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Tackle inequality in diocesan wealth, say senior church people

11 October 2019

Lower spending on ministry in poorer areas is highlighted


The view of Liverpool Cathedral from Caning Street, Liverpool, last year. The diocese is one of the most deprived in the Church of England

The view of Liverpool Cathedral from Caning Street, Liverpool, last year. The diocese is one of the most deprived in the Church of England

THE extent of the disparity in diocesan wealth — Lincoln has assets that equate to £92 per person whereas the equivalent figure in Liverpool is just 65p — cannot be closed by “caveated generosity”, a group of senior church people has warned.

The group, who had assembled to discuss ministry in deprived communities at St George’s House, Windsor, in July, included the diocesan secretaries of Sheffield and Newcastle; the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox; and the Archbishops’ Council’s director of Renewal and Reform, Debbie Clinton. Parish priests from the dioceses of London, Southwark, Sheffield, Blackburn were also among the attendees.

In a statement issued this week, they called on those with influence to “speak out about this imbalance and to continue making decisions that address these challenges”.

They also highlighted a marked inequality in the amount spent on ministry across the Church. Data presented by the Strategy Development Unit at Church House indicate that ministry investment in the top 20 per cent least deprived parishes is £8.14 per capita, but £4.54 in the most deprived 20 per cent.

It is estimated that 37 per cent of the population live in the 20 per cent most deprived parishes in the country. Attendance is lower in these parishes — 0.9 per cent of population compared with 2.4 per cent in the least deprived parishes — and studies have suggested that church growth is linked to clergy numbers (News, 5 August 2016).

The group’s statement warns that in urban areas there has been an “often hidden dramatic increase in the number of souls being ministered to by a single stipend” — in some post-industrial dioceses, a stipendiary priest is covering 20,000 people and more. “And yet, in our deprived dioceses, the people give far more generously as a proportion of income, than in the most wealthy.”

The diocese of Birmingham (in which 44 per cent of parishes are in the most deprived ten per cent in the country) is currently undergoing a radical restructuring of its ministry under a strategy that states that the pattern of a stipendiary minister for every parish is “no longer sustainable, fair, or a good fit” (News, 1 March 2019).

Data on diocesan assets in terms of endowment and glebe land reveal an inverse relationship between deprivation and diocesan wealth: those with a high percentage of deprived parishes have low levels of assets, constraining investment in ministry.

“Many dioceses in both provinces with post-industrial towns and/or areas of rural poverty are facing significant challenges in sustaining ministry in the most deprived communities,” the group write. “This . . . is not an intentional act, but simply a historical imbalance, mostly created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when new predominantly industrial areas were given their own diocese, and didn’t at that time need a share of the historic endowments of land and investments.”

They also highlight “relatively poor development and recruitment of lay and ordained leaders from and in our most deprived communities” — while noting signs of change in some dioceses (News, 8 March 2019) — and the challenges of relying on “caveated generosity — where one wealthier church tradition or diocese gives support to another poorer diocese or community, so long as it can influence their tradition or make-up”.

They desire instead to “begin to encourage and unlock generosity within and between dioceses that simply recognises the need to remember the poor in our strategic planning and resource allocations”. The voice of those living in deprived areas had “often not been well represented in Church of England decision-making bodies,” they say.

Last year, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, called for radical action to address the gap in diocesan wealth (Comment, 1 June 2018), and at the July meeting of the General Synod, the Archdeacon of Aston, the Ven. Simon Heathfield, challenged the Archbishops’ Council to invite the ten dioceses who hold the highest level of historic asset to “explore sustainable patterns of inter-diocesan generosity compliant with charitable law”.

In response, the chair of the Archbishops’ Council finance committee, Canon John Spence, said that comparing historic assets “only tells part of the story. Some dioceses rely on these assets to achieve balanced budgets, and all dioceses are independent charities with their own constraints on how their assets can be used.”

He highlighted plans to use national resources to help find additional curates and support diocesan sustainability (General Synod, 12 July). To date, almost one third (31 per cent) of strategic development funding from the Commissioners has been allocated to projects in deprived areas, but this makes up a small percentage of total spending.

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