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General Synod digest: Wedding and funeral fees to rise by no more than five per cent

17 February 2023
Max Colson/Church Times

The Archdeacon of Ashford, the Ven. Darren Miller (Canterbury)

The Archdeacon of Ashford, the Ven. Darren Miller (Canterbury)

THE General Synod approved the Draft Parochial Fees (Amendment) Order on Wednesday morning. This provides that, for the rest of 2023, the parochial fees for weddings and funerals set in 2019 will increase by no more than five per cent, rounded up to the nearest pound, rather than in line with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which stood at 9.9 per cent in January.

Parochial fees are payable to a diocesan board of finance (DBF) and to a PCC. In making its decision, the Archbishops’ Council took into account the general cost-of- living pressures and the likely increases in clergy stipends. It also decided that, for the whole of 2024, fees should increase by no more than five per cent from the 2023 levels, rounded up to the nearest pound.

Under the draft order, the current fee of £528 for a marriage service would be £505. A funeral service costing £228 would be reduced to £217. Concerns had been expressed in advance of the debate that the loss of revenue resulting from an otherwise well-intentioned move could affect some of the poorer parishes and dioceses (Comment, 6 February).

A financial-impact statement estimated that parishes could lose £2.2 million and dioceses could lose £1.4 million under the draft order. It would apply from August.

John Spence (Archbishops’ Council) said that the 2019 agreement had been intended to help DBFs and PCCs do their budgeting. No one could have envisaged that the CPI would be nine per cent.

In a maiden speech, the Archdeacon of Ashford, the Ven. Darren Miller (Canterbury), “felt a bit of a heel” in wanting to oppose the order. “This is not the way. It’s not focused: it’s a blanket revenue cut. This change is unexpected. It comes months after dioceses and parishes have set their budgets for the year.”

Such a centrally imposed cut would come at a time when local budgets were hard-pressed, he said: one Canterbury benefice would lose more than £1000 under the new order. “It is unnecessary. Parishes can already waive fees. We need to trust them to do so when appropriate. This is not the way to help people in need.”

Chris Gill (Lichfield), an accountant, “liked a good process”. People would be paying less than those charged in the first part of the year: “This is not the way to rectify the matter.”

In another maiden speech, Canon Ian Flintoft (Newcastle) spoke in favour of the draft order. His was a parish where people still turned to the Church for these offices, he said. “I believe the changes proposed are for the good. . . small acts of generosity and grace that attract the same from others.”

Gavin Drake (Southwell & Nottingham) reminded the Synod that it had that same morning declared itself mindful of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on ordinary people. “It’s time we walk the talk,” he said.

The Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield) said that families were opting for direct cremation because of rising costs. “It’s vital we keep our fees as low as possible.”

The Archdeacon of Leeds, the Revd Paul Ayers (Leeds), reflected: “When people speak of generosity, they should be aware it is other people’s money. Keep that in mind when we are urged to give things away. Who is actually doing the giving?”

Mr Spence described the main debate on the order as “short but really terrific . . . a text of democracy”. The Archbishops’ Council would do what Synod requested it to do as a result of this debate.

The Synod voted to approve the order. A request for a 15-minute extension, to consider the amendments, was granted.

The Revd Marcus Walker (London) withdrew his two amendments, the first of which would have brought the fees payable for a funeral service at a funeral director’s, or a cremation before or after a funeral service, into line with the fees payable for a funeral service in a church. His second amendment would have provided that, for certain funeral services for which the PCC was currently not entitled to a fee, it would instead be entitled to the DBF fee. “I don’t wish to denude DBFs of all revenues,” he said.

The Archdeacon of Macclesfield, the Ven. Ian Bishop (Chester), then moved his amendment, which would increase from £300 to £1000 the PCC fee for the burial of a body in a churchyard either before or after a church service or on a separate occasion from the date that the order came into force until the end of 2023 — to be followed by an inflationary increase in line with that for other fees from the start of 2024. His own churchyard was full, and there was pressure to extend it, he told the Synod. “We’d like to do this but we can’t afford it. Our volunteers are ageing and we have had to pay for help in maintaining it. Most small rural parishes can’t cover the clergy fees. They also come in for abuse.

He continued: “I support a principle underpinning the fees keeping them low, recognising the high costs the public are experiencing, but I don’t want to support the cap on fees. I suggest an increase in one element: the fee for burial of a body should rise, to help struggling parishes look after the churchyard. You can still inter ashes very cheaply, have a service cheaply. And note: the Church of England fee is well below local-cemetery costs, at less than half of the local-authority rate. We are miles below the market.”

Mr Spence urged the Synod to resist the 300-per-cent increase: “The right thing to do is to be involved in a full consultation exercise,” he said.

Dr John Mason (Chester) supported the amendment: “It should reflect the cost,” he said.

Mr Drake spoke of the support that he had received in relation to his wife’s death: “The Church was there for me when I was overcome with grief. . . We are talking about someone having to pay at potentially the lowest point of their lives. If we put [the fees] up, many people will have no care from the Church.”

The amendment was lost, and the the motion was carried by a show of hands.

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