Synod Insider

Vote fo(u)r what?

Do you remember the good old days? You know, when the Church Commissioners doled out the largesse for the benefit of parish churches. They used to make large contributions towards the cost of paying the clergy until some bright spark thought it would be a good idea to pension the clergy off at 70 (or 65 or 63 as it seems to be nowadays).

Expensive longevity

Initially, pensions were a modest and inexpensive gesture. Clergy were conditioned to work till they dropped and when retirement was invented only a small proportion of pensioners remained pensioners long-term. However, over the years clergy have developed the expensive habit of retiring earlier and living longer (like the rest of us) and the costs of the pension scheme have been growing like topsy.

The Commissioners decided to cap their liability and as a result pension entitlements accruing from pensionable service since 1998 have been the responsibility of the parish where the clergyman serves. Diocesan staff pension contributions, whilst nominally made by the diocese, are in practice charged to parishes via the quota. The Commissioners have, however, continued to fund the stipends and pensions of certain dignitaries (including all the bishops).

Missionary pensions

General Synod, in its wisdom, decided that pension contributions for ordained staff serving with the mission agencies should continue to be paid by the Church Commissioners. The decision came as something of a surprise to the establishment, and as always when Synod makes a decision the establishment doesn’t like, there’s a lot of wriggling and manoeuvring to try and subvert the Synod’s decision.

The Commissioners succeeded in moving this liability to the General Synod budget, which meant it was apportioned to the dioceses, which in turn meant it was apportioned to the parishes. So much for General Synod trying to set the Commissioners’ priorities.

False impressions

An attempt is to be made at this November’s Synod to remove Vote 4 (pension contributions for the ordained staff of mission agencies) from the General Synod budget. The actual amount of money involved sounds a lot (£468,000), but let’s put it into proportion. It amounts to less than 1p per week per person in the pew.

Nevertheless, bulk it all up and this ingenious sleight of hand will give the impression that savings are being made ‘at the centre’. In fact, no such thing would be happening in reality.

Because of the Commissioners’ shenanigans these pension contributions are currently being charged to parishes as part of their diocesan quota. That means they are part of the money that you must pay to your diocese on pain of an arm-twisting visit from the diocesan heavy mob (your friendly local Archdeacon).

What is proposed is that in future these pension contributions will be part of the voluntary giving that the mission agencies solicit from supporting parishes. Either way the money will be paid by the parishes – or will it?

In practice over half the dioceses are running deficits, in many cases over a hundred thousand pounds per year. This shortfall is likely to be added to next year’s quota in the naïve belief that parishes which cannot afford this year’s quota will nevertheless be able to meet a higher demand next year. Next year’s quota will, of course, be significantly higher than this year’s.

 

Generosity and Sacrifice

For a start the Commissioners will be withdrawing transitional relief leaving parishes to fund a higher proportion of the pensions bill. Then parishes will be asked to make extra payments to make good the underfunding of the clergy pension scheme. Assuming Synod agrees with the recommendation in Generosity and Sacrifice (GS1408) that stipends should be increased by around 25%, quotas in subsequent years will have to rise accordingly – and also take account of increased pension contributions to match.

The outlook therefore is that barring major cuts in diocesan staffing (for which I have argued in previous Synod Insider articles), which are unlikely in view of the empire builders in charge, quotas will continue to rise at well above the rate of inflation for several years to come. Assuming that I am right, what odds will you give me against mission agencies receiving additional contributions to fund pensions?

The likely scenario is that giving to mission agencies will fall, rather than rise, as parishes labour under increasing quota demands. Since mission agencies will probably feel obliged to honour their commitment to fund staff pensions (unlike one non-Anglican agency which pays no pensions at all on the grounds they can’t afford them), this will have to be done at the expense of current mission work

So bishop’s expenses will be secure, the Church Commissioners’ handouts to ‘poorer’ dioceses in well-heeled England will be maintained, but the support mission agencies offer in really needy areas of the world will be placed in jeopardy. Is that what we really want? Do we really mean to tell the world that ‘maintenance’ expenditure in the Church of England is a higher priority than ‘mission’ expenditure?

Straightforward

I take a fairly straightforward view of mission. Basically I think God is in favour of it, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be disappointed if we did twice as much of it. It seems axiomatic that he expects his Church to support mission in all its manifestations and to so organize its affairs and deploy its resources as to facilitate mission happening. It is difficult to believe that the church would seriously embark down a path which is likely to lead to less mission happening rather than more.

But here is a proposal, superficially attractive because it will be presented as a means of cutting the quota levied on hard-pressed parishes, which is both damaging and disingenuous. It is damaging because it will deal a blow to the mission agencies and disingenuous because the ‘savings’ it offers will be quite illusory. Encouraging parishes to fund their quota payments by cutting giving to mission is the last thing we ought to be doing.

If we want to cut our aggregate quota payments, we could save a lot more than £468,000 by taking a close look at our forty four diocesan offices and their staffs. How many of them have had a value-added audit? How many of them have done a zero-based budget? Which of them could not come up with savings of £1,000 per month, if they tried?

Make no mistake, if Synod allows itself to be beguiled into cutting Vote 4 from the budget, we shall be sending a chilling message to our brothers and sisters around the world about the Church of England’s real priorities.

Gerry O’Brien is Director of Communications at Crosslinks and a Council Member of CPAS (two organizations which benefit from Vote 4 payments). He is also a lay member of the General Synod.

Pull Quote: The outlook therefore is that barring major cuts in diocesan, which are unlikely in view of the empire builders in charge, quotas will continue to rise at well above the rate of inflation for several years to come.

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