Speaking of spreadsheets and the cross

I read Bishop Philip North’s article, ‘The spreadsheet or the cross – time to choose’, in the Church Times (1st June) with considerable interest.

This autumn I will, once more, be leading a Mission and Evangelism course in my own archdeaconry (Buckinghamshire).  I also sit on my diocesan parish share review group and, the Glebe Investment Committee (before ordination I worked in the investment management industry) . Mission and money, and in particular the relationship between the two, is close to my heart.

In a spirit of honesty I get very frustrated when the argument is put forward that mission and evangelism can somehow be effective separate from financial support. Mission and evangelism can never be cost-free. This is surely a lesson that should be learnt from those churches who invest, because they are able to do so, directly and financially, in mission strategies and action plans?

The trouble is that many churches are unable to allocate significant sums of cash to mission and evangelism either because there is no money in the first place (poverty), or because the demand of parish share is so onerous that there is little, or nothing, left to invest directly, over a sustained period of time, in mission (the squeezed middle or only just managing). In my own parish, according to the ‘spreadsheets’ 88% of our voluntary income is directed towards parish share. In some of our largest churches, well, I will leave you to guess the figures……………

Like the Vicar of Ribbleton, many of the clergy in my locale work pretty much ‘entirely alone.’ And, it’s getting worse. Team ministries exist, for sure, but they are stretched to breaking point. In fact they are so stretched that they don’t in any meaningful sense operate as a team. Ministers are so busy fulfilling their basic commitments and obligations to pastoral ministry, and satisfying the needs of the rota, that there is little time or energy left to do anything else.

Bishop Philip’s concern, is rightly, focused on areas of deprivation; the outer estates. My concern is the squeezed middle and the countryside. Rural poverty is a real thing, even in Buckinghamshire. I come across the devastating effects of poverty each and every week as do my deanery colleagues. Mind you urban poverty is also a very real thing, even in leafy Buckinghamshire. Towns like Slough, High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes all have ‘no go areas.’ If the Church is to devise a new and more just system for the allocation of resources what it mustn’t do is pit urban against rural. This is my only real concern with the overall thrust of Bishop Philip’s argument.

Bishop Philip’s concern, again rightly, is for a fairer distribution of resources across dioceses. His proposal is for a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure’ that would allow ‘historic assets to be held centrally so that we could deploy clergy nationally on the basis of need rather than history.’ It is a good proposal, however I would agree with Bishop Philip that ‘the chances of the General Synod’s passing such a measure are roughly the same as Accrington Stanley’s winning the UEFA Champions League.’ This level of realism depresses me beyond words.

I suppose my more modest hope would be that dioceses would deploy their historic assets, and the mechanics of the parish share scheme, more strategically in order to invest directly in areas of poverty, whilst also relieving the burden on the squeezed middle. If we are serious about the cross this would appear to me to be a no-brainer. It is something that I have been arguing for, with some passion, in our parish share review group. I have no doubt that the spreadsheets work to the advantage of the large and successful. The spreadsheets that I have studied prove this.  The spreadsheets tragically testify to the fact that the Acts Chapter 2 (43 – end) is, indeed, an inconvenient text.

So if the notion of a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure,’ in conjunction with an economically more just share scheme, operationalized either at the national or regional level, or pragmatically some combination of the two, with wealthier dioceses, such as mine, also making a greater contribution to the common good, in the recognition that some dioceses, when they were formed, were set up to fail is a no-brainer why won’t it be enacted?

Well, again, I think Bishop Philip provides the answer: structural injustices are easier to live with. Of course structural injustice can always be explained away or legitimized. I have been repeatedly told that asking large, essentially gathered churches, some of which are the grateful recipients of vast sums of discretionary giving, to contribute more to the common purse, would be to penalize them for growth (or size). To my mind this argument is the ecclesial equivalent of the suggestion that a modest increase in income tax on the super wealthy would lead to a mass exodus to other, more favorable, tax regimes. It is an argument made from a place of fear. The unspoken message is that we would like the wealthy to make a greater direct contribution, but we dare not put in place a system that corrects the structural injustices, and facilitates meaningful redistribution of either historic capital or current income, which so manifestly prevails. Until these issues are courageously addressed the best we can aspire to be is a faded caricature of the the apostolic church, as described in Acts 2, 43 -end.

I have also been told, repeatedly, that largest and wealthiest of  churches invest directly in mission, using their ‘own’ funds. This is true, for the simple and straightforward reason that they can. Part of the reason they can is that they pay far too little into the common purse through the parish share system but even with a relatively substantial increase in contribution to the common purse they would still be able to invest substantial sums directly in their own mission initiatives; the spreadsheets tell us so. I have also been told, again repeatedly, that should any attempt be made to ask the wealthy churches to pay more all that will happen is that they will use the skills at their disposal to engineer their accounts, moving increasingly large amounts of money into restricted funds. To me this is a little bit like wealthy corporations moving assets offshore and off balance sheet. Its legal, but……

I would imagine that churches up and down the land would love to have the opportunity to invest directly in mission and evangelism so that day by day the Lord might add to the number those who are being saved (Acts 2, 47), but the financial and missional reality is that they, or should I say we, can’t. The fact that a large number of cash strapped churches are managing to sustain and, in some cases, grow is nothing short of a miracle and, yet, such churches are seldom celebrated or held up as exemplars of good practice. I wonder why not?

In his article the Bishop of Burnley speaks prophetically as follows: ‘if the Church of England is to play any part in the renewal of Christian life in this nation, it will come from the edges, from the margins, from the forgotten, and from the poor.’ He is surely right and yet the problem is that few head office, central planning, types will want to believe him, and others, who offer such a critique, for such critiques are regarded as being unworldly and insufficiently managerial and, yet history shows that in the church, as well as in the economy, change, transformation and renewal does in fact frequently come from the edges and the margins. Two of the late twentieth centuries best management thinkers (Henry Mintzberg and J.B. Quinn) proved this. The recent revival in ‘forgotten’ or retro products is also interesting. Is there a danger that traditional parish ministry, and worship, is increasingly regarded as past its sell by date? I fully accept that fresh expressions, church plants and the like must play their part, but they can never be the complete answer. Growth, both in number and in holiness, can also result from a real and sustained commitment to traditional patterns of ministry and worship, if they are given the opportunity.

I suspect, like Philip North, that a real financial commitment to invest in areas of poverty and, simultaneously, traditional parish ministry, will reap huge missional dividends.  Investing, or even subsidizing, the big, shiny, glossy and new will take the Church of England so far, but by no means far enough.

Like Philip North my concern is that if the spreadsheet system, and the structural injustice it perpetuates, continues mission and evangelism will become the exclusive preserve of the urban, wealthy, and already successful and that the Church of England will cease to be a truly national church.

Yes, it really is that stark.




7 thoughts on “Speaking of spreadsheets and the cross

  1. I read your post with considerable interest. I have been on a pilgrimage around much of England, and have therefore attended services across the whole of Buckinghamshire (I note you had Michael Sadgrove with you recently, down from Haydon Bridge – I heard you announce it at Winslow recently).

    You mention wealthy and successful churches. Where are these churches, really? I have, recently, almost completed a worship tour of Suffolk. There are about 500 parishes in Eds & Ips (plus Lothingland, now in Norwich). I scarcely saw a critical mass of worshippers at more than 10 of them. Only about two or three, if that, had a respectable demographic spread. If anyone thinks Eds & Ips is a viable unit, I have a bridge to sell them.

    Where are they in the Oxford diocese? There are about two or three in Oxford itself and, frankly, they are of a definite type. There is Greyfriars in Reading. There is St Nicolas in Newbury. Burford, perhaps. There are, of course, others which still have critical mass but are top heavy with pensioners. Frankly, I am struggling to think of many more. Naturally, a church can be successful despite having only a small congregation, so I am thinking purely in demographic terms and I am also thinking about how things are going to be in ten years’ time when the current and final generation of regular adherents has disappeared.

    The only parts of the country with a decent number of ‘successful’ parishes are the more affluent parts of the outer boroughs of London and several other cities, and the adjacent dormitory suburbs. These places are the last redoubt of the Church.

    R&R is set to be almost as successful as the Decade of Evangelism. I doubt that even massive investment or the plans proposed by Bishop North will make any impact. Greatly increased investment might have a positive impact in a few places, but will scarcely halt the general trajectory of decline. That ship has sailed. It is now FAR too late. We should instead be thinking of what we can salvage from the wreckage – though there are some really basic things that could be done, like holding services at times when there is little competition from other weekend activities (between 4 PM and 6 PM on Sundays). I agree with North that the Church is, for the most part, overwhelmingly (and often monotonously) middle class, but for a long time the Church has had little or nothing to offer the really poor: even lavish spending in deprived areas (which has to be funded) will probably make scant difference to attendance and commitment. Public tolerance for shopworn Christian platitudes about poverty is limited: dissent emerged vigorously in places like Lancashire because Anglicanism was perceived as the cult of the landed elite and its hangers-on. However, look at the current state of most of the nonconformist denominations…

    So I have been thinking a great deal about Church finance lately. How is the Church going to remain a Church OF England rather than merely a Church IN England? The Church is the custodian of a priceless national patrimony, which must – I think – be considered a unity – namely, its stock of parish churches. How are they to be preserved for the benefit of the public, and so as to ensure some form of Christian witness, however attenuated, across the country?

    We have a system of Church finance where there has been a long and slow attempt to move assets from the localities to the centre in order to provide better economies of scale. You and Philip North have referred to the 1976 Measure, which was critical to that prospectus. There was a gradual move from the 1950s to 1980s to equalise clerical pay and rations, making the centre – that is, the Commissioners, bear the liability. However, this meant running down capital (since the income streams that had prevented the erosion of capital and sustained clerical incomes in the distant past – tithe, church rate, etc., had either been abolished or were being phased out). By the early 1980s it was evident that the only alternative to burning the furniture to keep the house warm was a greater degree of entrepreneurial activity on the part of the Commissioners (i.e., speculation). As the events of the 1980s proved, this was not a desirable option. The upshot was a progressive reduction in stipendiary personnel (already well in hand in many areas), and the shift of pension accruals and stipends from the centre to the localities. The 1997 Measure was therefore a counter-revolution effected by the Colman Commission: a lunge from one extreme to the other.

    Yet the current regime – the parish share system (where parochial subventions account for 70-80% of diocesan incomes) is viable only if there are the congregations to pay for it and if there is respectable compounding on diocesan assets thanks to high returns and high interest rates. Neither of these factors have been evident since 1998, and based upon my having seen about 4,300 parishes at worship, only about 2-3% of congregations will exist within a relatively short period of time. The financial condition of practically every diocese is therefore parlous, if not critical. In the meantime the Commissioners have enjoyed a succession of often bumper returns – after all, what pension fund would not wax if the relative burden being placed on it was not declining year-on-year? We therefore have a deeply regressive system where the localities are effectively underwriting much of the profits of the centre, and it is getting worse with every passing day as diocesan liabilities for superannuation increase.

    We are far closer to the end than even the most hardened pessimists imagine.

    My plan is this: (i) partially dis-endow the Commissioners (take about £3.5bn to £4bn of their £8.3bn, of which only about £1.75bn is ear-marked for pre-1998 accruals), and use the expropriated capital to form a Church Repairs Fund; (ii) transfer all of the pre-1830 stock with the Church Repairs Fund to DCMS, in return for a perpetual right of use and the promise of further dis-endowment if the Commissioners’ funds exceed a certain limit (to augment the Fund); (iii) create a Church Buildings Agency under DCMS (effectively the CCT/FFC and parts of the Pastoral and Closed Churches Division under another name) to manage the divested stock, with an emphasis on the parallel uses proposed in last December’s Taylor Report; and (iv) dis-establish the Church to provide political cover for this transfer.

    PCCs are frequently very tired and old, and lack the economies of scale to procure cheap labour and materials, even where diocese do ‘deals’ with architects and contractors. Small trusts are most unlikely to step into the breach, even if they can be formed (and those that do are often very weak and depend on one or two individuals). Local government does not have the means to fund church repairs (look at many French communes); it also lacks the economies of scale. Only central government is a plausible candidate for the liability. The argument would be (as per France or Wales) that dis-endowment is simply returning the patrimony of the people to the people.

    However, the state will only take on the stock if there is an adequate dowry, and it would have to be seriously adequate if the Treasury are to be persuaded (the real purpose of Taylor was to reduce state subventions and this year HLF funding for churches has been slashed by a third). Once title to the stock is transferred the Church would no longer have this millstone around its neck and the clergy could concentrate on the mission for which they have supposedly been trained (they have not been trained to act as adjuncts to the heritage industry). There should then be a new settlement between the Commissioners and dioceses where liability for prospective accruals is shared.

    Also, the parish share system embeds the toxic partisanship that has corroded the wider reputation of the Church. It allows ‘successful’ parishes to claim that their less successful neighbours are free riding on their success, though the opposite is sometimes true. It also allows them to blackmail diocesans with the threat of withholding shares if the centre does not adhere to the doctrinal expectations of the blackmailing parish. Thus the tail wags the dog and extremists are given undue power over the rest.

    Disestablishment is not to be feared. I am actually against it for sentimental reasons, but I think it might be desirable in order to make the vesting of the stock in the state plausible in the current political climate, which is much the greater prize. Having looked at the 1869, 1914 and 1919 statues for Ireland and Wales (and the 1921 Church of Scotland Act) I have come to the conclusion that fears about the constitutional consequences and complexity of disestablishment have been significantly (and perhaps deliberately) exaggerated. Establishment, in reality, means very little indeed.

    I recently drafted the sketch of an outline bill detailing some of the above proposals, which I submitted to the authorities (it would disestablish the Church and declare it to be a ‘national’ Church akin to the Kirk). I expect that nothing will happen. However, in view of the final impending demographic collapse time is now very short, so if the authorities do not come up with a viable plan (since retaining the status quo will only make disaster certain) I might approach some Labour legislators with a more aggressive variant of this plan in order to see if it can be added to their other constitutional proposals, in the hope that the authorities (who generally seem to respond only when there is a risk of crisis) might then be moved to action, given the increased probability of a Corbyn government. I have little doubt that if these matters were to be brought to the attention of the public a widespread consensus in favour of disestablishment and partial disendowment could emerge (there is almost certainly a good majority in Parliament for disestablishment these days: the Church cannot credibly argue for its retention when only 7% of the coming generation are even nominally Anglican).

    Apologies for the great length of this message.

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond, and so fully. I don’t really want to comment on dis / establishment, if you don’t mind. I agree with much of what you say, and liked the reference to ‘toxic partisanship.’ I am glad you were able to visit Winslow. Michael is coming next month (8th July). I genuinely think that the large churches across the Oxford Diocese could contribute significantly more, but that also the fact that they contribute relatively little should remove all fear re doctrine. I am privy to quite a lot of spread sheet information, but can’t really give precise details, suffice to say I do believe (strongly) that their level of share is unjust in the extreme. I have a great deal of sympathy with what you have to say. What does it mean to be the Church of (or even for?) England as opposed to the Church in (or even in parts) England is also something that I think about an awful lot. At present I am not convinced that disestablishment or indeed establishment will have much bearing on renewal and reform / decline. When were you in Winslow? If you would like to visit again please say ‘hello.’ I hope we weren’t too monotonous! My reply is highly inadequate. But, you have provided me with food for thought. Thank you.

      • Thank you so much! The disestablishment thing is a side-issue. I only thought of it as political cover for the real objective – which is to deal with the problem of the buildings, so that some semblance of Church life can be retained in most places. Of course, it is presumptuous and impertinent for me to propose anything, but I have become increasingly alarmed/horrified about the demographics, and have otherwise been at a loss to understand how a mass of fire-sales can be avoided, along with the concomitant privatisation of buildings erected for the public benefit. The yield from this privatisation can sometimes be underwhelming: for example, note Grazeley, south of Reading, not an ancient building, admittedly, but sold in 2015 for £500k and lately on the market for about £1.9m. Astwood (an ancient Bucks church on the NE border with Beds, with Cranmer and Lowndes associations – the Lowndes being highly relevant to Winslow) has just been sold for a similar sum, and I wonder what the resale value will be once the purchasers have fixed the roof and installed the usual mezzanine. I can easily envisage a time in the not-too-distant future where a large part of the stock ends up like Foscote, Grove or Pitchcott.

        I went to an evensong at Winslow last month (I had been to a number of services in Northamptonshire in the morning, most of which were very thinly attended): a really excellent service with a good turn-out, for which many thanks. I must have mis-heard the news about Dean Sadgrove you gave out at the end – and he will certainly have a long drive… I had attended services there and at the Horwoods and Addington a few years ago, before you arrived (though I had seen you in action in Oving, Quainton, etc. before you moved ‘north’).

        Whilst I agree that the distribution of parish shares between many benefices is currently inequitable (sometimes severely so), the most inequitable part of it is the fact that the system exists at all, at least in its current form (although I note that some dioceses have become more flexible about demanding shares from indigent parishes). Essentially funds are being drawn up from the parishes (where they are needed the most) in order to give the Commissioners an extended (permanent?) holiday from prospective accruals. This allows the Commissioners to accumulate ever larger balances, but for what? Whittam Smith mentioned a couple of years ago (and with his customary penchant for tactful understatement) that they would need to start investing in mission, and do so seriously, otherwise the expanding endowment would soon be supporting a non-existent Church. However, the subventions provided by the Commissioners over the last few years have been so niggardly relative to the prevailing rhetoric coming from the bench, the current size of the endowment and the profundity of the problem, that they will make at most a trifling difference. That said, my fear is that Christianity is simply insufficiently compelling for the vast majority of the population (even when it is expounded properly), so I strongly suspect that even if the Commissioners were moved to make major investments the return would not be remotely proportionate to the expenditure.

        In any event the whole system is completely about face. If the Commissioners were dis-endowed so that the Church could be rid of the increasing cost of maintaining the stock, the funds that have been built up with the Commissioners would at least be returned to the localities (by means of a Church Buildings Agency ensuring that church buildings are kept in good repair).

        The main issue is: how can the Church maintain a presence in almost every community? I cannot see that remaining the case without some sort of plan to put the buildings into a national trust of some sort. If the Church doesn’t plan along those lines any form of Christian (or, rather, Anglican) witness will fade away from the vast majority of the country. Only a few churches will be left in some of the major population centres, and most people who profess themselves Christians are unlikely to travel from their own communities to a distant church. They will simply stop attending altogether and there will be no chance to have any form of ‘gathered under’ community in most places. The nature of the demographics is such that the process of fading away is likely to happen at pretty much the same time. What I find almost intolerable is the institutionalised Micawberism of the authorities – hoping that R&R will work, or that something else will turn up (when they know, in their hearts, that it probably won’t).

        As to the partisanship, I believe it has its roots in the theological colleges. Whilst I appreciate you probably undertook a three year residential course, I am not certain that residential courses always provide adequate value relative to the outlay, and this is especially so if they instil a partisan spirit that detracts from the reputation of the Church. Are they really necessary? They only emerged in the second quarter of the nineteenth century as part of the wider move towards the establishment of professional standards and with the (often unfair) tendency to malign existing practices, which had actually worked fairly well in view of the legal impediments to effective mission that then prevailed. The Anglican clergy of that time were ‘stupor mundi’ when most of them had read for the tripos (where almost the only theological content was Paley, tacked onto the end of a severe mathematical trial) or Greats (where there was a ‘divvers’ paper for matriculands and no theological content in Schools). So, let every person in orders, readers, pastoral assistants, etc., have access to a virtual library, with a full suite of commentaries, dictionaries, monographs, etc. (from OUP, CUP, Brill, Eerdmans, T&TClark, Brepols, etc.) procured by the Commissioners, who would presumably command substantial bargaining power with these publishers. This, and suitable guidance from a decent DDO/examining chaplain, would presumably suffice…? I had always thought that the best formation is obtained on the doorstep or street, and not necessarily in the claustral atmosphere of a seminary. Whilst the colleges don’t have the monopoly they once enjoyed I do feel that a number of them have a certain culture that inculcates a them-and-us spirit, which carries itself into national church politics, sometimes with deplorable results. Of course, I am sure this is not the case at Cuddesdon!

  2. Personally I’d abolish compulsory parish share – it’s a centralising measure and I don’t think that’s how the Spirit works (we can’t compel people to be faithful).
    Can I recommend this very long article about dysfunction in Whitehall (I’m an ex-civil servant and it rang so true) – there are some very striking parallels with church culture, and I’m left wondering what is coming next. Also – please could Froghole explain (or point to a place that explains) why he thinks collapse is more imminent than presently realised.

    • Thank you for your response. I too am beginning to think that the Parish Share System may no longer (if it ever was) be fit for purpose; more on this next week.

    • Mr Norton: We have the statistics (http://davidkeen.blogspot.com/2017/10/church-of-england-attendance-change-by.html), but I sometimes think that even the reported numbers flatter to deceive. I can only relate my experience – which is of trying to attend services at pretty much every available parish as part of the deranged pilgrimage (and historical/topographical tour) I have been undertaking for more than a decade. so, I have been to services at nearly 300 churches so far this year. Some of these were weekday services (such as Ascension Day or in Holy Week). Some were 8 AM communions or mid-afternoon evensongs. I grant that these are not typical services, and so I cannot treat attendance at such acts of worship as being representative of the demographic ‘health’ of any given congregation. However, the great majority I have attended were ‘main’ Sunday services, and they do allow me to take a view – especially if congregations move each week from church to church within a given benefice (as is often the case).

      Most of my attendance so far this year has been in Hampshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk (so, predominantly rural). I have ‘finished’ Hants, Cambs and have almost finished Suffolk. However, in a majority of the churches where I attended services, congregations were well below 20, and in a good many (probably about 40%) they were below 10. In a number of places I constituted a fifth or a quarter of the congregation. In most places almost everyone was over the age of 80 and, often, well over 80. Now this may be a reflection of the wider demographics of local communities, but somehow I doubt it.

      I haven’t seen a single parish so far this year where there was a critical mass of people in the teens, twenties or thirties, even at Easter. Not one. Although I did attend one 4 PM service (Haselbech, Northants) where there was a higher proportion of young families, in a congregation of about 18 – this is a small village, so a creditable turn-out.

      However, I have attended services across practically the whole of Greater London and all of the home counties. The only places where the Church registers some strength are in some (not all) of the dormitory suburbs, in the outer boroughs, or in the HTB plants. Take Middlesex: in some affluent areas (Isleworth, Hornsey, etc.) the Church makes a good showing. It also does well with its HTB plants in Shadwell, Hammersmith, etc. It is still fairly strong on the fringes (Monken Hadley, Ruislip, etc.). Of course, Bishopsgate (and its City satellites) is also strong. Almost everywhere else is pretty disastrous/catastrophic relative to the population and age profile of the wider community. The ‘growth’ much trumpeted by the London diocese conceals a great deal of accelerating decay. Much the same is true of almost ever major town I have visited in the south-east, south-west, Midlands and North, with the one exception being most university towns where there is usually at least a single evangelical church with a critical mass of students (St Saviour’s, Guildford, St Mary Bredin Canterbury, St Peter’s Brighton, St Leonard’s Exeter, St Nick’s Durham, etc.).

      In view of the current life expectancy of the population, the great mass of people I have seen at church this year will be dead within a few years, if not before. Hence my comments about ‘immanency’. The Church will need the lead time to establish a plan, pass the relevant legislation and put the plan into practice before then, or else the country will be littered with closed churches, either on the market for conversion to residential or commercial use, or gathering moss on the books of DBFs, or vested in the CCT (which is most unlikely short of a massive and improbable increase in its budget), or the FFC (which is at the limit of what it can do in England), or in small – and often weak – private trusts (akin to Besselsleigh, Southolt, Mickfield, Willisham, Otterden, Snave, Santon, Tunstall, Babington, Kilton, Hardmead, etc.), or to private individuals for ‘monument use’.

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