Anglican Myth 4: "We can bankrupt our diocese"
In recent days there has been much talk of orthodox members of the Church of England using their “financial muscle” to challenge the outcome of the Living and Love and Faith process.
Few things could be clearer in our Lord’s teaching than the relationship between the heart and money. To that extent any willingness for parishes to put their money where their faithful heart is can only be welcomed but PCCs need to think carefully why they are doing it.
It is questionable whether 'quota-capping', or withholding parish contributions to the diocese, will have any impact on how the Church of England handles matters of Human Sexuality (or many other issues). It may also have unintended consequences.
For the sake of clarity, the phrase 'Common Fund' is used to describe the voluntary payments made by PCCs to the diocese in this blog.
Do we have the 'financial muscle' to affect change?
Parishes are not the only source of income for the dioceses - in pre-Covid times, parishes, on average, contributed less than 60% of the income dioceses received.
Many of the churches most able to challenge the diocese financially have already done so, 'quota-capping' has a long history in some such places and, assuming at least some share will be paid, there is now little left that could be (responsibly) withdrawn.
Many biblically faithful parishes are, not least because of a commendable desire to take the gospel to the disadvantaged, net recipients from their diocese. These parishes will find it hard either to exert much pressure or will simply increase the amount by which they are subsidised from the centre.
Some dioceses are wealthy and as such, largely immune from financial pressures. For example, the Diocese of London has net assets of over £0.5 billion with an annual income and spend of not far off £50m. Likewise, the Diocese of Oxford has similar assets and spends about £30m a year. It will be hard for even a few dozen orthodox churches to put much of a dent in that! The Common Fund contribution of one large church that has pressed “pause” on paying is about 1/1000th of their diocese’s budget.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, dioceses with the most perilous finances are unlikely to be hotbeds of orthodoxy. If they were it is likely that their finances would be in a better state! The Dioceses of Liverpool or Gloucester are not likely to be places where there are too many of the faithful to be militant.
All dioceses still have plentiful assets to sell and will do so for years before accepting that the revisionist project has failed.
Few, would disagree that there is plentiful “fat” to be cut in central diocesan administration and, however reluctantly, that will happen before the revisionists cave to orthodox financial pressure or bishops, archdeacons, etc themselves feel the squeeze.
If the Church Commissioners can find funds for, “reparations”, “net zero” and the latest “Strategic Development Funding” project they will find funds from their billions to fill funding “gaps”- as they did to fund stipends during the Covid lockdown.
Few parishes are now sufficiently privileged to have the autonomy of old. Clergy with the care of numerous parishes (perhaps even a whole deanery) are likely to find it difficult to find financial solutions that are agreeable to all or don’t cause resentments due to the negative impact on parishes who aren’t “onboard”.
What might be the unintended consequences of using our 'financial muscle'?
Struggling dioceses will continue to react to a lack of income by reducing stipendiary positions - thus “combative” parishes are perhaps doing no more than precipitating the loss of clergy posts in the diocese and the creation of ever larger combined benefices and the like. There has been talk of reducing the present roughly 12,000 parishes to 9,000. Part of the response of the Diocese of Manchester to its financial issues was to close about 17% of its churches over 30 years, while Durham closed 15%.
A diocese that actually failed (probably due to low attendance as much as lack of money) will simply be folded into another diocese - Truro back into Exeter, Blackburn back into Manchester, Liverpool back into Chester and so on. England does not in anyway justify forty-two dioceses, so some reduction is inevitable and to be welcomed but notice that the dioceses that are most vulnerable to this kind of amalgamation could lead to the 'loss' of more orthodox dioceses.
Ultimately, withholding funds is, at best, a “one generation” strategy - parishes who do so will find that the diocese will not replace the incumbent, let alone fund a curate in the short term. The link is now quite specific, with many dioceses having some kind of arrears or shortfall policy, for example this one from Exeter. So, it is only to that extent that Common Fund payments are “voluntary”. Obviously, churches who, for the long term, can pay their own staff might struggle less but only then if they can achieve the unlikely task of securing the succession without a licence and establish adequate arrangements for ordination and faithful episcopal oversight.
Syphoning money into a “Good Stewards Trust”, where a church, which is a net giver reduces its parish share to a level to cover what it receives from the diocese and gives the amount saved to a trust to help poorer churches, may no longer be viable. If the wealthier parish is deemed not to have met their Common Fund payments, they will put their future at risk and any enrichment of the poorer parish by way of grants from the Trust will inevitably be reflected in what the parish is expected to pay in future years. In effect the diocese is likely to just demand more and more from orthodox parishes. A trust could provide other resourcing to a parish, for example a member of staff employed by the trust but that will not impact the diocesan finances save for reducing the possibility of the diocese paying for such a worker.
Added to the “one generation” problem (see above) is that the timescales are against the orthodox. It takes an unusual optimist to think that, however forcefully, faithful Anglicans respond over the next few months and years, the trajectory is not set. In the light of all the issues set out here it is highly likely that theological meltdown will have occurred before financial meltdown does. In which case only if the available window, however small, is used to “plunder the Egyptians” might there be any real long-term benefit to orthodox parishes. But the problem with plundering the Egyptians is that the faithful do then actually have to leave, pilgrimage, and never look back.
Exiting PCC funds to projects that rival the charitable objectives of the PCC - for instance a planned non-Church of England church plant or the local Anglican Network in Europe church - will risk the members of the PCC who do it being in breach of their fiduciary duties. The charitable objectives are to a considerable extent constrained by the PCC being a Church of England charity .
None of this is said with any relish. Those whose believe that the greatest good is for the structures of the Church of England to serve their own purposes may well prevail over those who believe that the structures exist to serve the evangelisation of England. It is an unequal battle.
But winning the battle is not the same as winning the war. “Victory”, as is so often the case will come at a terrible price.
Those who succeed control the Church of England’s structures will have gained responsibility for 16,500 buildings (two-thirds of which are listed), a dysfunctional leadership, and perhaps, most of all, the proper compensation of serial victims of abuse.
There is little point in seizing an institution by destroying its most vital parts. Liberals in the Church of England may win the fight but only by destroying the body of the church. And there is little point being a rich corpse.
Never has it been truer that those who wish to preserve their life will lose it.
To explore the sustainability of the finances of the Church of England further or consider alternative funding models - see Funding The Future - the Report of an Anglican Futures Ideas Exchange.
Photo credit Andre Tassain at Unsplash