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It is time for a new deal for underpaid clergy

14 June 2024

A culture of low remuneration and overwork can be addressed only by more funding at a national level, argues Philip North

ARE we at risk of exploiting our priests? That is the stark question that many of us have had to start asking ourselves in recent months, as the reality of the impact of the eroding remuneration package for the stipendiary clergy becomes ever clearer.

The rationale of the clergy stipend is important. Priests are not paid for a set number of hours of work: they are offered a package that enables them to minister for Christ full-time, without the need for secular employment. Our clergy are gifted, highly educated, and enormously dedicated. Most would command high salaries in the workplace, and they and their families have made genuine sacrifices to minister. And yet the remuneration package has become seriously eroded.

Measured against the Retail Price Index, the stipend has decreased by 28 per cent, in real terms, since 2009. Even measured against the Consumer Price Index, the decrease is nine per cent. The replacement of working tax credits with Universal Credit has also hit clergy income; some families have lost many thousands of pounds as a result.

Stipends are agreed by each diocesan board of finance (DBF), and so the inequalities in diocesan finances are leading to increasing stipend disparities between dioceses, because those with no historic wealth struggle to keep up with racing inflation. It seems unthinkable that the income that the clergy receive should be contingent on the inherited assets of the diocese that they serve; and yet that seems to be a situation that we are happy to accept.

Decent housing is another part of the package. Yet property departments have often borne the brunt of cuts to DBF budgets. This has lowered the quality of the housing that is on offer: some clergy families complain about long delays for basic repairs, and stretched property teams struggle to keep up.

THERE are wider questions about the stipend package that go unaddressed. Why is it that clergy are only allowed one day off a week, when a two-day weekend is the norm for almost every other profession? Why are there disparities across the country for the days worked by house-for-duty and part-time clergy? How have we set a culture in which many of the clergy work far more days than they should?

The damaging effect of all this is clear to see. According to a survey by the union Unite, 23 per cent of the clergy are struggling with utility bills, 21 per cent have had to cancel holiday plans, and 21 per cent rely on financial support from family and friends (News, 27 October 2023). Some have had to make use of loans or foodbanks. Some have skipped meals.

The Clergy Support Trust has reported a six-fold increase in the number of grants since 2018, and its expenditure has reached a level that is not sustainable. Many of those grants are for essentials: laptop computers (an item that in any other profession would be provided), cars, domestic appliances, and school uniforms. How can we criticise growing levels of child poverty in our nation when so many clergy children are being brought up below the poverty line?

This is a massive issue, because a culture of low pay and overwork affects clergy well-being, recruitment, and retention. Too many faithful priests are losing the joy of ministry, and are either watching the clock in their last years or quitting early. That is a waste of skilled and able priests that we cannot afford.

A new deal for our stipendiary clergy is needed, and it needs to be set nationally.

Such a deal must begin with an agreed national stipend restored to the pre-2009 level. This would mean a big stipend uplift — maybe as much as 30 per cent. We need a clergy covenant on standards of housing. We need to encourage priests to take two days off a week. We need a national policy on how many days should be worked by part-time and house-for-duty clergy.

We need retreats and periods of sabbatical to be an expectation for all rather than a treat for the few. We need national policies on maternity leave, so that the postcode lottery so starkly revealed by the recent Clergy Babies Maternity Policy Audit is consigned to history (News, 10 May). Maybe, we even need to challenge the shibboleth around office-holder status, and employ clergy, so that dioceses can be held accountable for the support that they offer to their priests.

BUT already I can hear an objection: if a diocesan bishop is writing this, why doesn’t he just get on and do it? Why doesn’t Blackburn set the standard? There are some ways in which we are seeking to do just that, for example in relation to sabbatical leave and days off. But the issue, as a whole, can be dealt with only at a national level, for financial reasons.

I would love to pay our clergy more, but, in a diocese with no historic reserves, the only way that we can do that is to hike up parish share (cutting clergy numbers is not an option, as this increases clergy workloads and also reduces diocesan income). For those of the clergy who are already anxious about the financial sustainability of their parishes, we would merely be converting one cause of stress into another.

We are a wealthy Church. But, while the Church Commissioners (along with some DBFs and PCCs) sit on billions of pounds, and at a time when it is possible to raise significant funds for new projects, we seem unwilling to invest in our priests. How can we be both a wealthy Church and one that exploits the precious asset that is our stipendiary clergy? It is time both for a new deal for our clergy, and for a nationally agreed new way of funding it.

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Blackburn.

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