FLAT SPIN

George Austin on religion with no expense spared 

Naughty vicars still catch the headlines, but before the announcement of Dr Carey’s retirement, where were the other Church stories (and scandals) in the broadsheets? Certainly in the past decade spin-doctors have come into their own, badgering and beavering away until otherwise newsworthy stories are sanitized out of existence. This might have reduced embarrassment in the short term, but it hasn’t done the Church any favours in long-term credibility.

Un-Beavering 

But there is more too it than that, for good journalists (and no one can deny that the present religious correspondents are very good journalists) would always unravel the spin and find the truth it tried to obscure. The sad fact is not that the dear old CofE is no longer interesting, but that what it does or does not do no longer matters to the average reader. After a desperate quest, stretching over two decades, to be relevant and credible by climbing on every secular bandwagon, it has become largely irrelevant and totally incredible.

That the speculation about George Carey’s successor has managed to capture the headlines is interesting in itself, and does suggest that, even if the CofE is passé, the role and persona of a national religious figure is still thought to matter. The perception is even now present that, like the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Westminster, so an Archbishop of Canterbury is a voice which must be heard on spiritual and ethical issues which face the nation. Thank God for that – and may the Crown Appointments Commission take due note.

At what expense?

But domestic issues and scandals tend to remain buried in the badger’s sett – issues like that of episcopal expenses, though this did have a mention here and there. The Sunday Telegraph managed a column of respectable length, though it was more about the concerns raised by The Telegraph two years ago about bishops’ ‘lavish’ living, the ‘growing discontent in parishes’, and the Mellows report which urged bishops to ‘scale down their appearance of grandeur’ while denying any ‘lavish lifestyle’.

Even the Church papers were cautious. The faithful old Church Times simply reported an outline of the facts, while the Church of England Newspaper did mention some of the criticisms that have arisen, not least in Parliament where the LibDem MP for Lewes committed the lèse-majesté of suggesting their ‘chauffeurs, gardeners and wine cellars’ were not ‘in line with the teaching of the New Testament’. How dare he? And anyway, did not St Paul instruct Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake?

Neither the nationals nor the specialist press showed evidence that clergy or lay members were voicing any criticisms. With more and more clergy having had the freehold taken from them, one can understand if there is a reluctance to put a head above the parapet when one’s employment may be terminated after a contract comes to an end. And many members of the congregations are too worried about ever-increasing quota payments, money to be found on top of repairs to ancient churches, the cost of parochial mission and the rest, to be concerned about the details.

Tight Management?

And anyway, what else was there to say? After all, had not the Third Church Estates Commissioner declared at the July Synod that ‘the Press well know this: the bishops’ own costs are tightly managed. There is indeed no extravagance or excess.’ It was a view later endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

But behind the justification and explanations in the report on bishops’ expenses, the fine print tells a very different story. Let it be said in defence of the bishops that they must be properly resourced, so that they can carry out the task of shepherding their flocks adequately and efficiently. This is particularly the case with the two archbishops, both of whom are in any case men who simply have no aspirations to material excess and take care to keep their expenses at a minimum.

This is not so everywhere and especially among suffragan bishops, as a closer examination illustrates. In one diocese with three suffragans, their total for 2000 was £96,000, with the lowest at £25,000 and the highest £38,000 (not including the cost of maintaining their houses, which are not classified as working expenses). Yet in that same diocese, the three archdeacons’ working expenses in total were less than the £25,000 of its most economical bishop. It simply does not make sense, especially as each bishop (as shown by his staff costs) must be employing a full-time secretary, whereas the archdeacons – whose job must by its nature have much greater administrative needs than a suffragan bishop – were not.

It is clear from the report that some suffragans recognize this, as shown by the figures given for at any rate a minority of them. What is revealing is how many employ gardeners – suffragan bishops with gardeners, I ask you? There is an interesting piece of spin here in that the cost of diocesan bishops’ gardeners is not included, perhaps to make the figures look a little better than they really are. In any case, in palaces with acres of garden, these are essential. Whether or not the palaces and castles themselves are essential in days of financial crisis is another matter.

Hospitality costs vary widely, with the Bishop Warrington winning the prize for the most economical. The Bishop of Bedford’s total expenses too seem more realistic than many, at about £13,000 – how can some suffragan bishops justify three or four times that figure? The prize for the highest amount granted must go to the eight in London and Southwark with a total of £337,000 between them – one managing to top up a staggering £52,000.

Parish poverty

When I was a serving archdeacon, we received every spring the parishes’ annual visitation returns, including financial accounts. It was always humbling to read these, and the letters which accompanied them. As Commissioners’ contributions to stipends were reduced, so the demands on the parish budgets grew, even more so towards the end as pensions contributions were added. But churchwardens would tell me how they tried so hard, and would continue to try, to make ends meet. It is true that not all bishops by any means enjoy a ‘lavish lifestyle’. But some do, and as I think back to those moving letters, I feel sick and ashamed that the Church allows and encourages them in our present crisis.

It is surely time for the broadsheets to expose this in its grossness.

George Austin is a journalist and broadcaster

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