Picture credit: by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Blessed are the poor? Really?

Why won’t the wealthy C of E help impoverished parishes?

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Arise ye workers from your slumbers      

Arise ye prisoners of want …

Arise (we might add) ye parishes      

of England!

Last month I was in the unusual position of being the standard-bearer of the Left. Let money pour down like fountains on the poorer parishes of England, said I. Resist, cried the Bishops, for this would create a “dependency culture”. Remember this exchange, the next time the Lords Spiritual intervene in the Upper House on the question of Welfare.

I think I need to explain further. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a priest takes to Twitter to ask for help to prevent a roof falling in or to build a disabled loo, some member of the eminently interchangeable National Secular Society or Humanists UK will pop up and demand to know why this priest has the begging bowl out when the Church of England has assets of more than £10 billion. 

This never goes down well with the priest, who is painfully aware that Church of England PLC is very good at demanding tribute money from parishes and very unlikely to return the favour.

… the atheists are right

Now this is probably the first, and hopefully the last, time I will say this but … the atheists are right. It is patently ridiculous that the Church of England has such unbelievably vast assets but stoically resists using these assets for the purpose they were originally set up for: to fund parochial ministry in the poorest parishes.

Queen Anne’s Bounty was a charity, now a part of the Church Commissioners, which had a very specific purpose, as the name of the Act setting it up made clear: An Act for making more effectual Her Majesty’s gracious Intentions for the Augmentation of the Maintenance of the Poor Clergy. 

This was used to support the income of clergy in parishes yielding less than £80 a year, ensuring that ministry was not denied to those in the poorest parts of the country. Over the years the scheme varied, but even its last vestiges have now died. The Church Commissioners no longer subsidise the poorest parishes, and the fruits of that decision can be seen across the country. 

This year the pressure group Church Action on Poverty brought out a report, Church on the Margins, which looked into patterns of church closures and it was damning: “Our key finding is that significantly more churches have closed in low-income areas than in more affluent areas.”

Of course they have. If you’re a diocesan spreadsheet manager and you’re looking at how to wipe some of that red from the balance sheet, you’re obviously going to target the parishes that can’t pay for themselves first. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also — and our heart is not with the poor.

What do we spend the money on now? Well, last year the Church Commissioners promised to spend £150 million of their income on revitalising the parish for growth — but precious little of it will actually trickle down to parishes. 

First, they are giving £50 million a year to a thing called LINC, the Lower Income Communities fund — but rather than going to the parishes directly, it is dished out to the dioceses using an odd metric, and only some pass it on to the poorest parishes. 

According to a study by Sir Robert Chote, former head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, some dioceses give themselves “a top-slice to fund relevant diocese-wide spending … some dioceses treat LINC income more as part of general resources”.

The other £100 million a year? This is to be spent on pet projects. It cannot be applied for by parishes, only by dioceses; it can only be spent on projects in line with the Archbishops’ Vision and Strategy (never passed by General Synod!); it is heavily skewed towards new shiny models; and it has been shown, in a catastrophic report last year, to have failed comprehensively. 

The pilot scheme earmarked £176 million to draw in 89,000 new Christians and only actually drew 12,704 in (half of whom were estimated to come from other Anglican churches).

So you see, we have the money. We just choose not to spend it on the poor, and when we do we make it entirely subject to the Bishops’ discretion, and only if the poorest parishes jump through hoops. 

So last month I tried to cut through the Gordian Knot: send all of that £100 million into LINC; change LINC so it goes directly to fund the stipends of the clergy in the parishes ranked lowest on the Index of Multiple Deprivation; see the grant as wiping that parish’s debt to the diocese for its parish share.

This would have flooded dioceses with money (as stipends they previously had to cover from elsewhere were now covered); it would have given the poorest parishes a jubilee from the burden of sending their widow’s mite to the diocese; it would have overturned the accountants’ presumptions, so that the last church to be closed would be the poorest parish.

Of course, the bishops voted no.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover