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Vergers, and heating — optional extras?

26 February 2016

Geoff Crawford

Speaking up for poor parishes in rich dioceses: Jayne Ozanne

Speaking up for poor parishes in rich dioceses: Jayne Ozanne

MOTIONS on funeral and wedding fees, proposing that costs of vergers and heating be included in the prescribed fees payable to PCCs, had come to the agenda from the diocese of Worcester for Tuesday afternoon.

Introducing the debate, the Archdeacon of Dudley, the Ven. Nikki Groarke (Worcester), said: “Having fees which are simple, transparent, fair, and requiring minimal explanation will enable a focus that makes Church different,” she said. “We consider the benefits of including the cost in the fee nationally would outweigh the negative impact of a fee increase for the minority of cases where a verger would not have been required.”

The Church was not “competing for business, but offering something unique”, she said; it was a place in which families could invite a “physical and emotional encounter with God”, and which could change lives.

The vast majority of families who chose to hold a funeral or wedding in a church did so not on grounds of cost, she said; and it would be off-putting and inappropriate for clerics to discuss finances with couples and families during marriage or funeral preparation. It was the same as a restaurant asking whether you required a waiter or a warm venue, she said.

For most families, these special offices were the only contact they had with the Church. They should be an opportunity to focus on pastoral engagement rather than to discuss the additional fees to cover the cost of heating, lighting, and the presence of a verger.

Canon David Felix (Chester) explained that he had been a member of the revision committee when the last fees (Amendment) Measure went through the Synod. “That (Amendment) Measure was not an example of good law,” he said. “It was rushed through, leaving many issues unresolved.” He described the Measure as “unclear, with no settled policy behind it”.

He said that there was some confusion over the use of the word “option”: it is not the same as saying that you didn’t need it if you didn’t want it. He said that one bride asked what a verger was, and, when it was explained, she said that she didn’t want one and wouldn’t pay for it. “The bride’s mother stepped in to save the day,” he said.

His verger spent three hours getting ready for a funeral, and five hours preparing for a wedding. His worst fear was that “half an hour before a service, a group of walkers come in with their muddy boots,” and that the PCC was “concerned that his role could be seen as optional, and therefore unnecessary”.

He wanted an “open and honest debate”, and for PCC fees to be set at a rate “to reflect actual costs”. He suggested that the fee structure should be abolished and replaced “with a less restrictive regime”.

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said that he was carrying out his first ever wedding in the summer of 1984. As he stood at the back of the church handing out hymn books, he heard a loud bang — the verger, who was 80, had collapsed and died. “I became convinced that vergers are not an optional extra,” he said.

The Bishop, who chairs the RACSC group, said that this was a good time for the debate. The previous five-year Fees Order “has had a bit of time to settle”, and a debate now would give RACSC a steer “before we make another five-year Fees Order”.

He said that the question of fees for heating, and vergers, had “both been contentious in the last quinquennium”. They had been included in the draft Fees Order, but had been removed by the Synod, he said.

He asked for a “clear steer” on whether the Synod wanted these items as statutory fees or optional extras.

Prebendary Simon Cawdell (Hereford), opposing the motion, said that the fees had to be justifiable with regard to cost. In his group of parishes, he had some churches “where occasional offices are just that”. A wedding he conducted last November had been the first in ten years. In those circumstances, church members were keen to assist as a way of making people welcome.

In other larger churches, they encouraged the use of a verger. “The nature of the churches is different, and the costs reflect that,” he said. Including the fees as part of the statutory fees “would make them more, not less, expensive”.

Dr David Martlew (Liverpool) said that he had consulted a couple of local funeral directors before the debate, and was “concerned” about what he had been told. In the past few years, there had been “a perceivable shift in the way in which clients plan their funerals”, and “marginal costs” had become a factor.

A service in the crematorium had marginal costs of £86. This rose to £170 in Roman Catholic churches and £300 in Anglican churches. “This they perceive as a very significant barrier to the use of an Anglican church.”

Funeral ministry was a key element in evangelism. “We need to deliver the best possible quality in order to draw people to Christ.” He spoke of complaints, such as that churches were often freezing cold, even though people had paid for heating.

The Archdeacon of Halifax, the Ven. Anne Dawtry (West Yorkshire & the Dales), said that, after the previous significant fees increase, research that she had carried out showed that “the direct effect has been to reduce the number of church funerals, and an increased use of civil celebrants.”

She did not wish to revisit the fee levels, but described it as “an increase enough”. She said that the items were “already covered”, and that a fee increase “might discourage families from accessing the pastoral offices that are their rights on grounds of affordability”.

Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) reminded the Synod of the four principles on parochial fees which had been previously agreed, one of which was having a uniform fee across the country. He said that there was not enough information to show if costs charged for vergers and heating were varied or not; so the Synod could not tell what the impact would be if these things were added into the standard fee.

The Revd David Brooke (Durham) agreed with Mr Hind: there was not enough information. He did not think that vergers or heating were truly optional.

The Bishop of Brixworth, the Rt Revd John Holbrook (acting for the Bishop of Leicester during the vacancy-in-see), said that the last changes to the fee structure had seriously damaged the relationships between clergy and funeral directors. “Across the country, faithful local ministers are rebuilding those relationships with our colleagues in the funeral-directing business,” he said. “Please don’t damage it with this well-intentioned but unhelpful proposal.”

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said that some of the four principles did conflict with each other. This initiative had been brought from Worcester diocesan synod after “intensive research” that showed strong support for the proposals. “We do need to be wary about increasing fees for fear of putting people off. It seems to me that we should pay heed to the awkward conversations that take place if heating and vergers are reckoned to be an extra. That is not conducive to good relationships and trust.”

Canon Andrew Salmon (Manchester) said that his great concern was to not put people off from having services in churches, so that people were not choosing between a funeral at a crematorium or a church on the grounds of cost alone. “I don’t consider that having a verger is an optional extra,” he said.

He recalled one occasion when his 16-year-old daughter had had to be roped in as an emergency verger at a wedding. “She forgot to close the doors after the bride had come into church,” he remembered. “She was so intent [on]looking at her phone that she didn’t notice me giving her the eye, and I had to send her a Facebook message to get her to close the doors. I certainly do want a verger in church, but to keep our fees down.”

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) opposed the motion, because it would be to the detriment of poorer parishes already struggling to meet heating and lighting bills. This was particularly prevalent when covering the cost of funerals, as couples preparing for marriage were more likely to meet the optional costs of heating the church. The additional costs should, therefore, be considered in the “context” of each parish, financial and otherwise, she said.

The motion concerning the costs and expenses of a verger was lost.

Prebendary Simon Cawdell (Hereford) said that the defeat of the previous item suggested that there were more important items on the agenda than the notion of having standard heating costs. The procedural motion to move to next business was carried, and the motion to include costs and expenses of heating in the prescribed fees payable to PCCs was not moved, and cannot be returned to in the life of this Synod.

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