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Clergy Support Trust helps one fifth of serving clerics

03 May 2024

Charity argues that Church is complicit in failure to provide clergy essentials

THE Clergy Support Trust has questioned why it had to give financial help to one fifth of the serving clergy in the past year.

The trust gave £2 million in grants for “essentials” — including home appliances, laptops, and energy costs. As a result, the charity’s chief executive, the Revd Ben Cahill-Nicholls, asked this week whether it was “complicit” in a wider failure to care for the clergy properly.

Speaking before the charity’s annual festival of thanksgiving, to be held in St Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday, Mr Cahill-Nicholls spoke of the privilege of meeting the needs of the clergy, but also of his concern that the high percentage now receiving support — 22 per cent of the serving clergy last year — was indicative of an “unacceptable narrative” taking hold in the Church. “Why is it that £2 million of charitable funds are being spent on things that really are pretty basic to day-to-day living and ministry?”

The trust gave out 6802 grants last year: a 25-per-cent increase on the previous year. In 2018, the total was 1185. In total, it supported 2711 households — more than double the 2020 figure, and almost five times the 2018 figure. In five dioceses, the percentage of clergy supported was 30 per cent and higher.

Well-being grants made up 42 per cent of the total, followed by emergency grants (for general living expenses and a range of situations) at 25 per cent. Holidays accounted for almost £2 million in grants; £156,000 was allocated for appliances; £217,000 for energy costs; and £648,000 for car-related costs.

In recent years, the charity has set out to expand its grant-making, setting a goal in 2019 of doubling the number of clergy families supported by 2022 (News, 15 March 2019). The charity’s 2022-25 strategy includes a target to help 3000 families with financial support each year by 2025. It expects to provide at least 6500 grants per year.

The rise in grants could partly be attributed to improvements in the running of the charity, Mr Cahill-Nicholls said: it was much easier to apply for a grant; a “kinder experience” was offered; and there had been extensive efforts to “get out there” and communicate the organisation’s existence. Other issues were the recent Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

Another part of the context, however, was the state of the Church. “It is increasingly clear to me that we are simply not looking after our people as well as we should be,” he said. “The emotional burdens in parish ministry are enormous, post-pandemic.” The stipend had not risen in line with inflation, he pointed out (News, 9 February). And there were “enormous ecclesial pressures on people . . . an expectation of professionalisation but without the resource that goes with that. . . That is at the heart of why a lot of people, who perhaps five or ten years ago wouldn’t have reached out to us, are doing so now.”

Historically, the charity had been “quite a quiet organisation”, he said. The cost of living had tended to “ebb and flow”, and the charity had been there to “hold the umbrella up when it rains”. It was becoming louder, however, to advocate on behalf of its beneficiaries. As an organisation that was “inside the Church but outside the Church”, it was able to speak to church leaders and the national church institutions and say things that an individual parish priest might not be able to say.

His chief concern was the £2 million spent on “the essentials”: “either things that should be affordable on a basic income” or things that were “completely essential to the ministry we are expecting people to be able to do”, such as laptops. This was “enormously problematic for the Church”.

He asked himself: “Have we actually become complicit in a narrative that is unacceptable?” He was aware that one bishop had referred to the charity as “the bank of mum and dad”. The challenge, he said, was that being stricter about what the charity funded would have a detrimental impact on applicants. The charity was, instead, trying to have a “much more mature and nuanced conversation with the Church about who should be doing what”.

This was going well, and strong relationships were in place, he said. But it was important not to be “too close” to the Church, given that it was the charity’s total independence that meant that applicants felt “safe” to approach it. In a recent Living Ministry survey, which found that one third of the incumbents questioned exhibited signs of clinical depression, one third of the respondents said that they did not trust the diocese to look after their well-being (News, 23 February).

Last year, the Trust awarded more than £1 million in financial-support grants, assessed in line with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard, described by Foundtation as “the income that people need to reach a minimum socially acceptable standard of living in the UK today, based on what members of the public think”. The 2021 Clergy Remuneration Review reported that the clergy stipend was “sufficient for most clergy to be above the minimum income standard — taking account of free housing”, but not for some larger families (News, 24 June 2021).

Among the clergy supported by the Trust is the Revd Dr Melanie Harrington-Haynes, Vicar of the Kew Benefice, who is married to another priest and has three children. The charity has funded two laptops: one through an emergency grant, to enable her daughter to do schoolwork during the pandemic, and another work laptop for her own use. It has also contributed to a family holiday.

“I don’t think we would be able to go on holiday if it wasn’t for the Clergy Support Trust,” she said this week. “In parish ministry, it’s so important to get away, because we have a public presence in our parishes, and to properly rest we need to be able to go somewhere else, to recharge our batteries, and things are increasingly expensive.” She praised the pastoral skills of the charity’s staff in receiving applications, and advised those with financial worries, who were concerned about eligibility, to contact them to talk through their situation. “We are very, very grateful.”

The Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy was founded by the sons of clergymen in 1655 to raise funds for destitute Anglican clergy who had lost their livings under Oliver Cromwell. In 2012, it was formally amalgamated with another charity, Friends of the Clergy Corporation, founded in the 19th century. The new name came into use in 2019.

Its most recent annual report (2022) said that investments had doubled in a decade. Total investment funds stood at £105.4 million, which means that the charity does not actively fund-raise, other than through the annual festival service. In 2022, expenditure exceeded income by more than £2 million, reflecting what is described as the trustees’ “planned policy to begin a period of operating deficits after many years of annual surpluses”.

While acknowledging the strength of the charity’s finances, Mr Cahill-Nicholls observed that “enormous wealth is only enormous if you don’t spend it,” and highlighted the far greater size of the Church Commissioners’ assets: “Presumably, quite a lot of it is to revitalise parishes up and down the country, and I would argue that clergy well-being should be a very significant part of that.

“We have, as a Church, to stop seeing clergy well-being as nice to have, as a side issue, as something peripheral to what’s really going on,” he said. “The only way to evangelise a nation and to build the Kingdom of God is to have people who are willing to be the evangelists; and, if your evangelists are not staying in the job, or think that they are too badly paid or looked after to make it worth their while to get ordained in the first place, we are not going to evangelise the nation, we are not going to build the Kingdom of God on earth.”

While much had changed since 1655, he hoped that, were the founders to attend the Festival, they would “see something that felt different enough to challenge them and similar enough for them to feel safe, and like something important had grown from their very humble origins”.

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