THE shift in the way central funding from the Church Commissioners is allocated has been “traumatic” for some dioceses, which are using funding for low-income communities for stipendiary posts and subsidy of parish share, a new report suggests.
The study highlights a failure to consult these communities on spending choices, and warns against approaches that “fetishise” or “infantilise” the poor, while suggesting that some parishes, denied an opportunity to use the money in creative ways, would be entitled to ask whether disadvantage lay “at the heart of the system”.
The Lowest Income Communities Fund (LICF), together with the strategic development fund (SDF), was announced in 2015 as part of the Renewal and Reform programme (News, 16 January 2015), and the first tranche — about £24 million — was released in 2017. It is allocated annually to 25 dioceses, based on two measures: the average income of those living in each diocese, and its population. It has replaced Darlow funding, which, the Church Commissioners concluded, subsidised decline and failed the poorest communities (News, 21 October 2016).
The seven clergy who produced the new report commend this transition, but their visits to three dioceses also highlight the extent of the financial challenge that dioceses face. The most common use of LICF across the Church is subsidy of the parish share/common fund in the poorest parishes.
The diocese of Newcastle is receiving less from LICF (£800,000) than under Darlow (£1.5 million), and the process of deciding how to spend it has been a “painful one”, the report says. In the end, 90 per cent was allocated to the 15 per cent most deprived parishes, where it was helping to fund stipendiary posts and lay posts such as a children’s worker.
Decisions were founded on “warm relationships and a nuanced understanding of the different parish contexts”, but direct consultation did not take place. In the parish of Seaton Hirst, offering “one of the only community spaces in the locality”, the team most wanted their church’s heating to be mended: “a telling example of what you hear when you actually consult lowest-income communities”.
The diocese of Coventry was not a recipient of Darlow funding, but, from 2017, received £400,000 annually for four years, deciding to spend most of it on capital projects: the building of a new church, St Catherine’s, and community centre in the parish of Stoke Aldermoor; and the development of St Mark’s as a city-centre resource church.
The report notes that Sunday attendance at St Catherine’s — about 35-40 — makes up “only a small part of the church’s life”: nearly 200 people attend community projects. Meanwhile, St Mark’s was “predominantly an imported, gathered, white, middle-class congregation which, as yet, has not had enough of a significant ‘good news’ impact on the surrounding low-income community of its parish”.
In the diocese of Chelmsford, there was recognition that Darlow funding had “led to a culture of financial dependency”, and its loss had demanded “a major shift in outlook”, which was yet to be achieved. Total central funding was set to fall from £3.1 million in 2016, to £1 million in LICF in 2026. The diocese was implementing a “re-imagining of ministry” and preparing for a “significant reduction” in numbers of stipendiary clergy, and the parish-share process had been subject to “wholescale revision”.
While acknowledging that the communities themselves had not been consulted, the report praises the diocese for demonstrating a commitment to ensuring the continued presence of priestly ministry in deprived areas, and using LICF to reduce parish share in the lowest-income parishes, distributing it with “impressive” precision.
But it also suggests that, given that the “vast majority” of the diocese’s parishes were not meeting their costs, the poorest communities could “justly level the criticism that the reduction of parish share in this way in fact penalises the poorest parishes because they receive LICF money as a discount on their parish share, instead of as additional money — where . . . there is more potential for creative use.”
The report’s recommendations include informing communities about the existence of LICF and ensuring that they are represented at every level of church decision-making. It also calls on the Commissioners to consider revising LICF allocation by taking into account diocesan reserves and suggests that they develop a variety of evaluative measures — not just numerical growth.
A theological reflection draws on the story of Jesus asking Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” It is critical of approaches that “fetishise” or “infantilise” the poor, who should be seen as “blessed and a blessing”.
This week, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, who mentored the clergy group, said: “If the Church were to identify some funding to develop, for example BAME ministry or ministry amongst deaf people, it would not for a second think about spending that money without consultation with BAME or deaf people.
“Yet we are spending millions of pounds a year on our deprived communities with little or no consultation with residents or church leaders from those communities. I hope this report leads to significant change.”
The Rector of St Paul’s, Marylebone, the Revd Clare Dowding, one of the seven clergy that produced the report, said: “There are urgent needs in the churches and communities in the lowest income areas in our nation. The Church needs to listen to these needs when it distributes funds for mission in these areas, and it has not done so. We urgently need to change. Our practices of consultation and engagement need to reflect our desire for all to share fully in the mission and ministry of the Church.”
You can download the full report here