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Synod agrees to take issue of unequal diocesan wealth further

17 November 2021

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, listens to the Synod debate on Tuesday

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, listens to the Synod debate on Tuesday

THE combined wealth of the Church of England was more than enough to maintain high levels of stipend, but dioceses with fewer resources had the least power to do so, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, said in a debate on disparity between dioceses — a subject not discussed in the Synod since 2001.

Sheffield is among the ten dioceses with the least wealth per capita. In 1999, it had 155 stipendiary incumbents; in 2019, there were 103, reflecting both “longstanding inequalities and trajectories of decline”, the Bishop said.

For historic reasons, relating to the assets of glebe land, diocesan wealth is unevenly spread across church communities. Existing legislation means that dioceses can use historic assets only for certain specific purposes, and not elsewhere; and, while income from these is a small part of overall income, it is regarded as a significant factor. Disparities are acknowledged to have been increased by the effect of the pandemic on parish finances.

The motion before the Synod on Tuesday sought approval for taking the first step towards removing the geographical restrictions that prevent wealthier dioceses’ helping poorer ones. Based on 2019 accounts, the diocese with the highest value of historic assets is Oxford, at £106 million. The lowest is Liverpool, with £1.5 million.

But the report from the Mutuality in Finances Group, chaired by Dr Wilcox, recommends taking into account the size of the dioceses when looking at the part played by historic wealth. By that measure, Lincoln is at the top of the list, with assets per capita of £92.29, and Liverpool at the bottom, with £0.95.

The ten dioceses with the lowest historic wealth per capita are Leeds, Rochester, Blackburn, Manchester, Sheffield, Chester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Canterbury, and Liverpool. Seven are industrial areas, and six are in the north of England, with a further one, Birmingham, in the Midlands, reflectingsome of the historic reasons for the disparity.

Dr Wilcox hoped that new legislation would remove existing restrictions, giving “more ability, but no obligation, to be more generous”. It was the first step towards “urgent and necessary conversations about inequalities in missional and pastoral freedom, so, in every place, we bring grace and truth to this generation”.

This could be a five-year conversation, involving “complicated interplay between at least six pots of money”. Historic assets represented just one third of the aggregated assets of a diocese; so any answer would have to take the total assets, and not just the historic assets, into account, he said.

Another factor was the extent to which dioceses were dependent on parish share, which amounted to 90 per cent in Guildford, and 40 per cent in Lincoln. The disparity between dioceses was also reflected within them, and there was an equally anomalous disparity between parishes, on matters such as tithing; any comprehensive answer must take all these things into consideration.

Andrew Orange (Winchester), in a maiden speech, asked who could be against generosity. But he warned, “Be careful, when it is being generous with other people’s money and not our own.” As a churchwarden and donations secretary in a small parish, he had inherited a £7000 annual deficit, which “you know is all about sacrificial giving from kind, lovely people who want to keep the Christian presence in their community”.

Assets were a trust, he pointed out, not to be disposed of for common gain. “They ought to be cherished and looked after carefully, even though they often don’t give us much income. This [motion] is a laudable aim, but it should be done by selective allocation of Church Commissioners income, or through appeal to a separate fund.”

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) also thought that they were “looking for money in the wrong place. . . I’d like to see generosity starting in the Church Commissioners, in regular support grants to parishes in poorer areas.”

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, strongly supported the motion. As an archdeacon, she had been “wearied over haggles about how parish share is worked out. Stop talking about paying and taking, and focus on giving. This is not about taking finance from dioceses, but kindling our imagination about what the future could look like.”

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Peter Spiers (Liverpool), found the vision compelling: “Let’s get behind it,” he urged. “If we believe inequality in wealth is a bad thing, we must speak about it and put our own house in order. This could bring us together in common.”

Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) told the Synod that 25 per cent of the urban population in his diocese were involved in the food industry, in which the average incomes were some of the lowest in the country. “The return on Lincoln’s total assets was only 1.5 per cent. It has an operating deficit of three million. We are asset-rich but cash-poor. I will support this motion, for all my diocese has had to shoulder.”

The Synod voted by a show of hands for the Archbishops’ Council to take the matter forward.

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