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Press: Spectator misfires on C of E financial crisis

12 February 2021

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IT TAKES a special journalistic talent to aim at a target the size of the Church’s financial deficit and still miss, but The Spectator managed handsomely last week with a double-barrelled blast from the Revd Marcus Walker and Emma Thompson.

The Walker piece was a fairly standard grump about managerialism in the Church of England, rehearsing his quarrels at the beginning of the pandemic: “Nobody can deny that we face an uphill struggle to survive as a church — 50 years of failed reforms, public feuds and drab appointments have made sure of that. What’s certain is that an episcopacy that gives an impression that it does not like the Church of England will guarantee its death.”

The trouble with this, as with most of the clergy’s takes on what went wrong, is that it robs the laity of their agency. The central fact of church decline has been that, for 50 years at least, faith has no longer been transmitted between generations. It is not the people who leave the Church who are the problem, but the ones who never enter it. It may well be true that many of today’s bishops are uninspiring, but, even if every one of them were as charismatic as Joan of Arc, I don’t think that they would inspire a revival of churchgoing.

Nor are the committed laity much more attractive: it is difficult to know where to start with the much longer piece by Thompson. She opened with an anecdote about an elderly clergyman who had burst into tears because the diocese had urged him to keep his “elderly, working class congregation” out of the church while the pandemic raged. It is, of course, miserable that elderly, unvaccinated people can’t safely gather to sing together in the middle of lockdown, but it is hardly evidence of wickedness on the bench of bishops.

Then there was her use of statistics. “In pre-Covid times, parish giving totalled £1.1 billion, the vast majority of the church’s revenue.”

This is a bit less than 100 per cent wrong: the most recent figure for all parish revenue from giving was £600 million; the amount actually placed in the collection plate rather than collected by direct debit was less than a tenth of that. Even legacies amounted to slightly more than that. All these figures come from the 2018 parish-statistics report put out by the Church, which Thompson appears not to have read with attention, if at all.

She continues: “Lockdown dealt a hammer blow to the finances. After a service on Zoom, there is no collection plate to pass around. The ‘shortfall’ in parish-giving means cuts must be made to the parishes (or so the argument now goes).”

Five minutes’ Googling revealed that in Chelmsford — for instance — the diocesan board of finance reported in 2017 that the shortfall in parish share would consume all the diocesan reserves by 2020. But those were five minutes that Ms Thompson could not have spent in her eagerness to blame — guess whom:

“Who was it who pushed to close the churches, making collections and fundraising impossible? While Justin Welby was Zooming from his kitchen on Easter Sunday, many vicars and parishioners felt let down. Even committed churchgoers like me feel almost ready to walk away.”

She then lambasts the diocese of Chelmsford for its plan to cut clergy posts and its appeal for more money to avoid this fate (News, 4 December 2020): “With extraordinarily crass timing, Chelmsford has launched a giving campaign under the slogan ‘Generous God, Generous Disciples’.

“Am I feeling generous? No.”

Quite who should pay for an institution that she herself is not prepared to pay for is left as an exercise for the reader. But, in case you haven’t guessed, it’s the diocesan bureaucracies. Everyone who writes on this subject is convinced that, if only half the Church’s lay employees were sacked, its troubles would be over. No one has shown that the sums would work out.

 

ROD LIDDLE made one career in Radio 4 by pretending to be more high-minded than his listeners; then a second career as a newspaper journalist by pretending to be coarser than his readers would dare to be. This is an argument in favour of the BBC: it enforces a more desirable form of hypocrisy than other media outlets do.

His newspaper persona was on full display in his Sunday Times column about the Church of England. “For almost the entire population our established church has become a complete irrelevance, a pitiable institution forever cringing before the most fashionable progressive causes and presided over by a man of such sodden vapidity that I feel an urge to wring him out and hang him up to dry every time I see him.”

A bit of me would like to see Liddle try this and make the acquaintance of the less vapid side of Archbishop Welby’s character, the one that more closely resembles a werewolf with indigestion.

But if none of these stories tells us anything else about the Church, they show what an immense task it will be to raise, and save, the money it needs.

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