ALMOST a third of the General Synod supported an attempt to abolish all fees for funerals and marriages, after an impromptu campaign led by the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North.
Bishop North launched the revolt during an otherwise procedural vote on Thursday to approve the new fees schedule for the next five years.
In an impassioned speech, Bishop North said that the Church of England was “pricing the poor out of our midst” by charging anything at all.
The fees had been drawn up on the “false premise” that what people pay for funerals and marriages should reflect how many hours the priest works, he said.
“That undermines the nature of priesthood, which should be offered to communities as a gift. When I was a parish priest, I did not invoice Akela when I popped in to pray with the Cubs.
“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.”
Currently, a C of E wedding is set at £441; the most expensive funeral is £393. The proposed 2019 fees would see these figures rise to £455 and £406 respectively.
Introducing the schedule for the new fees, the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, said that funerals and marriages in church had both declined about 20 per cent in the past four years. He said that, when creating the new fees, the Church had tried to strike a balance between covering the costs incurred and affordability.
“The Church should feel confident in the value of the ministry it offers, and not be embarrassed about requiring a contribution towards the provision of ministry in the form of a fee.”
But Bishop North disagreed. The impact of the last revision in 2014 was for funerals and marriages to effectively dry up in poorer areas. “The reality is fewer and fewer people are able to afford the pastoral and sacramental ministry we offer,” he warned.
“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.”
Despite his pessimism, dozens in the Synod rallied to his cause. The Revd Christopher Smith (London) asked whether the “market” was telling the Church something, if numbers of funerals and marriages fell every year.
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, also lent his support. The Church of Scotland did not charge any fees for its services, he noted, which meant parish ministry was not coloured by questions of money.
The Revd Rosie Harper (Oxford) said it was a “no-brainer”. Free Anglican weddings and funerals would dramatically undercut competing providers, and bring about a huge boost in the figures “at a stroke. . . Go for it!” she enthused.
The chair of the Archbishops’ Council’s finance committee, Canon John Spence, urged the Synod to vote for the fees order; but even he was sympathetic to Bishop North’s plea.
“I may be a finance chair second, but I’m a passionate Christian first,” he said. After passing the schedule, the Synod should do more research to see what would happen if fees were abolished.
If such a step would cause an “explosion” in the use of C of E premises and priests, it could even pay for itself, thanks to an increase in voluntary giving through new, more efficient, contactless technology.
“I could well make the argument that the Church might not just have a wonderful missional opportunity but might actually be financially better off as well, and the PCCs would get all that income.”
When the debate was concluded, 80 members backed Bishop North’s rebellion by declining to approve the new fees, and a further 22 abstained. The new fees were approved, however, as 165 members voted in favour.
After the vote, Bishop Foster promised those who had called for “immediate and radical change” that he would reflect upon their message and return with new proposals.