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Press: Sacking bishops won’t balance the books

05 March 2021

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I LOOKED in vain for any mention of the General Synod in most of the papers. There was a sneery piece by Quentin Letts in The Times about a meeting of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament; an interview with Stephen Cottrell in The Observer — and the indefatigable Emma Thompson (Press, 12 February) in The Daily Telegraph.

This time, she steered away from tricky, checkable assertions about figures, with a few exceptions: “The British Army, with about 80,000 soldiers, has 65 Generals. The Church, with some 6,800 stipendiary (paid) clergy now, has 116 Archbishops and Bishops (in 1836, there were only 26). A Bishop’s stipend, housing, staff and ministry costs would finance multiple vicars.”

This is misleading in an enormous number of ways. For one thing, it leaves out all the unpaid clergy and all the laity, too. More prosaically, her figure takes into account all those soldiers who are not, in the original use of the term, on the front line at all (and these are the overwhelming majority, even in wartime: I seem to remember that it takes between two and three soldiers behind the lines to support and supply one man at the front). But, even ignoring these figures — for the comparison cannot be meant seriously — the arithmetic simply doesn’t add up.

Let us sack half the diocesan bishops in the Church of England, and all the suffragans. This will save about £800,000 in diocesan salaries, and — generously — £2 million in suffragan salaries. Obviously, those who are left will be honoured and delighted to be doing twice the work for the same money as everyone else would be in the same position. Add in all the office costs, move everyone into purpose-built bungalows, ignoring the protests of Save Our Parsonages, and we will have saved the Church Commissioners, let’s say, £5 million a year.

It would not have saved the parishes anything at all. They don’t pay for any of these bishops. The Church Commissioners do, and they can’t pay for the parish clergy.

Parliament, however, obedient to the whims of the Telegraph, then changes the law so that the Commissioners become able to fund the parish clergy directly. There are now half the number of dioceses that there were before the Thompson reforms; so the average diocesan deficit will have doubled — shall we say? — to a million pounds a year.

So, which lucky five dioceses will have their budgets balanced? What are the other 16 supposed to do? Another way to look at it is to ask how many full-time stipendiary priests an extra £5 million a year would fund. At the low-end estimate of £50,000 a priest, the answer appears to be 100.

Of course, there is a great deal of managerial voodoo, and straight-up incompetence in the Church of England. Try getting hold of the press office for Chelmsford diocese to check Ms Thompson’s figures, if you doubt me. But, even if all of it were eliminated, and all the remaining diocesan staff were to work twice as hard and twice as productively, the financial hole would remain.

But that is a fact, and mere facts are powerless against stories.

 

A STORY has characters acting in roles that we find intuitively convincing, whether or not they actually exist. In particular, it has villains and heroes. If you look back through the Telegraph’s coverage of the impact of the crisis on the Church, there are a very clear set of villains, and of heroes, too. As far back as last October, Gabriella Swerling had a story in which the financial collapse of the rural Church was framed in this light: “The Telegraph has spoken to multiple serving and retired clergy and members of General Synod.

“They spoke of a multi-million-pound debt facing countryside parishes, following a ‘pressure’ to contribute to the voluntary Parish Share.

“They claimed that a ‘reign of terror and bullying’ from Church authorities and a pressure to ‘toe the party line’ has left them scared to speak out and criticise current policies. They fear losing their jobs in a time of economic turmoil.

“The Parish Share often goes towards vital resources such as paying for a vicar. However, rural congregants and clergy are warning that they have been forced to share one vicar across multiple parishes, or claim they have been threatened with not receiving a vicar unless they pay thousands of pounds to the Church.”

It appears that even the rural Church recoils from Thatcherism when this is applied to it. But what is the alternative?

 

THERE were no answers to be found in the Archbishop of York’s interview with Harriet Sherwood in The Observer, but there was one nice sharp phrase: “To begin with, as a bishop, I did suffer from what is commonly known as imposter syndrome. But it keeps you humble, [and] there is something far more ugly than imposter syndrome, and I’ve given it a name: entitlement syndrome. You find it in all sorts of places. It’s something I hope I never suffer from.”

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