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Bishop of Sheffield: Let the rich dioceses be generous to poorer ones

27 May 2021

Synod to be invited to ask for legislative reform to encourage greater equity

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The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox

THE inequalities in historic endowment of the Church of England’s dioceses — ranging from £1.76 per capita to £89 — cannot be right, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, has said. In July, the General Synod will be invited to ask for legislative reform to encourage greater equity.

The motion — which will be “deliberately vague” — has been crafted by the mutuality-in-finances group, chaired by Dr Wilcox, who will move it on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council in July.

The proposal will not entail a mandatory equalisation of historic assets, he emphasised on Tuesday. “It will simply be an invitation to Synod to request the legislative reform committee to develop legislative proposals to be brought to a future group of sessions, which will enable dioceses to have more scope and elbow room to be generous with their own resources in respect to less wealthy dioceses.”

Sheffield has one of the lowest levels of historic assets per capita in the Church of England — £7.42 in 2017 figures — and Dr Wilcox said that stipendiary numbers had fallen from 155 in 1999 to 103 in 2019, when it had become clear than only 90 could be afforded to achieve a balanced budget.

For the past 20 years, the approach had been to “spread stipendiary clergy more thinly”. The plan now was to grow congregations and giving, to ask parishes to consider their own reserves, and to be bold in the use of the diocese’s reserves.

The diocese “can’t wait for the Church of England to address the comprehensive review that any really sustainable eradication of inequalities will require”, he said. “That’s almost a generational task.”

The legalities of a resolution were complex, he said, and the committee would need “the maximum possible freedom to develop the most practical proposals”.

In 2019, the chair of the Archbishops’ Council finance committee, John Spence, said that comparing historic assets “only tells part of the story. Some dioceses rely on these assets to achieve balanced budgets, and all dioceses are independent charities with their own constraints on how their assets can be used” (News, 11 October 2019).

It was already possible for a diocese to share its wealth with more deprived dioceses, Dr Wilcox said this week. But the 1976 Endowment and Glebe Measure explicitly restricted what dioceses could do by insisting that the income from these assets must be invested in the cure of souls within the diocese. The General Synod would be invited to explore “whether it would be at least symbolically helpful to remove that restriction”.

He noted that, in most dioceses, the interest from glebe and endowment was “completely consumed” by the stipend bill, and that removing it would free only hundreds of thousands of pounds rather than millions for redistribution; but he emphasised the principle: “We are simply wanting to invite Synod to consider what is the generosity commensurate with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to give dioceses maximum elbow room to express that Christ-like generosity.”

Systemic inequalities in historic endowment were “well-rehearsed”, Dr Wilcox said. He referred to the Faith in the City report of 1985, which said that the historic resources of the Church should be redistributed between dioceses to equalise capital and income resources.

The disparity — which “can’t be right” — was “partly historical accident and partly disparities in stewardship”, he said. Shifts in land values in recent times had also contributed. But fixing it “turns out to be really very complicated”.

Those dioceses with fewer historic assets secured more in Common Fund, so that the discrepancy in the amount contributed by parishes now varied almost as widely as the historic endowments. Last year, the diocese of Lincoln, the wealthiest in the Church of Eng­­­­land, with the lowest level of giving, warned that it could not continue to sell its assets to balance the books (News, 28 February 2020). Inequalities within dioceses also existed.

In 2019, Dr Wilcox was one of the conveners of a meeting on ministry in deprived areas which drew attention to a disparity not only in assets but also in the amount spent on ministry (News, 11 October 2019). In some post-industrial dioceses, a stipendiary priest is covering 20,000 people and more.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has previously proposed a new Endowments and Glebe Measure under which historic assets would be held centrally, enabling the deployment of clergy nationally “on the basis of need rather than history” (Comment, 1 June 2018).

While Dr Wilcox’s taskforce had looked at historic endowment, there were three other “pots” of money: the Church Commissioners, parish reserves, and congregational giving — the latter of which varied “hugely”.

The Evangelical wing of the Church was “more attuned to the historic patterns of discipline in relation to giving out of one’s own income”, he suggested. “If we could encourage our committed membership to reassess realistic levels of voluntary giving, that would be transformative.”

The poorest tended to give more as a percentage of income, he continued (News, 15 August 2014). “That is very salutary”.

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