One visit Dr Carey hopes not to repeat

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WHEN the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, appears before the House of Commons Select Committee on Social Security this afternoon, he will have much to explain. The loss of pounds 800m in property speculation towards the end of the Eighties by the Church Commissioners, who look after the clergy's pension funds and subsidise their salaries, has shocked the Church of England to its roots. In the parish churches, there is an understandable reluctance to pay for the mess.

Dr Carey comes to the committee to try to deal with two interlocking crises - financial and organisational - which threaten the church. The financial crisis - the loss of pounds 800m of the commissioners' pounds 3.2bn assets - demands that parishioners must at the very least increase the amount they give to the church by 50 per cent over the next five years. If they fail to do this, then the Church of England will have to close churches and even abandon the more rural areas altogether, as other denominations have done.

The organisational crisis is the underlying reason why the money was lost without anyone except the commissioners noticing. It is also why ordinary Anglicans have been so reluctant to bail out their church. While they will give generously to particular causes, they are very reluctant to pay for what they see as a faceless and unaccountable synodical bureaucracy.

Dr Carey is less responsible for either crisis than almost anybody else. He was only a junior diocesan bishop when the commissioners blew the money and since the discovery of that catastrophe he has worked hard and with some success to ensure that it will never happen again. But the main recommendation of the committee of inquiry which he set up, and which reported last summer, threatens still further organisational difficulties for the church.

The Lambeth Report into the causes and consequences of the church commissioners' catastrophe recommended that some of the commissioners' assets be hived off to protect the pension funds from their other commitments. At present the commmissioners pay all the clergy pensions and about 40 per cent of parish clergy salaries. This subsidy is to be reduced to 20 per cent over the next five years; and may eventually be eliminated altogether. The commissioners will also have to pay compensation to those clergy who leave over the ordination of women; a figure which could run as high as pounds 50m if housing costs are taken into account. All this money must be raised solely from the commissioners' investment income.

The fear is that without structural safeguards retired clergy may have their pension increases limited, or even reversed, to allow the commissioners to continue supporting the network of uneconomic parishes. But the Lambeth Report's solution - to divide the commissioners' assets (and, presumably, the commissioners, too) - requires legislation, which could not come at a worse moment for the Church of England. Such legislation would inevitably entail a great deal of hostile parliamentary scrutiny. Difficult questions would be asked, such as: 'What is the church for?'; and the dreadful political and constitutional question of disestablishment might be raised in full public glare.

Dr Carey is wholly committed to turning the Church of England into a proper organisation. He has set up three reviews to get to grips with the complex details and win the consent of those to be reformed. At present, an organisational chart of the church would show something like a headless chicken.

This is one of the few problems in the Church of England that really does go back to Henry VIII. His reformation meant that he took over the administrative powers of the Pope: he appointed bishops, made the laws that governed the church, and set policy. Those powers, like all the other powers of the Tudor monarchy, eventually ended up with Parliament. Parliament, in turn, has over the past 50 years handed these powers to the uncoordinated bodies that now attempt to run the Church of England.

That is why the Church Commissioners were able to get away with so much for so long. Investment decisions were taken solely by the commissioners' assets committee; a group of six who are not responsible either to the 20 members of the commissioners' board of governors or to the 96 commissioners generally. The assets committee is responsible only to Parliament. And Parliament did not care until catastrophe was a fact.

For as long as the money lasted, there was no real urgency about reforming church structures. Now Dr Carey's three committees are picking their way through the wreckage. Lord Bridge, a Law Lord, heads a commission reviewing synodical government. Dr Michael Turnbull, who will soon be Bishop of Durham, is running a high-powered inquiry into the church's central bodies. Another commission, on clergy pay and conditions, is due to report this summer.

The Archbishop's hope must be that a combination of internal reform and vigorous fund-raising will avoid the need to submit to hostile parliamentary scrutiny, focused on disestablishment. There is no doubt that the money could be raised, if parishioners believed that the wider church, as opposed to their parish, was a deserving cause. At present, the average giving among regular churchgoers is about pounds 3 a week. Catholics are hardly more generous, but their celibate priesthood is much smaller and cheaper to run that the Church of England's, which comes complete with families. On the fringes of evangelical Christianity it is quite common to tithe: that is, to give a tenth of one's net income to Church causes, as Dr Carey himself does. Dr Carey knows that Anglican congregations can show great generosity. As a vicar in Durham, he persuaded his congregation to pay pounds 300,000 to rebuild the church; and though some of this came from concerts and sales, most of it was simply given.

So his unprecedented appearance today in front of the select committee is designed to show the faithful that his new church will be one worth supporting. But has he acted in time? If all his commissions come good, in two or three years from now he will be in a position to drag the Church of England kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

Mark Lawson is on holiday.