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Clergy need a stipend that alleviates hardship  

by
16 June 2023

Rising inflation has left many clerics struggling to cover household bills and other essentials, writes Sam Maginnis

EACH year, the Archbishops’ Council sets national stipend benchmarks, which the dioceses use to set their own levels of pay for their stipendiary clergy for the following tax year. A guiding principle in setting these benchmarks is that “clergy should be paid at a level that gives them a standard of living that is between poverty and affluence.”

Analysis released by the Clergy Support Trust in February, however, suggested that, under current economic conditions, recent stipend increases had not achieved this stable balance for clergy households at a time of growing pastoral demand caused by the cost-of-living crisis. The Trust reported that it had never been busier: almost one fifth of the beneficed and licensed clergy had received support from the Trust during 2022, and its charitable spend had risen by 51 per cent since 2021. Much of the support was requested to cover household energy bills and other general living expenses.

The Trust also highlighted a worrying trend of ordinands’ beginning their curacy with significant levels of debt, and what appears to be a growing acceptance among clergy that living in debt is a normal part of ministry. Such acceptance cannot lessen the anxiety that many clergy families feel about trying to make ends meet. The increased likelihood of stress and burnout in these circumstances can push personal and pastoral relationships to breaking point.

People do not follow a vocation to ordained ministry for the promise of an affluent lifestyle, but they should be provided with enough money to support a stable, happy home life, and the emotional capacity to minister effectively to the needs of their community.

Another principle that the Archbishops’ Council adopted for setting stipends, in December 2021, was that, on average, stipends should increase with inflation as measured by the CPIH — that is, the Consumer Price Index including owner-occupiers’ housing costs. In April of last year, however, the national benchmarks were increased by one per cent against the previous year’s CPIH of 2.9 per cent, while this year’s five-per-cent stipend increase must be set against a CPIH of 8.6 per cent.

Cumulatively, since April 2021, national stipend levels have fallen behind inflation by about 6.5 per cent. While inflation is predicted to return to sustainable levels by the end of 2024, the Bank of England reported in May that considerable uncertainties remain about the pace at which inflation will fall, caused largely by food inflation of nearly 20 per cent lengthening general inflation increases.

 

THIS continuing uncertainty, combined with the immediate effect of higher food costs on household expenditure, and the shortfall in stipends relative to inflation, means that the Archbishops’ Council needs to take decisive action.

This is why the Church of England Employee and Clergy Advocates (CEECA) union has proposed a 9.5-per-cent increase in national stipend levels from April 2024 (News, 9 June). This increase would take the national average stipend to about £31,600, and would ensure that clergy in full-time stipendiary posts could be paid no less than £29,340. Together with responding to the worst inflationary effects on household bills, it also seeks to make up most of the 6.5-per-cent shortfall in national stipend levels since 2021, enabling a return to more modest increases should inflation normalise, as is predicted, from 2025.

The CEECA recognises that stipends must also be affordable and sustainable in the long term, and that most stipends are funded by the dioceses through parish giving. Yet, even as parishes and dioceses face their own financial challenges, the Church Commissioners recently reported another strong year of investment growth in spite of wider economic conditions, with an average yearly return of 10.2 per cent over the past decade and a current fund value of £10.3 billion (News, 2 June).

We saw, last year, the speed at which the Commissioners could release funds to support those struggling with energy costs, whether it was £3 million to clergy households or £15 million to parishes: a modest proportion of the £186.8 million distributed in total across the Church of England in 2022.

Even taking account of the Commissioners’ own reserves policy, there might be twice that amount yet again, which could safely be distributed each year; and so the CEECA has called on the Commissioners to provide targeted support to dioceses that would otherwise struggle to pay their clergy stipends in line with our proposed increases. We predict that about £10 million to £15 million each year would be sufficient at this stage, and support could be made available on terms that encourage sustainable financial management and better clergy support from dioceses in future.

 

STIPENDs represent only one aspect of the remuneration package offered to clergy in return for the care and hope that they bring to their communities. Much more can be said about the adequacy of clergy pensions and retirement provision, and the suitability of church housing and its upkeep by dioceses.

The most pressing worry for too many clergy right now, however, is how they can afford to feed and clothe their family, and heat their homes, come winter — before any thought is given to the cost of leisure and holidays, and those other essentials for personal well-being. That well-being is the Church’s responsibility. The solution to immediate hardship is clear: support all clergy with adequate pay, so that they can support the communities that they have been called to serve.

The Revd Sam Maginnis is Team Vicar of Horsham, and chairs the Church of England Employee and Clergy Advocates union.

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