ON MONDAY, the Church Commissioners announced the launch of a hardship fund for clergy and lay workers. Those who think that £3 million does not sound very much are right. In last year’s survey, 25 per cent said that they were “just getting by” while 13 per cent admitted that they were finding it “quite or very difficult to manage”. Given the present cost-of-living increases, it is reasonable to assume that all of these are now in need of assistance, i.e. 38 per cent, or two clergy in five. Back-of-an-envelope arithmetic suggests that, if 10,000 people are eligible, and 3800 apply, the Commissioners’ pot would allow a little shy of £800 for each of them, i.e. somewhere between two and three per cent of the average stipend. As the rate of inflation hits seven per cent, therefore, these clergy will still be worse off than when they filled in the survey. Since the criteria for eligibility include lay workers and the working retired, the 3800 applicants could be an underestimate, of course — unless someone has calculated that many clergy and lay workers will be too proud to apply for a hardship grant, or too busy to cope with whatever application process their diocese uses.
Employers around the world are having to address the rising costs experienced both by their businesses and their staff. For dioceses, this problem is more acute, since the stipend level is pitched to enable clergy to fulfil their mission. There is no bonus for experience (for parish clergy, at least), no increment to attract people into the profession — no leeway, in fact.
It is not immediately clear what contribution the newly announced £1.2 billion of triennium funding (2023-25) will make to this. A press release suggests only a modest increase at best to the Lowest Income Communities Fund to make up parish-share deficits: £99 million over three years, shared with “Transition funding”. In 2021 the fund paid out £27.4 million to 26 dioceses. Nor is it clear how the strategy/additional funding will cover “targeted programmes, e.g. supporting growth in the number of clergy”. The Commissioners’ experience of being over-stretched in the late 1980s still inclines them towards time-limited projects and glitzy schemes designed to attract Strategic Development Funding with the promise of growing (and therefore paying) congregations.
What dioceses and parishes are asking for increasingly, however, is reliable, sustained support for basic, everyday ministry, which is slipping inexorably beyond the reach of existing congregations. In many instances, the shortfall is not much; but any deficit these days opens up a PCC to threats that another priest might not come their way, thus sealing the parish’s decline. Parishioners do not regard the Commissioners as a magic money tree. They do, however, expect to see signs that the Church’s national leadership shares their concern about the loss of valuable parochial ministry.