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General Synod digest: Diocesan disparity revisited after 20 years

26 November 2021
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox

Wealth-sharing report.

THE Archbishops’ Council has been given the General Synod’s approval to draft legislation to remove restrictions that prevent wealthier dioceses’ helping poorer ones — an issue of disparity that had not been discussed by the Synod since 2001 (News, 19 November).

A background paper from the Mutuality in Finances Group (MFG), chaired by the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, states that, at this point in the 21st century, “We find ourselves in a situation where some dioceses are being forced to make painful financial savings, whereas others, partly on account of significant income from historic wealth, are relatively more comfortable.”

For historical reasons, relating to the assets of glebe land, diocesan wealth is unevenly spread across church communities. Existing legislation means that dioceses can use their 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 combined wealth of the Church of England would more than suffice to maintain high levels of stipend, Dr Wilcox told the Synod during a debate on Tuesday afternoon. “We believe this step would stimulate a greater sense of mutuality, leading to greater generosity and greater fairness.”

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.

On the basis of 2019 accounts, the diocese with the highest value of historic assets is Oxford, at £106 million. The lowest is Liverpool, with £1.5 million. The report emphasises the importance of also taking into account the size of the dioceses. By that measure, Lincoln is at the top of the list, with assets per capita of £92.29, and Liverpool at the bottom, with 95p.

The ten dioceses having the lowest historic wealth per capita are: Leeds, Rochester, Blackburn, Manchester, Sheffield, Chester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Canterbury, and Liverpool. Seven are industrial areas; six are in the north of England; one is in the Midlands.

Presenting the report, Dr Wilcox hoped that the proposed legislation would remove any existing restrictions, allowing “more ability but no obligation to be more generous”. This 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”.

He suggested that 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, 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.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Revd Arwen Folkes (Chichester)

Before opening the item to debate, the chair, Professor Joyce Hill (Leeds), reminded the Synod that the discussion was about the direction of travel, not substantive detail. “We’re not making a final decision here.”

Julie Dziegiel (Oxford) said that it was clear from looking at the spreadsheets of historic assets what redistribution would look like under the new proposals. While Oxford was “relatively rich” and had a high value of assets, she said, this was not the case per head of the population or per churchgoer.

In a maiden speech, Andrew Orange (Winchester) asked who could be against generosity. He warned, however: “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, 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.”

Canon Andy Salmon (Manchester) described the financial situation in many dioceses as grim. He was running a deficit budget and facing tough decisions, although good things were happening. “I support this motion, but plead to this group to make this happen and come back with bigger, bolder proposals — we will have to use a great deal of imagination and creativity and to share the burden.”

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liverpool), welcomed the work of the group. The good news, he said, was “that we have more than enough financial resources within the Church. The bad news is that many of us in this room might be stopping this happening. I strongly believe people give where there is a vision. The vision we have here is compelling — let’s get behind it. If we believe inequality in wealth is a bad thing, we must speak about it and put our own house in order.”

In an entirely independent initiative, the Archdeacon said, the Bishop’s Council of the diocese of Oxford had approved £250,000 to be made available for other dioceses every year for four years: £1 million in total. The first year’s payments of £50,000 had been made to the five recipient dioceses, of which Liverpool was one. Archdeacon Spiers thanked Oxford for the donation, with the assurance that the £50,000 would be “put to good use”.

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. [Let’s] 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. . . I don’t want a conversation where we feel we are talking about diocesan policy, but about a Kingdom where everyone sits round the table together.”

In a maiden speech, the Revd Arwen Folkes (Chichester) said that she wanted the Synod to move forward in line with that afternoon’s debate on the wealth gap. “Any reluctance not to do likewise would render us hypocritical,” she said. She wanted the legislation, among other things, to enable the transfer of capital and for money to be ring-fenced for clergy stipends and direct parish administrative support. “As a parish incumbent, this would be a morale-boosting confirmation of our commitment to parish ministry.”

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) said that “rich” Oxford also had “parishes lying awake at night wondering how they will pay their parish share. If we have spare money, how is this happening? I’d like to see generosity starting in the Church Commissioners, with regular support grants to parishes in poorer areas. I will vote against this. They are looking for money in the wrong place.”

Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) said that it was good to have some league tables. One quarter of the urban population in his diocese were involved in the food industry, he said, where the average incomes were some of the lowest in the country. “We want a missional focus, but our buildings were provided for by land. The return on Lincoln’s total assets was only 1.5 per cent. It had 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 Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, was also supportive of the motion. He reminded the Synod that the Commissioners’ Lowest Income Community Funding was directed towards the poorest dioceses in the country, as was SDF money. “It is time to ensure it goes as much as it can towards these — for example, Rochdale, whose new Vicar is now a Synod member. The Commissioners do give in that way and are resistant to any method of subsidies that are regressive.”

The Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield) drew attention to the less well-off dioceses and the pain of financial decisions that had to be made. She had encountered someone in Westminster Abbey that morning who had been “surprised to hear that there was a diocese of Sheffield. The Church of England is one, but we like to insist on doing things in 42 different ways and don’t appreciate others’ difficulties. This motion would lead us to a better understanding of where we all are, and to work together for the whole of the Church of England.”

The motion was carried on a show of hands:

That this Synod request the Archbishops’ Council to develop legislative proposals, to be brought to a future Group of Sessions, to give dioceses more freedom to be generous with their historic wealth to other dioceses in the Church of England, and in this way enable a more equitable sharing of this wealth.

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