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Church of Ireland General Synod: Creative thinking needed to fight decline, members told

19 May 2023

Church of Ireland

Dr Lucy Michael

Dr Lucy Michael

Representative Church Body

CENTRAL funding for ministry was highlighted during the Synod’s debate on the report from the standing committee of the Representative Church Body (RCB). The report was introduced by Dr Lucy Michael (Dublin & Glendalough), who reminded the Church that its membership was ageing, and income was declining, which would force it to be more innovative and creative in the future to sustain ministry.

There was also much work at the RCB looking at the needs of the Church today, not least grants for outreach, Christian education, rural ministry, and theological training offered to parishes, she said. She thanked parishes for maintaining their financial support to the Priorities Fund which offered these grants, despite the current difficult economic times.

The Archdeacon of Derry, the Ven. Robert Miller (Derry & Raphoe), spoke about the Priorities Fund. In his own parishes, they had held innovative missions with open-air theatre events and had successfully applied for money from the fund. The grants from the fund in the first year of this large project were instrumental in unlocking other funding. “This is a strategically important thing for us to do,” he said of the Church’s commitment to the fund.

The Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh, Dr Ferran Glenfield, noted the €600,000 raised for Ukraine, and commended parishes and people from around the Church for their generous response to the crisis.

Ethne McCord (Clogher) said that clergy outnumbered laity on the Standing Committee by more than two to one, and asked whether that could be improved in future.

Canon Helene Steed (Down & Dromore) questioned why male clergy were entitled to only two weeks of parental leave, whereas female colleagues received up to 26 weeks, as did adoptive parents. She was later told by Dr Michael that the 26 weeks of adoption leave was based on best practice for settling newly adopted children, but that her question on paternity leave would be considered by the RB.

The report of the Standing Committee was then received by the Synod.

 

Finance

THE Church of Ireland’s finances were in a favourable position, thanks to good investment returns, but pensions continued to be challenging, the Synod heard on Tuesday evening.

Henry Algeo, who chairs the executive committee of the Representative Church Body (RCB), introduced its report. Income from investments in 2022 came to €6.43 million, with a further operating income of €940,000, and €180,000 profit from the disposal of fixed assets. This came to a total of €7.55 million in income, while the cost of operations and allocations amounted to €6.53 million, and cost-of-living grants came to €950,000. This led to a small surplus of €70,000, Mr Algeo said.

After praising the staff of the RCB’s finance department for the quality of their accounts, he told the Synod that 2022 was the first year in which the Church’s investments had been handled by external managers. This had been a positive experiment. Dividends were slowly rising, and the RCB hoped that it might be able to raise them further.

Pensions, however, had been challenging, Mr Algeo reported. A working group had been tackling issues of solvency and how to establish a consistent asset of €20 million for several years. “We expect to be technically solvent by the year end,” he said; but this did not mean that they had inflation-proofed the scheme for years to come: the RCB still intended, in the long term, to return pensions to their intended level before the recent crunch.

Pioneer ministry had become a live project of the Church as of 2022, with staff in place and funding under way. The first pioneer projects to receive grants were expected to do so in 2024, Mr Algeo said.

Some older books in the Church’s archive and libraries had been discovered to be mouldering recently, owing to a lack of airflow during the pandemic, when visitor numbers to the stacks dropped dramatically. No long-term damage had resulted, and the issue of airflow had been fixed for the future, he said.

“As we come out of the pandemic, the activities of the RCB are now back to full stretch,” he concluded, thanking the staff for their hard work.

Seconding the report, Canon Nicola Halford (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) said that she wanted to focus on RCB activity that had an impact on parishes. The list of jobs in the Church now went long beyond the callings listed by St Paul in the epistles, she noted. He had not had to deal with charities regulation, litigation, or the maintenance of historic buildings. The reality, she said, of being a curate to nine churches in the Wexford Union of parishes quickly put paid to any sentimental dreamsthat she had had of living a George Herbert-style rural-parson lifestyle.

The issue of compliance had come up many times during the Synod, she said, and this was where the RCB could help. Each parish was part of a bigger unit, both diocese and Church. Could more services be provided centrally in the island of Ireland, she asked. She praised the resources already provided by the RCB, including much that was available on the website of the Church of Ireland, and training that was being rolled out in the coming months.

She drew attention to a new climate-change policy from the RCB which was in the Book of Reports laid before the Synod. Both central guidance such as this and local parish experience would be vital for churches that were trying to respond to the environmental crisis.

Cathedrals with choral traditions had been kept afloat by financial support from the RCB during the lockdowns when their usual income streams had been cut off. Considering future needs, Canon Halford said that the place of the RCB in the Church would grow only as it supported pioneer ministry, clergy well-being, and other innovative mission.

Stephen Trew (Down & Dromore) highlighted the RCB’s energy-efficiency grants, which he was delighted to see come into being. He had suggested this very idea at the last meeting of the Synod, and encouraged others members to also share their ideas. In recent years, the RCB had been transformed into a leader in society in responding to the climate crisis, he said. The Church should take a lead and set an example to businesses and private homes by transforming the efficiency of parish buildings.

Mr Algeo then moved that the Synod approve the financial allocations laid out in the RCB’s report. This motion was carried, as was a subsequent one to receive the entire report.

 

Legislation

THE Synod, having been reminded of its primary function as a legislative body, nodded through several minor Bills last Friday, under the guidance of the Bishop of Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows.

The first Bill proposed simplifying the forms that lay people signed when joining a parish vestry. This was carried by 289-1.

Bill No. 2 would relax the rules that currently required churches to affix public notices to their doors before vestry meetings, allowing parishes to communicate notice of the meeting by other means. This was carried by 290-3.

Bill No. 3 closed a loophole that allowed someone to be elected to the Synod as a representative for any diocese, not just the one in which they lived or worshipped. This met with some disapproval among the Synod members. Several rose to warn that it would needlessly reduce flexibility in rare cases or for those in ministries that crossed diocesan boundaries.

The Director of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Canon Maurice Elliott, was one of several to oppose the change: he described it as a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”. Canon Gillian Wharton (Dublin & Glendalough), who proposed the Bill, responded to the debate by observing that some people had felt disenfranchised by not being able to be elected to the Synod for their diocese in favour of someone who could not speak to the lived experience of the diocese.

When the Bill was put to the vote at its second reading, however, it was defeated by 151-111.

Bill No. 4 would require Synod representatives to provide an email address to ensure communication online. This was carried by 290-8.

Bill No. 5 allowed for an inconsequential change to the legal name of the board that manages St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in the Constitution of the Church of Ireland. This was carried unanimously.

Bill No. 6 addressed interchangeability between Anglican and Methodist clergy after the ecumenical agreement of 2014. Long-term transfer from one denomination to another was already possible, but the Bill would allow for short-term transfer of orders, to cover sickness or holidays, for example. This was already happening locally, and the Bill simply enshrined it in legislation, the Bishop of Derry & Raphoe, the Rt Revd Andrew Forster, said, as he introduced it to the Synod. This was carried by 285-9.

Bill No. 7 was an uncontroversial rearranging of language on charity regulation in the constitution of the Church of Ireland. This was carried by 287-5.

Bill No. 8 addressed the old defined-benefit pension fund, closed to new entrants in 2014. The Representative Body (RB) proposed the Bill to allow flexibility for pension increases above five per cent in any year. A ten-year project to restore the fund to solvency after it fell into difficulty has been successful, and ends this year, Robert Neill from the RB explained. As a result, pensions in payment and future pensions can now begin to increase at last. This was carried by 285-9.

Bill No. 9 also tackled clergy pensions, relating to the two current defined-contribution schemes active (one in Northern Ireland and one in the Republic of Ireland). The RB wanted to amend the Constitution to allow it to increase in the future if necessary the Church of Ireland contribution to the pension schemes.

Andrew Brannigan (Down & Dromore) said that the employer’s contribution to the pension should be increased, but he was concerned at the financial impact on parishes that had already borne a heavy burden over ten years to get the old pension scheme back into the black.

Mr Neill sympathised with Mr Brannigan’s concern, but pleaded with the Synod not to tie the hands of the RB in providing an adequate pension for the Church’s clergy. This was enabling legislation after all, he noted. This was carried by 284-7.

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