AN IMPROMPTU rebellion against the charging of parochial fees failed on Thursday, but provided the Synod with food for thought.
Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, said that it had been five years since the Synod last discussed parochial fees for funerals and weddings. These services were an excellent opportunity to minister to people at key moments in their lives and often constituted the “first or rare” contact with the Church.
In 2017, there had been more than 38,000 weddings, a 22-per-cent decline over the previous four years. That meant opportunities to talk to 77,000 brides and grooms and half a million guests. There were also 20 per cent fewer funerals in 2017 than in 2012. A growing trend was towards funerals in crematoria, which now involved 77 per cent of the total. Through its funeral ministry, the Church of England engaged with nearly 500,000 bereaved people, and more than seven million people attended a funeral taken by a priest each year.
In planning the new fees, efforts had been made to relate them to the costs of providing the service, make them uniform across the Church, inclusive, and affordable, and strike a balance between not “inhibiting mission opportunities” and covering costs. An annual review was built into the schedule, which would uprate the fees each year based on CPI inflation in August. This was a change from using RPI inflation for the previous five years.
There were also other changes: no funeral costs for under-18s, raising the age from 16; and a new fee for funeral services elsewhere than a church, cemetery, or crematorium, to cover woodland burials and private chapels. The new Order also proposed abolishing the small fee due to the PCC for a funeral service at a crematorium without a service in church as well. This had had “no clear justification” and was sometimes difficult to administer. “The Church should feel confident in the value of the ministry it offers, and not be embarrassed about requiring a contribution towards provision of ministry in the form of a fee.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Northern Suffragans), was saddened that fewer people were choosing C of E funerals and hearing the message that death had lost its sting. It was because of the higher 2014 fees, which had meant “fewer and fewer people are able to afford the pastoral and sacramental ministry we offer.” In poorer areas, funerals and marriages were drying up almost completely, he said.
This has been brought about by the “false premise” that the amount someone paid in fees should be proportionate to the hours a priest worked, which undermined the sense of priesthood as a “gift”. They did not charge for any other services: “When I was a parish priest, I did not invoice Akela when I popped in to pray with the Cubs,” he said. “If we’re serious about being a Church with and for the poor we will not achieve that by pricing the poor out of the pastoral and sacramental ministry of the Church.”
It was not enough to be able to waive fees for the deprived; those struggling to make ends meet should not have to beg for charity. “I’m launching a one-man rebellion against this Fees Order. No doubt I will be voting alone, but that’s not going to stop me.”
The Revd Peter Kay (St Albans) expressed concern about the elimination of the PCC element for crematorium funerals. Although these took place offsite, they were still a form of parish ministry, and came with an opportunity cost.
The Revd Tiffer Robinson (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) mourned the loss of the token £30 that PCCs earned through crematorium funerals. Having the requirement to pass this fee on forced the non-incumbent priest who was taking such a service to do what he or she was supposed to and ask for permission from the parish priest. “This isn’t just about petty parochialism, but enabling pastoral links between local ministry teams and next of kin. How can a church offer pastoral care if they haven’t been told a parishioner has died and an Anglican cremation service has taken place?”
Debra McIsaac (Salisbury) was another victim of this change, which would make it harder for her shared multi-parish administrator system to work.
The Revd Christopher Smith (London) asked Bishop Foster to explain whether they had considered lowering the fees, and whether they thought “the market” was telling them anything.
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, expressed surprise that there had not been more discussion of why fee income was falling. Was this due to secularisation, more competition, or the higher fees? He declared his “solidarity” with Bishop North. In the Church of Scotland, no fees were charged at all, which ensured that parochial ministry was not coloured by money concerns.
Canon Rosie Harper (Oxford) also backed Bishop North’s idea, which was a “no-brainer”. Cutting fees to zero would immediately undercut all competing funeral providers and cause a huge increase in demand, she suggested. “At one stroke, people will come back to church because we’re giving them a gift. Go for it.”
John Freeman (Chester), a PCC treasurer, asked whether the annual uprating could take place with the June inflation figures, not August’s, to make treasurers’ lives easier. Taking away all fees would make their lives even easier, he also noted.
The Revd Paul Cartwright (Leeds) said that funerals were marvellous opportunities to reach families on the edges of congregations. He supported raising the zero fee age for funerals to 18, but said that the fees still “marginalised” the poor. He knew of at least one couple in his parish who told him that they had had to cancel their wedding two weeks before it was due to take place because they could no longer afford it. “It’s not right. Let’s pull together to offer the communities something they will remember the Church of England for.”
David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) asked whether the debate could be adjourned until July and separate votes taken on the funeral and weddings fees respectively.
He was told from the chair that it was too late for amendments.
John Spence (Archbishops’ Council) said that he was a finance chair second and a passionate Christian first. Nevertheless, the Synod needed to carry this Amending Order today to ensure that there was some fee structure in place. Then, they could come back to look further at Bishop North’s proposal to abolish all fees. It was not impossible that if abolition caused an “explosion of the use of premises and priests for weddings and funerals” and a subsequent rise in giving, then such a move could ultimately pay for itself, with the added benefit that PCCs would see all the income themselves.
Bishop Foster, responding to the debate, said it had given them much to consider, and promised to think further about Bishop Burnley’s idea. He did, however, note that, on average, C of E funeral fees amounted to about eight per cent of the total cost of a funeral, and less than five per cent if it was held in a crematorium. More research was under way, involving 2500 clergy and lay members of the Church, to understand life-events ministry, he also said. Those who were pressing for “immediate and radical change” should have proposed an amendment to test the opinion of the Synod, he suggested.
The Draft Parochial Fees and Scheduled Matters Amending Order 2019 was carried by 165 to 80, with 22 recorded abstentions.
Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions