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Angela Tilby: What to do about the cash crisis?

07 August 2020


THE pandemic has created new financial problems for the Church and exacerbated old ones. Dioceses are running out of money and are having to bring forward difficult staffing decisions. Sunday “plate” collections are down. Cathedrals have lost their visitor income. In a number of dioceses, curates have been voluntarily furloughed.

All this has happened suddenly, in response to the emergency, and not as the result of strategic planning — which does not mean that it has not offered a golden opportunity for hard-pressed accountants and administrators to cut costs. There are cases where formerly paid church and cathedral workers have had the humiliation of having to sit at home on furlough while their responsibilities are carefully repackaged and taken on by unpaid volunteers. Remaining staff are often desperately overworked.

My left-wing self is appalled at the brutality of some of the decision-making that I have come across, and the questionable use of voluntary labour to fill gaps left by those made redundant. My right-wing self feels slightly queasy at taxpayers’ money being spent on keeping curates at home and gifted musicians idle. I wonder what all this does to the Church’s reputation for justice, let alone the self-esteem of those made idle. And, as so often, the delicate ecology of church communities has been ignored.

I know that there are no easy answers to this. The Church has no magic money tree. The one strategic decision that it made, long before the pandemic, was to prioritise mission over maintenance, favouring schemes for new church initiatives over helping “failing” churches. (A welcome exception to this general policy has been the £1 million that the Church Commissioners have managed to find to support cathedral choirs during the pandemic (News, 17 July)).

But there are still those who remain adamant that they would prefer to keep church buildings closed while the Church — “people, not buildings”, as the weary trope insists — reinvents itself online. Meanwhile, the argument is still being made that cathedrals must stand or fall as businesses; so, trim the choirs and services. One thinks of last year’s attempts to market cathedrals as fun palaces, crazy golf, and helter-skelters (News, 16 August 2019): initiatives that have become questionable now that indoor leisure spaces are problematic.

At parish level, while there are bishops who make no secret of the fact that they would like to wind down the parish system in favour of church-plants and mega-churches, it turns out that venues in which large numbers bob about to worship songs in close proximity to one another are about as unsafe as it gets. Crumbling but spacious parish churches with ten to 20 quietly scattered worshippers are relatively safe, however. You can’t help wondering whether the virus has theological preferences.

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