A church bowed down by Mammon: Misplaced faith in the City has left the C of E broke. Mary Braid on the parishes which have to pay

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The Independent Online
FROM the vicarage window, across the busy main road, rows of derelict council houses string out, bricked up and ready for demolition.

The vicarage of St Mary Pype Hayes lies at the centre of a decaying peripheral housing scheme in Birmingham. The city council intends to rebuild the estate after demolishing hundreds of 1920s terraces. The Rev Jim Ryan, vicar at Pype Hayes since 1989, faces a harder reconstruction; the creation of a Church of England presence from a congregation which has dwindled to 45 aged members in a church that was designed to hold 430.

Mr Ryan has been visiting the homes of those being resettled or relocated 'to reassure them that we are praying for them'. People are not unfriendly but they hardly ever invite him in.

To clergy struggling against human despair and spiritual indifference, the Church of England's financial crisis is a body blow. On Monday the Church Commissioners announced that they are halting their pounds 62.7m contribution to clergy stipends, a response to a pounds 800m fall in the value of their assets after unwise property speculation. Churchgoers at St Mary Pype Hayes, and across Britain, now face trebling their collection plate contributions to match the shortfall. The closure of ailing churches seems inevitable.

Pype Hayes already relies heavily on subsidy from richer parishes through the Church's Common Fund. Most parishioners are pensioners or on benefits. Mr Ryan doubts they could pay five per cent of their income as suggested by church leaders. In addition, the parish is plagued by the upkeep of a huge 1930s building which eats up heat and requires pounds 20,000 of repairs. Pype Hayes looks vulnerable. But any suggestion of abandoning or amalgamating the parish tightens the lip of the mild-mannered Mr Ryan. 'We felt when we visited the church that this was where God wanted us to come and we still feel that despite the squalor and vandalism and the lack of interest in Christianity,' he says firmly. 'There is a real need for a ministry here even if the building has to be neglected.'

But the crisis poses difficult questions about the C of E's nature and purpose.

In the nearby parish of St James, where the church is more central to the community, demographic changes have already tested the Church's parish structure and the national Church's claim to serve the entire community, not just Anglicans.

This week St James and its adjoining advice centre were quieter than usual. The reason was the Muslim festival of Ramadan. More than 80 per cent of the 5,900 local residents are Muslims. The Rev David Horne estimates that as few as 500 are potential converts for the Church of England. In an area which boasts four mosques, Church of England funds are used to run an Asian advice centre. Mr Horne, a former social worker, recognises that financial difficulties may bring complaints about funding priorities.

'It has been asked if this is the right place for a C of E church. But I am charged with the care of all the souls of this parish. People need to be educated about the depth of human need. The advice centre's workload just goes up and up.'

Of course if the decline in church attendance is reversed, cuts would be unnecessary. Since the dramatic drops in the last three decades attendance has bottomed out. And while support for the C of E in Birmingham, traditionally the centre of religious non-conformity, is the lowest in the country, some of its inner city churches are increasing their presence against the odds.

In 1975, St Peter and Paul, the neighbouring parish to St James, had been reduced to 'a few people and a leaking roof'. The magnificent 15th-century church, in the shadow of Spaghetti Junction, was close to closure. Today it is still struggling for survival but through a combination of evangelism and community work has doubled its membership to 100.

Members already contribute 10 per cent of income to church funds. But generous giving and increased numbers may not be enough to save the outsized, cash-consuming church.

Roof and nave repairs recently swelled up to pounds 200,000, largely met by Church grants.

The congregation is determined to survive with or without the church. 'We love the building,' said the Rev Keith Sinclair. 'But if we had to abandon it tomorrow and meet in a school hall we would.' Mr Sinclair believes increased giving marks spiritual advance. But in the affluent Birmingham suburb of Sutton Coldfield, where house prices can start at around pounds 200,000, the Rev David McCormack, of All Saints Church, Four Oaks, says congregations like his cannot be relied upon to increase their giving without new guarantees.

Mr McCormack says his 300-strong congregation is 'up to its ears in mortgages, school fees and tremendous overheads' and the parish's richest residents are 'too busy counting their money' to go to church.

Last year All Saints contributed pounds 47,250 to the Common Fund compared to Pype Hayes's pounds 5,570.

'The congregation is happy to continue to give to poor parishes. But it is annoyed that the diocese does not seem to be keeping its costs down. It has just taken on a communications officer at a cost of pounds 30,000. ' Mr McCormack cannot countenance the demise of the parish system, 'the backbone and strength of the Church of England'.

But John Barton, Archdeacon of Birmingham, predicts amalgamations and the creation of a 'leaner, fitter institution'.

'This crisis has forced us to face reality. We have far too many churches but we have always had the subsidy to fall back on. God speaks as clearly through economics as anything else.'

Birmingham church members give an average of pounds 3.50, pounds 1 above the national C of E average. The diocese wants to raise that to pounds 6 by 1996. More giving congregations will be more spiritually fulfilled. 'If you are converted to Christ you must be converted in your pocket as well,' says Mr Barton.

He thinks few other denominations will shed tears at the Church of England's current predicament. Many feel the established Church has been cushioned from the harsh realities of life.

A spokeswoman for the Methodist Church claimed that C of E administrative costs were more than twice those of the Methodists, mainly because of high diocesan expenses. The average Methodist donates pounds 5 a week and congregations pay for their own minister, manse and church maintenance.

Fuad Nahdi, editor of Q- News, the Muslim newspaper, said Muslims had an obligation to donate 2.5 per cent of their assets to charities and mosques. Imams are paid very little and usually have other employment. Many Muslims 'shocked at the Church of England's wealth' would be smiling a little at the thought of it losing pounds 800m on property speculation.

Plant a church, Sunday Review

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