Worshippers face bill for salaries

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The Church of England costs roughly pounds 615m a year to run, most of which is raised by its members, who give pounds 380m a year to their local churches. But there is a shortfall of pounds 235m paid for by various endowments; and pounds 153m of that comes from the Church Commissioners. This is the money jeopardised by the commissioners' catastrophic property speculations in the late Eighties.

Those in turn were partly produced in a desperate attempt to meet a rising pensions bill. The failure of the gamble means that all of the commissioners' assets will have to be devoted to pensions in the foreseeable future, leaving nothing to help the rest of the Church of England.

For historical reasons, most of the commissioners' money is in farmland, and commercial property developments seemed to offer a magic method of transforming these into shares. But the whole scheme backfired disastrously, partly because the property market collapsed, and partly because far larger sums were gambled than anyone outside a small inner circle realised until too late. Since the catastrophe, a new management team, under Sir Michael Colman, a successful businessman, has put into place mechanisms to ensure that it can never happen again. But the commissioners are still overstretched, and spending more than their assets earn. By the end of the century, the laity of the Church of England will have to pay all the salaries of their clergy, and probably a contribution to their future pensions.

As the Turnbull report points out: "These financial realities are reshaping our structures, they have reinforced awareness of the importance and power of both the congregation as a growing source of money and of the ... voluntary taxation mechanism through which that money is asked for and raised in sufficient quantity."

The sums needed are not huge when broken down into individual figures: the average giving of congregations is about pounds 3.50 per head per week. If that were raised to pounds 5, there would be no trouble. Some evangelical congregations raise much more. But the corollary of that is deeply threatening to the central structures of the Church. They are demanding influence over policy commensurate with their financial clout.

Already a conservative evangelical grouping called Reform has urged its member churches to withhold funds from dioceses in protest against the ordination of women and of homosexual clergy. Other groupings may follow suit. The Turnbull Commission's report takes this danger seriously enough to argue against the proposition that churches should be responsible for paying their own clergy directly. "We do not believe it is appropriate for the stipends of individual clergy to be set by the members of their parochial church councils."

None the less, it urges that "all dioceses will soon provide parishes with a statement of what their vicar and any other stipendiary clergy cost. Clergy expenses (which should be met in full by the parish) together with a share of diocesan overheads and of the cost of the national church must be added to this to show the total cost of ministry in that parish".

Such measures will increase the sense of belonging within the Church. But critics argue that they will also diminish the Church's traditional openness to outsiders.