Tuesday, 27 January 2004

More questions than answers

I think it was a 1960’s pop song that contained the line, “There are more questions than answers”. To the philosopher it opens up the exciting prospect of never coming to the end of our search for knowledge. To the bureaucrat it suggests the importance of stretching the few answers we have to cover as many disparate questions as possible. I fear that the Review of Church Commissioners Spending comes well into that second category.

Some of the questions (and I include those that are implicit as well as the explicit) are important and timely. It is legitimate to ask whether funds are being spent in the most effective way, rather than just continue with current practice. It is vital for every level of the church to seek ways in which it can top slice or earmark money for clear mission (as opposed to maintenance) imperatives. And it is important to cast a particularly questioning gaze over areas of expenditure that seem to grow year on year.

But there are other questions that seem to lurk behind this paper. I fear that the biggest has not been tackled head on in the way that it needed to be. This is the issue of how to continue to reallocate funds, to poorer dioceses as well as to mission imperatives, when the richer dioceses (mine included) are no longer receiving any central support that can be withdrawn to fund them. It is entirely consistent with our ecclesiology (and a parallel of what happens between parishes in any individual diocese) to begin to ask those with greater means to contribute to a Mutual Support Fund. We’ve talked about it enough over recent years. It now needs action.

Unwilling to tackle that question, the report inevitably thrashes around for economies to make here and there. It lets itself get drawn into a wholly separate set of issues about how, and how generously, bishops and cathedrals should be supported from national funds. And even reaches the shores of the debate about whether the Church of England has the right number of bishops in the correct places. These are legitimate questions for someone to ask, but they don’t fit here and now. The review of the Dioceses Measure provides the opportunity for creating the correct structure to ask what we need to about episcopal deployment. The Mellows report has already pronounced on bishops’ costs.

Attempting to answer those questions here leaves us with a mess. The ministry of bishops and cathedrals is set up as in opposition to money for mission. I would argue strongly that bishops (and suffragan bishops every bit as much as diocesans) are one of the more effective missionary tools that the church has. I set the challenge of the Christian faith before “those who are not, or not yet, our members” (to quote our diocesan strap-line) far more now than I ever could as a parish priest. Our cathedral attracts many times the number of visitors as any parish church in the diocese, and it speaks to them through its music, architecture and liturgy as well as through the exhibitions and special events that run through the year. Church statistics show cathedrals as one of the few classes of churches that are consistently growing at present. To imply, however tangentially, that these mission centres are some sort of historic drain on the real work that goes on in parishes, is obnoxious.

Along the way we lose a consistent pillar of Church of England ecclesiology - that no minister is directly dependent financially upon his or her congregation. Bishops and cathedral clergy hold a teaching office. The freedom to exercise that office without undue influence lies in being paid by a level further up the ladder.

I suspect that the report is at its weakest when it seems to be asking itself, “What can we get through Synod?” and comes up with the idea that diocesan bishops and deans, relatively better represented on General Synod, might be persuaded to support a proposal that exempts them by targeting canons residentiary and suffragans. It may still be in living memory that one diocesan explained to his new colleague, “When I’m out of the diocese you’re me. When I’m in the diocese you’re nobody,” but it ill befits a Synod that will debate a report authored by the Bishop of Maidstone to contend that suffragans are a diocesan resource whilst diocesans are national. Our work is collegial, both within and beyond the dioceses where our sees are located. The national work I do with organisations as diverse as Housing Justice and the Community Fund, the work I have taken on at the behest of Lambeth and Synod, and my regional responsibilities in the West Midlands overlap with those of my colleagues to provide a range of mission and ministry to the whole church and whole nation.

Finally, we need to remember that what is proposed here doesn’t bring in or save a single pound coin. At the best we will be asking parishes to pay more Share in order to absorb the expenditure transferred to them. Rather worse is the risk that we will succumb to the temptation of shunting costs and simply identify some of what we already do as “mission”. Worst of all is my suspicion that the centralising influences in the church might wish to welcome me to the Decade of Filling in Mission Fund Application Forms.

As the late, great Douglas Adams showed, when we try to boil down a series of big, disparate questions to a single, clear answer we are liable to get something as appropriate and practical as “42”.

Posted by David Walker on Tuesday, 27 January 2004 at 1:01pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: General Synod | Opinion