On Saturday we had a meeting of the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod. For the last few years Synod has been a bit of a ‘trial by ordeal’ of dull presentations. This time, however, we had what I must say was the best presidential address I have heard in many years, by our new bishop Stephen Cottrell — full of vigour and challenge. Amongst the notable things he said, incidentally, was that we need more stipendiary clergy, not fewer. Hurrah for that idea!
Unfortunately, the following items then had a depressing sense of déjà vu, not least when it came to finance.
Once again, we are in the red, but this time the number of ‘defaulting’ parishes has doubled from previous years, despite an overall increase in giving levels and strenuous efforts by the diocesan finance team to improve matters.
There are a number of possible reasons why this is so: lack of effort, lack of commitment, lack of awareness of our ‘mutual responsibility’ — all of these are things that have been identified and addressed.
There is, however, another possibility, which is simply that the whole system of parish share, on which our diocesan finances depend, is wrong. Given that it has never actually worked satisfactorily in all the almost thirty years I’ve been in the diocese, there is something to be said for this view.
In The Road to Growth : towards a thriving church (London: Church House, 2005), Bob Jackson is fiercely critical of the share system and is worth quoting at length:
A parish share system is a subsidy arrangement. [...] Most churches, however, have come to believe that what is actually a benign subsidy system to them is in reality a wicked taxation system upon them. [...] It drives a damaging wedge between parish and diocese. The diocese, the operator of the subsidy system, gets bitten by the mouths it is feeding because the owners of the mouths believe, wrongly, that the diocese is taking their food from them. ‘Bringing in the share’ has become the major point of contact between many parishes and their dioceses. Often, when church hears from its diocese, it is in connection with a demand for money. Diocesan leaders often appear to assess local clergy and churches not on the basis of their effectiveness for the kingdom of heaven but on whether or not they are paying their parish share. (157-8)
The last point is particularly apposite. In 2008, Chelmsford introduced an official ‘award’ scheme for parishes, based entirely on their contribution to ‘parish share’, with ‘Platinum’ at the top, followed by ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Bronze’ and ‘Won’t Pay’. Parishes are actually told which bracket they come into, and those in the ‘Won’t Pay’ category are subject to sanctions (and a visit from the finance team). Surely nothing could drive home more unhelpfully the idea that ‘the diocese’ is only interested in financial performance?
Intense and detailed attention has been given to this issue, yet the scheme never works! Indeed, as was admitted at the Synod, last year was worse than normal.
Is it not, therefore, time to risk trying something else? The obvious approach would be to shorten the ‘supply lines’ between costs and payments — in other words, to get parishes to pay their direct costs as directly as possible.
(As it happens, this would be quite straightforward to initiate, with PCCs paying the minister a proportion of stipend which is then declared on the minister’s annual return of income and credited to the PCC against ‘share’. The computers will take care of the rest.)
It is deeply frustrating to hear the same debate every couple of years, and yet it was greatly refreshing to hear the bishop speaking convincingly about growth. So I will close with a quote from the ‘blurb’ on Jackson’s book:
Bob Jackson’s The Road to Growth confronts us with some truths about ourselves. Sometimes uncomfortable, always provocative, and ultimately helpful, this is a book that helps us imagine a new future.
The author of this commendation? Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading. There is hope for us yet!Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.