Leading Article: Vicars fed from the collection plate

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The Independent Online
THE Church Commissioners have created serious difficulties by squandering much of the dowry from Henry VIII's enforced marriage of Church and State. After the recent loss of pounds 800m in assets, Church of England clergy can no longer depend for their living on the bounty of past endowments. Generosity of parishioners will have to feed vicars in future: the Church Commissioners may be hard-pressed to do much more than fund pensions from what assets remain.

On the face of it, these developments may seem less than revolutionary. Other Christian churches rely on payments from the pews to maintain their ministers. Many Anglicans can probably afford to drop a little extra in the collection plate: the average weekly donation is about pounds 2.50. Asking church-goers to dig deeper may encourage the faithful to participate more in their parishes and may make clergy more sensitive to their flocks.

Yet, despite these potential blessings, the loss of so much wealth will have serious consequences that the new Archbishop's Commission on the future of the Church of England must tackle. Sudden impoverishment could badly damage the view that Anglican churches are responsible for the whole community and not just to their own congregations. To a greater extent than other denominations, the Church of England still baptises, marries and buries all-comers. It would be sad if Anglicans turned complacently in on themselves and focused only on those who were paid- up members.

Thanks to this financial disaster, certain long-standing questions can no longer be fudged. Church authorities will have to be ruthless in the disposal of redundant buildings. Anglicanism may have to follow other Christian churches in retreating from the countryside, unable any longer to subsidise uneconomic rural parishes. The trend towards part-time, non-stipendiary ministry will be accelerated. Parishes will have to decide whether a paid vicar is a luxury that they cannot afford.

The power of the laity is likely to increase as the running of parishes is taken over by enthusiasts. Most serious of all, episcopal power - stripped of financial weight - may be fatally weakened at a time when Anglicanism desperately needs leadership in the face of increasing factionalism.