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Clergy retirement housing must change, says Pensions Board — and asks for ideas

15 November 2023

The Pensions Board logo

The Pensions Board logo

THE Church of England Pensions Board is launching a discussion process on retirement housing, with a view to working with clergy earlier in their time in office.

In response to a question in the General Synod on Wednesday, the chair of the Pensions Board, Clive Mather, announced that a discussion process was being launched about the future of clergy retirement housing, and said that the Board had come up with some “imaginative” proposals.

He said that the existing CHARM scheme could only be maintained at “an enormous cost”, owing to “changing economics, in terms of changing demographics, and in terms of the changing nature of ministry right across the country”.

In an interview with the Church Times before the announcement, the chief executive of the Pensions Board, John Ball, made it clear that the existing offer of retirement housing would remain for those already in residence, or who had begun the application process, but that it was necessary to ask whether “there’s a different way of thinking about retirement housing for future cohorts”.

In July, Mr Mather said that the existing scheme, the Church’s Housing Assistance for the Retired Ministry (CHARM), would be too expensive for the C of E to fund “in perpetuity” (News,13 October).

Mr Ball said that the current model of retirement housing, with a “single point of intervention” as clerics near retirement, could be supplemented, providing “a range of choices for clergy across their ministry”.

To this end, the Pensions Board has drawn up some proposals, and is launching a discussion process. “We think we’ve got some good ideas, but we want to test that with the wider Church now,” Mr Ball said.

A focus of the proposals is to “enable choice” for clergy throughout their ministry, with tailored support to help clerics to think about possible routes to home ownership.

“One thing we hoped to stimulate with this is to get clergy thinking about their retirement — and particularly their housing — a lot earlier, because the earlier you think about it, the more choices you potentially have,” Mr Ball said.

The discussion document, which is available on the Church of England website, sets outs various ways that the Church can support this, including partnerships with mortgage lenders, providing means-tested contributions for a deposit, and advice on loans and investments.

The document acknowledges that CHARM cannot continue in its current form for ever, owing to increasing costs. While it is envisaged that a new model would still include church-provided retirement housing, the properties might have to be smaller, or in more affordable parts of the country, or be subject to further means-testing than is currently the case.

Mr Ball also raised the prospect of signposting clergy to other providers of retirement housing. “We care very much about clergy having the right housing option for themselves in retirement, but we’re not precious about being the provider,” he said.

The Archbishops’ Council has approved £9 million of extra funding for CHARM, to help with a spike in the number of retiring clergy. Part of the rationale behind the Pensions Board’s plans is to avoid future demographic unevenness among the clergy leading to similar pressure on resources.

“Because of the success with young vocations, there is another peak of demand coming along; so, if we don’t grasp this and really think about the long term now, in successive decades we’ll regret not producing different options for clergy,” Mr Ball said.

The Pensions Board’s director of strategy and engagement, Natasha Gray, said that the effect of the proposals would be that more clergy would benefit from housing support from the board, through advice and planning, as well as other interventions earlier in their ministry.

“It’s about shifting the conversation about financial well-being and retirement planning in ministry particularly for those who rely on the stipend,” she said.

Part of the problem facing the current housing model is the difficulty of planning for the level of demand. “One of the things we’ve observed since the pandemic has been that the amount of notice we’re getting [of need for retirement housing] has reduced considerably,” Mr Ball said, and this makes it difficult for the Pensions Board to ensure that there is an adequate supply of available properties.

The changing landscape means that shared-ownership schemes are available that have better terms than the Church can offer, and the proportion of clergy families who rely on a single, full stipend is lower.

The discussion document notes that “the current model of Church retirement housing was set up in a time when clergy households were more typically ‘clergy plus one’. That doesn’t easily match with the increasing diversity of family situations.”

The proposals set out a four-part programme for supporting clergy at different points in their ministry, from theological college to retirement, and catering to a range of different circumstances.

Such interventions could include financial planning and investment advice at an early stage, as well as specific help ten years into one’s ministry, and ten years before retirement, to develop plans for potential home ownership and retirement housing.

The Pensions Board is inviting responses by the end of January, with the hope (and with the Business Committee’s backing) of being able to present plans at the February meeting of the General Synod.

“There’s a lot of wisdom in Synod, and a lot of passion about these kinds of subjects,” Mr Ball said.

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