AS I indicated last week (Dec. 31 Commentary), the Church of England has embarked on a relentless 30-year journey to shift power upward – but what if that thought is reversed? What if, instead of centralizing and creating a command and control structure, with mission strategy decisions pushed up and away from the front, they were pushed down, with an associated shift in resources and an increase in local clergy and qualified laity? people to renew the local ministry?
This would require trust from above and the assumption that the clergy in their local context are best placed to decide, with their people, how they work and help their churches to grow. We can say with some certainty that with all that has been said and done since the Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s, they now know they need to take growth seriously.
The arguments in favor of this approach are compelling. If the British are saying anything clear right now, it’s that the places they live and the communities they live in are important to them.
Brexit has shown that locality plays an important role in shaping identity and that local communities are where significant numbers of people find meaning that gives meaning to their lives. Covid has also shown that our most important relationships are local.
Why, then, place the action elsewhere? The local church is still where most of the money comes from and where there is the most potential for future sustainability. Giving to their local church is more attractive to parishioners than giving to central agencies, and presents the most attractive opportunity for fundraising from individual donors, government agencies, and social enterprises.
Local responses also have the potential to be much more dynamic, as society continues to change. While management responses are important, it’s worth noting that companies like Google and Apple are successful because they recognize that wisdom and creativity are at the bottom of their organizations rather than at the top.
THEREFORE WE need a bigger lens and a bigger vision. A redesign of cura animarum – healing of souls – provides a good basis. Although it has an ancient and archaic ring, it’s a surprisingly contemporary idea. Its origins are Roman and relate to authority in a particular place; but its expression comes from the Saxon idea that the Church underpins the formation of the nation, according to the spiritual, moral and material well-being of the people.
This idea of general well-being is gaining ground as our culture changes; “Well-being” is talked about more and more in the workplace and in civil society. It is no coincidence that this is what most Church of England clergymen consider to be their goal and the horizon of their mission, and it makes sense of what they deal with each and every day. Well-being and well-being are a solid foundation for evangelism and growth.
Shifting from a top-down directive strategy to something more adaptive and collaborative, working with the sense of the Church rather than against it, has the potential to improve morale and build confidence, by ridding the institution of the lingering smell of despair. As I have known from my teenage years, the desperate need for a relationship is not appealing. I wonder to what extent the current depressed culture of the Church is undermining the joyful message it is meant to deliver.
A CLEAR and inclusive goal and a cultural shift towards the local will take time; and so the financial problems remain – but luckily there is no shortage of money.
It is likely that in 2021-2022, church commissioners will have a good year. They run the third-largest charity fund in the country, at £ 9.1bn, and are expected to bring in around £ 1bn by the end of the year, possibly more. To give a sense of the quantum here, if a decision were made to just set aside just £ 1billion for the big gains in recent years, that could pay 100 clergy in each diocese for the next five years.
Supporting the parish clergy of the Church of England is, after all, the primary purpose of money. Commissioners’ funds come from two sources: Queen Anne’s bounty (given to the Church by the Crown after the Reformation) and ecclesiastical commissioners. The Bounty charter specifies what the revenues are: “To be applied. . . for the increase of the maintenance of these pastors, vicars, parish priests and ministers officiating in any church or chapel of the Kingdom of England. . . “
Church commissioners were formed after the Reform Act of 1832, which created two commissions to streamline church structures and funding. Section 67 of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act of 1840 described the purpose for which the funds were to be used, including the sharing of resources between bishoprics and between cathedrals; but, “… Arrangements will be made for the healing of souls in parishes where this assistance is most needed.”
Both funds focus on supporting parish ministry and, until recently, this was where most of the money went. When the Right Reverend Richard Harries, then Bishop of Oxford, lodged a complaint against the Commissioners for their ethical stance on investing in the 1990s, the judge in the case, Sir Donald Nicholls, delivered his judgment on the basis that 85 percent of the revenues from these funds supported parish ministry.
Since commissioners are a charitable organization and arguably their primary purpose is to support parish ministry, they have an obligation to provide this type of support in this time of crisis. They should not be off the hook. The expenditure of these funds is a fiduciary duty of the Trustees, who have a responsibility both to the Charity Commission and, ultimately, to Parliament, for what the money is spent on. This is a responsibility that cannot be transferred to another organization.
Pensions are well covered and liability has been carefully calculated. In 1998, the Pension Board, which was until then a subcommittee of commissioners, became a separate pension fund, and is now responsible for funding pensions after that 1998 deadline. This makes the commissioners responsible. for pensions, in relative terms, both measurable and limited. This responsibility has now been transferred to the diocese, which itself has been a massive transfer of wealth from the local to the central. In the 2020 accounts of Church Commissioners, the pension liability is valued by actuaries at £ 1.6 billion; so there is no real problem.
A top £ 1billion tranche poses no risk to cathedrals or bishops, nor is it likely to jeopardize the fund’s future. The actuaries have referred to it in a cautious tangential manner in their report to the statutory auditors in 2020. It is possible that growth in equity will stagnate in the medium term. Stocks are certainly overvalued, but it has been a risk for some time.
One thing you can be sure of: The competent people who manage Commissioners’ investments today will take care of it. The trustees of several large endowment funds recognize this is an exceptional time, both in terms of fund growth and people in need, and are increasing the funds available for their charitable purposes.
Whether or not this is widely recognized, there is now a difficult choice before the Church: between a radical and sustained downward shift in power, resources and people (as well as blessing and generosity), or rather same centralizing tendency that has depressed the Church so much in recent years.
Can those who have led the movement towards centralization and “command and control” have the courage to recognize that this is not working and that a new approach is needed?
Canon Paul Hackwood is the Managing Director of Toc H and a former Executive Director of the Church Urban Fund.