Life of genteel poverty inside swanky palaces

WHEN YOU see the fantastic palaces in which some bishops live it is easy to suppose the inhabitants are rich. The chance of becoming Archbishop of York and getting to live in Bishopthorpe Palace is surely one of the best arguments for Christian belief. Dr David Hope was almost certainly the bishop accused by a Sunday newspaper of spending more than pounds 160,000 last year. It made him seem like an example of Anglican extravagance. But he isn't.

The palace at Bishopthorpe has a staff of 15, so their average salary is about pounds 10,000. Bishops do have a better deal financially than priests in the Church of England - their salary is roughly double. But they live like doctors, not like lawyers and, when they retire, they come down with a bump.

At the top of the Church of England, you are in a world of privilege. I remember leaning on the battlements of Windsor Castle with an Old Etonian bishop, looking across to his old school, while tourists bustled beneath us. Not even God would have felt our social superior then. But this grandeur came with the job, and departed with it, too. When my friend retired, he remarked how odd it was to have to buy a house for the first time. The profits that others make from home ownership were not for him.

This is not to say that bishops are cheap to run. Nearly pounds 9m was spent on 113 bishops last year, which works out at about pounds 80,000 per bishop. But the figure is misleading, for it covers not just the bishops' salaries but also the salaries of their 250 staff. Since 50 of these employees are at Lambeth Palace and 15 more at Bishopthorpe, on average a bishop will have just one secretary and possibly one chaplain, neither of them very well paid.

The second reason that the figure is misleading is that it includes much of the pounds 2m cost of last year's Lambeth Conference, when 800 bishops from around the world spent three weeks in Canterbury. That was a lot of money to spend to give the bishop of Enugu in Nigeria a chance to exorcise, on live television, the general secretary of the lesbian and gay Christian movement. But it was probably an unrepeatable way for the church to waste money.

The outward splendours of the Church of England are impressive, but within the great stone buildings little touches of moderation are everywhere. The first time I dined with an Archbishop at his palace we drank Wine Society claret rather than anything grander.

Most of the grandest buildings of the church are uninsurable and unsaleable. Auckland Castle, where the Bishop of Durham lives, was built when the inhabitants were powerful figures on a lawless frontier. Until 1832, the bishop had a private army to keep out the Scots. In those days, too, the Archbishop of Canterbury had an income of pounds 19,000 a year, equivalent to several million pounds today. Nowadays the family of the Bishop of Durham huddle in one wing of the castle. If the Church could sell the rest it would. But who would buy it?

The Sunday newspaper said that the Bishop of Salisbury had hosted an Easter champagne breakfast. It didn't mention it was a fund-raising event, for which pounds 2.50 tickets were sold. I bet the champagne was rotten too.

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