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Lincoln diocese ‘living beyond its means’

28 February 2020


A view of the Lincoln taken from the Cathedral bell tower

A view of the Lincoln taken from the Cathedral bell tower

THE diocese of Lincoln — the wealthiest in the Church of Eng­­­­land, with the lowest level of giving — has warned that it cannot continue to sell its assets to balance the books.

This week, a rector in the diocese, who is also a member of the Arch­bishops’ Council’s Finance Com­­­­­mittee, suggested that its historic wealth had “blinded us to the real costs of mission and min­istry”, and that it would be “immoral” to ex­­haust it.

A statement issued by the diocese last week notes that it is running an annual cash deficit of about £3 million, “which has been steadily increasing for some years, and is not sustainable”.

“For several years, bridging the gap between the parish share income and the clergy stipend costs has been met by disposing of our assets,” it says. “Although this does result in an immediate injection of funds, we lose a proportion of the interest (in­­come) on the greater amount of the asset, thus putting further pressure on our finances.

“Whilst the diocese has some his­­­toric assets, by 2021 we will have reached the safe limit of what we can sell off to pay the deficit with­­­­out caus­ing damage to those assets.”

The diocese has the lowest level of congregational giving in the country, while parish share makes up a far smaller amount of its income than for many other dio­­­ceses. In 2018, 22 per cent of in­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­come came from invest­ments and assets, and 18 per cent from profit on disposal of land and property.

Of the £9 million of expected income for 2020, half is expected to come from parish share. Parish share currently falls short of the costs of supporting stipendiary clergy (£7.9 million) by £4 million. In 2018, less than two-thirds (64 per cent) of parishes paid the full amount and 17 per cent paid fewer than half. Three years ago, the diocese announced plans to balance parish-share income and the costs of ministry by 2023. But the report suggests that progress has been slow.

The low levels of giving, with the shortfall met by historic wealth and investments, date back decades. The latest annual report for the diocese lists assets of £165 million. Measured by assets per capita — £92 — it is the wealthiest in the Church. The equi­val­ent in Liver­­­­pool is just 65p.

In recent years, clergy, includ­ing bishops, have argued for wealthier dioceses to share their wealth (Com­ment, 1 June 2018).

This week, the Rector of St George’s, Stamford, Canon Martyn Taylor, said: “Our problem in Lincoln diocese is perversely caused by the amount of historic wealth and investment income, which has blinded us to the real costs of mis­sion and ministry. Historic subsidy without accountability is unsustain­able and irresponsible. It would be immoral to continue living like this for the next 40 years, until it was all gone. How can we share our wealth more fairly for the benefit of the whole Church — and ultimately for our own health?”

This week, a diocesan spokes­person said: “Whilst the diocese has some historic assets, these are uti­lised for the benefit of the clergy and cannot be used for any other pur­­pose.”

Last week’s announcement con­firmed that five working groups had been established to “improve the missional and financial health of the diocese”; and a report is due to be presented to the Bishop’s Council on 1 July. The groups would look at growth, assets, cen­tral costs, deploy­ment, and parish share.

The diocese has struggled to recruit clergy in some areas. In 2012, a Central Services Review warned that parishes felt that they were “presiding over decline”, and that a lack of stipendiary priests and low levels of giving had resulted in a “downward spiral of despair” (News, 28 September 2012). There was “widespread dissatisfaction” with the “New Era approach”, whereby stipendiary ministers had been replaced with voluntary lay ministers. It recommended the creation of a £5-million Diocesan Mission Fund to “pump-prime a new cadre of stipendary deanery clergy”.

In 2013, the diocese announced plans to recruit 100 new clergy and to make Lincoln “the best environment for personal, professional and spiritual development for its clergy” (News, 4 October 2013). At this point, the deficit stood at £1.25 million, and the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, was hoping to “kick-start a culture of generosity”.

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