THE first Christians dealt with their wealth in so daring and counter-cultural a way that it proved powerfully attractive (Acts 2.44). Property and income was pooled so that there was no distinction between rich and poor, slave and free.
Yet this was no crypto-Marxist, hippy commune. Resources were shared because this was a community founded on the sacrificial love of the cross. Those dependent on Christ’s sacrifice knew that they were dependent also on each other. Those whose lives had been saved by the freely offered love of the cross could live only to the same values of generosity, gift, and grace.
It is interesting to see how far we have fallen. Anglican leaders (me included) love to rail against social inequality and the ever growing divide between rich and poor. Yet any analysis of the data shows that, across our own diocesan structures, we graphically model the inequality we so freely condemn.
The heart of the issue is that each diocese is its own independent charity, and that some have inherited vast historical assets, whereas others have not. While direct comparison is difficult because of the different accounting methods employed by different dioceses, the broad picture is so striking as to be unarguable.
Take, for example, the total funds held by dioceses (using publicly available data from 2016). If you divide that sum by the population of the area that the diocese serves, you find a vast disparity between the richest diocese (£209.40 per head), and the poorest (£25.80). Of the 25 wealthiest dioceses, 23 are in the Southern Province. These are radical differences between dioceses with a clear geographical bias.
Within each diocese there is a long-established principle that money should be redistributed from richer parishes to poorer ones so as to sustain Christian ministry in less well-off communities. There is, however, no comparable mechanism for redistribution between richer and poorer dioceses.
The Lowest Income Communities Fund (the mechanism by which the Church Commissioners distribute funds to the dioceses) is invaluable, but it is calculated on the basis of average household income in a region, and does not take into account the health of the diocesan balance sheet. The Strategic Development Fund is also enabling some very exciting evangelistic work, much of it in more deprived areas.
Neither of these, however, has any financial impact on the wealthier dioceses — and, indeed, they provide them with a convenient excuse for hanging on tightly to what they have got. It is hard to escape the conclusion that we are an unfair and unequal Church that has taken a preferential option for the rich.
THE impact of this injustice on the parish is abundantly clear, and is one of the main reasons that we are so swiftly losing any Christian presence on our outer estates, especially in the north. Put simply, the more money a diocese has, the better and more cheaply it can staff its parishes.
Glebe assets, which vary from £1.2 million for the poorest diocese to £126 million for the richest, demonstrate this especially clearly (glebe is land that was left to a parish to support a parish priest and was handed over to the diocesan board of finance by the 1976 Endowments and Glebe Measure).
There is a consistent pattern that those dioceses with more glebe also have more clergy per head of population. Moreover, better-endowed dioceses are able to subsidise the costs of ministry, which means that parishes in poorer areas are usually having to pay more for the same level of ministry. Although the generosity of Christians in many of our poorer parishes is heroic, that is hardly the point: it is a sad truth that, as a general rule, we are deploying stipendiary clergy according to historic assets, not missional need.
This basic injustice is then enhanced by other, regional factors. So, for example, if you have a church hall in central London, the income that you can reap will generally mean that you can afford an administrator or a youth worker. By contrast, a similar asset in Sunderland or Barrow will usually attract only a fraction of the rent, which means that all you have is another building-maintenance headache.
When I was responsible for a team ministry in inner London, we had the joy of a properly staffed parish with an administrative team who could set clergy free for ministry, and a children’s worker who could reach out to local schools — all of which led to growth.
Meanwhile, the Vicar of Ribbleton, a similarly sized and similarly deprived parish in Preston, has, until very recently, been working entirely alone. We are often instructed to learn from the evangelistic success of certain key dioceses, but rarely is it taken into account that the more a diocese is able to spend, the more evangelistically “successful” it tends to be.
I had a long conversation recently with the wonderfully energetic Vicar of Christ Church, Norris Green, in Liverpool, where the congregation had to abandon its building some years ago. A growing congregation now has a fantastic vision of a rebuilt set of buildings offering generous service and placed at the heart of a needy community. In many parts of the country, there would be local charities, or the possibility of partnerships with developers; in Norris Green, in a diocese with almost no endowment and on an estate where land carries little value, a brilliant idea is stuck. That is the reality of an unequal Church.
WHAT, then, is the solution? There is a radical one: a new Endowments and Glebe Measure that allowed historic assets to be held centrally so that we could deploy clergy nationally on the basis of need rather than history. But the chances of the General Synod’s passing such a measure are roughly the same as those of Accrington Stanley’s winning the UEFA Champions League.
And, in any case, the characteristic of the Early Church was not tax and spend, but an attitude of generosity, gift, and grace which sprang from lives transformed by the cross. A better response would be a voluntary change of heart from the “haves”, and an acknowledgement that we are a co-dependent community of Christians.
So, for example, the diocese of Lincoln could offer to rebuild Christ Church, Norris Green. Or the diocese of Oxford might fund the cost of some pioneers to be released on to the estates of Birmingham. Or the diocese of London might freely choose to share its bounty by strengthening ministry on the former coalfields of County Durham. That, surely, is more like the Church of Acts 2: a Church that God richly blessed.
If the Church of England is to play any part in the renewal of Christian life in this nation, it will come from the edges, from the margins, from the forgotten, and from the poor. Yet a Church that seems content to live with such yawning structural injustices is quickly abandoning those areas on the basis of unaffordability. What is our ruling ethic — the market or the gospel? The spreadsheet or the cross? Until we can answer such questions, talk of renewal will be wind and air betokening nothing.
The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley in Blackburn diocese.
Listen to Bishop North talk about this article on the Church Times Podcast