Sunday, 24 May 2009

Bishops and MPs, pots and kettles?

With all the ‘brough-ha-ha’ currently in the press about MP’s expenses, it might be worth reminding ourselves as a Church that when you point the finger at someone else, there are three more fingers pointing back at you.

Hence, I was reflecting this morning on the fact that the only other time I faced legal action (apart from a mix-up over who was actually paying my Council tax —it turned out, for a short while, no-one), was when solicitors acting for the Church Commissioners threatened to sue the editorial board of New Directions, of which I am a long-standing member.

It was back in early 1999 that the Church Commissioners were approached to see if some idea could be gained of the nett cost of bishops to the Church of England, including their expenses:

Rather predictably [came the response], the policy of the Commissioners is not to make such information available. It would be difficult to abstract... varies widely from bishop to bishop... and, if given, would only prove to be ‘misleading’ ... etc., etc., etc.

Naturally, this did nothing to assuage journalistic interest which, if not devoid of a dislike of the bishops, was driven also by the way these expenses seemed to be increasing when clergy numbers were not. Questions continued to be asked, at Synod and elsewhere —always to be met by the same basic response. The expenses, enquirers were assured, were supervised by the Church Commissioners and there was nothing to worry about and no need to know any more.

To cut a long story short, however, what eventually happened bears a striking resemblance to the situation with MPs —namely that a copy of the expenses fell into the hands (simultaneously and from different sources) of a member of the New Directions board and a journalist from the Daily Telegraph.

And the Commissioners’ response? To threaten to sue the New Directions board (though not the Daily Telegraph) under the Data Protection Act (although ND had only threatened to give figures, not actual names).

Eventually, though, the pressure paid off and bishop’s expenses are now published.

You can read this rather sorry saga here, should you wish to be reminded.

John Richardson
24 May 2009

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