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Synod considers time and money spent in administration and mission

24 February 2017

A PRIVATE member’s motion about administrative cost-efficiency and subsidiarity came to the Synod as contingency business at the end of the group of sessions on Thursday morning.

Introducing his motion, Gavin Oldham (Oxford) thanked members who had supported his concern that the Church was “wasting time and money” on administrative burdens. “This motion is not about removing proper conversation on everyday issues between the dioceses, nor removing or challenging the autonomy of the local Church,” he said. “There will be no central diktat.”

Decentralised organisations had “overhauled” their admin to become more efficient, but the Church, with the exception of bilateral diocesan arrangements to share resources, and Church House initiatives, had not taken up this opportunity, he said: there was no consistency in accounting software, non-clergy payroll systems, and different experts and insurance offerings in each diocese. He suggested that a centralised bank of frequently asked questions would be helpful for diocesan registrars.

At the heart of the motion was subsidiarity, Mr Oldham said. “Jobs that could be done once are duplicated 42 times, but if the Synod decided to remove subsidiarity from administration, the mind-set would become more efficient.” The second part of the motion asked the Archbishops’ Council to draw up “proper analysis of progress” and prioritise initiatives to pull the Church into the 21st century. Renewal and Reform was not enough, he concluded. “The Church should not be wasting its time chiselling away at administration, and face the world around us.”

Mary Chapman (Archbishops’ Council) moved a “friendly” amendment to align Clause (b) with the overarching structures of the Church. She agreed with the motion, which, she said, was not new, and would reduce the administrative burden of dioceses and save costs. But she expressed concern about the wording of the motion, which presumed the centralisation of the Church. “Dioceses and parishes are not branches of C of E plc, as implied, and have not been ‘given’ this burden of responsibility: it is legally theirs.”

Her amendment proposed the identification of a “more consistent” offering, which dioceses would be able to accept or reject. Clause (b) presumed the outcome before admin had been done, she said, and the Archbishops’ Council should work with dioceses to test these services and their outcome.

Mr Oldham supported the amendment, which was carried.

The Revd Dr Sean Doherty (London) said that for smaller and poorer parishes, such as his own, there were no professionals in the congregations who could perform administrative tasks; so the burden fell on ministers, who had not been recruited or trained for that. “This can be the source of very considerable stress for ministers, and inhibits mission.” Anything that released ministers for mission should be welcomed, he said.

Carl Hughes (Southwark) supported the motion. Too often the Church of England was suspicious of organisational change and centralisation, but, with 20,000 clergy, 16,000 churches, 8000 parishes, and 42 dioceses and cathedrals, efficiencies could surely be found in the “boring but critical back-office support services we require”. Corporate managers did have a challenge to lay down to the Synod. “I can confidently state it is inconceivable that the Church’s operations cannot become more efficient and cost-effective, given the current construct,” he said. Could a national service centre, outside London, not deal with HR queries and do a national payroll system?

Julie Dziegel (Oxford) said that her work in spreadsheets, as a parish and deanery treasurer, was her own ministry: “It’s what I’m called to do.” Centralisation for its own sake was not needed, but the amended motion ticked the right boxes, in allowing work already begun to continue, such as the successful parish buying initiative.

The Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield) said that, as a rural parish priest with five churches, she did not see anything in the motion which would make her life easier. “It isn’t going to fill in the banns or baptism certificates for me,” she said. “It isn’t going to do anything to see me released for mission in the Church any more.” Also, the Church should avoid any process that would require making diocesan staff redundant.

Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) opposed the motion, which was too vague, he said. What worked in some places wouldn’t work in others; so it was good to retain diocesan control. Furthermore, having a relationship between diocesan administrative staff and parish priests was vital: a national service centre would be anonymous and distrusted by clergy.

The amended motion was carried. It reads:

That this Synod, considering the ratio of time and money spent in administration to that spent in mission to be too high throughout the Church of England, and noting the very effective facilities provided for parish statistics collection and clergy payroll:

(a) confirm that the principle of subsidiarity should not be applied to purely administrative functions; and

(b) request the Archbishops’ Council to develop its current work with dioceses to identify opportunities for nationally provided administrative services which would both release a larger proportion of resources for local growth and mission initiatives and generate economies for the whole Church.

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