religiously" maintained the value of their endowment, so that the same lump sum would always be available for future generations.

But the "doomsday machine", by which C of E membership falls year on year as the deaths of older churchgoers is not matched by the arrival of younger people, meant that the Commissioners' rule on intergenerational equity needed to be broken.

"We know what the crisis that confronts us is," Mr Whittam Smith said. "It is an existential crisis. If it is a crisis, I'm afraid [the inter-generational rule] is a rule we have to consider breaking. We can only finance the spending of the task group's recommendations by borrowing from the future."

Earlier, John Spence from the Archbishops' Council had laid out the various working groups that had produced a range of reports on developing leaders, discipleship, ministerial education, funding future plans, and simplification.

As a screen above his head showed graphs of church membership plummeting over time, Mr Spence said that, if the current decline was not arrested, by 2057 the C of E would consist of only 200,000-300,000 people. Even were the present one-per-cent fall per year turned into a one-per-cent rise, membership would not stop declining until 2041.

"In less than ten years, we could see a threat to the presence of the Church in communities across rural England, and the Church of England eliminated from its key essential role in promoting the risen Christ," he said.

The task groups, after consulting each diocese last year, had recommended large investment to maintain the number of clergy. This has been calculated to require a doubling of the number of ordinands, and an increase in the number of lay leaders as well.

"Out of all of this comes an application to the Church Commissioners for the potential for a significant but one-off piece of funding," he said. "It will become clear that, if we are to have an impact, we will not be able to do it from within the pockets that are currently available to us."

Mr Spence and Mr Whittam Smith both insisted that no emergency funding would be released by the Commissioners unless the General Synod approved the idea.

Currently, the Church Commissioners give the C of E about £200 million a year, of which half is spent on pensions; the rest is either given to parishes, or pays for bishops and cathedral clergy.

No figure was given to the Synod on how much would be asked for from the Commissioners. The Revd Amanda Fairclough, a member of the House of Clergy and a Church Commissioner herself, asked when they would see detailed and costed proposals.

Mr Spence said that the details of the request to the Commissioners had not yet been fully worked out. He warned, however, that the C of E at present "costs £1.4 billion a year to run" (about one quarter of the turnover of Waitrose), "so if you're going to try and find a way to fund something really meaningful, you are talking about significant sums of money".

The Revd Charles Razzall, from the Chester diocese, asked how strong a bias to the poor the funds coming from Church House would have. Mr Spence replied that around half of the money given to dioceses would be linked to deprivation - how poor the area served by the diocese is.

This would recognise that mission here was "harder and that the amount of lay support typically is less because there are less structured communities". The other 50% would be for church growth and subject to some form of bidding process.


Question of the week: Should the Commissioners release funds set aside for the future to help boost mission in the present?

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