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General Synod digest: transfer of funeral fees to PCCs agreed

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Revd Mae Christie (Southwark)

The Revd Mae Christie (Southwark)

A LONDON diocesan motion to redirect from diocesan boards of finance (DBFs) to PCCs the £34 fee for funeral services at crematoria or cemeteries when there was no service in church was approved by the General Synod on Friday afternoon.

That was the practice before 2020, when the Synod amended the Parochial Fees Order in favour of the DBF, on the grounds that parishes should retain monies only when costs were incurred through use of the church building. But it was also argued that, while the sum was small, it reflected the time and effort of clergy, lay ministers and volunteers in an important ministry.

The motion had originated in the Hillingdon deanery synod, which had noted that Derby diocese had already redirected the fee.

Introducing the debate, the Revd Christopher Trundle (London) said that redirecting the fee would be a tangible way of supporting funeral ministry, and would reflect the “considerable time and effort” involved in ministering to bereaved people. The fee would be extra welcome for reimbursement of ministers’ expenses by the PCC.

The annual sum involved across the whole of the Church of England was estimated to be £1.7 million; loss of income to the DBF in London had been £10,000 in 2023, Fr Trundle said. Decisions about which PCC should receive the fee were a local matter, which the motion did not seek to dictate; also, this was not a call for a trial scheme. It was simply a call to return to the pre-2019 position.

In favour, the Revd Mae Christie (Southwark) described the finances in her parish as “slim and trim”: small amounts did matter, and this fee would be an uplift for parishes. But more administrative support would also help.

The Revd Marcus Walker (London) strongly supported the principle of paying workers their dues: a lot of pastoral care went into funerals ministry, he said. The motion also acknowledged the impact on parishes of the 2020 decision. One priest had revealed himself to be the only member of the deanery prepared to take funerals of non-churchgoers. If he was unable to, the duty went to the funeral directors, and the families were without pastoral support. The C of E was trying to encourage funeral directors to return to using priests: “It’s a core ministry, and it’s very important we put this right.”

The Revd Julian Hollywell (Derby) regarded this as “a good opportunity to rectify our own mistakes”. Derby had been returning the fees to parishes since 2020. “It’s a centralist view to consider that if a church isn’t being used, there isn’t a cost to the parish,” he said.

The Revd Liz Hassall (York) wanted the Synod to look more widely at the finance behind this. PCCs did not exist in isolation: the administration time needed to ensure that the fee was directed to the correct PCC was considerable. “I want to support the motion, but I can’t condone allowing PCCs to feel richer while being obliged to contribute more,” she said.

Canon Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that his parish was never able to pay its full parish share and had “in gladness” paid the fee to the DBF. “If the DBF feels the parish need it, they can return it with love and joy,” he suggested.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the UK Bereavement Commission, said: “Never underestimate the importance of good pastoral care for people at vulnerable times in their lives. Churches can provide this care. The motion affirms the value of funerals ministry generally, and the role of parish ministry.” The Church should not ignore the implications of the decline in church funerals, she said. “We cannot underestimate the value to people and society of this ministry.”

Carl Hughes (Archbishops’ Council) said that, ultimately, each diocese needed enough funds to pay clergy and to provide other ministries. If this motion was carried, some of the money that had reverted to the parishes might be passed on in the parish share, to help to plug the gap in diocesan finances.

The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, said that her diocese was pleased to act as a pilot project for the Church of England. “We want to affirm and encourage the best bereavement ministry.” She suggested that the most effective way to encourage generosity by parishes was to invest in resilient parish finances, so that they could, in turn, be generous through the common fund. She assured the Synod that, whatever the outcome, Derby would continue to redirect the fee.

The Revd Graham Kirk-Spriggs (Norwich) urged caution. If the Synod allowed this, he said, “we will inevitably in some places see parish share go up. The elephant in the room is parish share generally and how much it is.” He suggested: “We need to support parish ministry if we are to see our funeral ministry grow. We need proper, well-funded secretarial support.”

The Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham) said that funerals were a crucial part of parish ministry. “In Durham, we train authorised local lay ministers — a special calling, and to do it well is a real skill,” she said. “Funeral ministry is now all in-house. I would like to see our ministries valued more: not all parishes can afford to waive a fee and assign it to a minister. We need administrative support, which could be at deanery level. We can be bolder and braver.”

The motion was carried. It read:

That this Synod request the Archbishops’ Council to lay a draft order before the Synod to amend the Parochial Fees and Scheduled Matters Amending Order 2019 so that a fee payable to the parochial church council is prescribed in respect of funeral services that take place at crematoria and cemeteries to reflect the contribution made by parishes in support of such services.

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