The Commission is called to account

WHAT does John Major have in common with the Lord Mayor of York; Michael Howard with the Vicar of Ealing; and the Bishop of Durham with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? They are all Church Commissioners, the shadowy body which is held responsible for the Church of England's financial crisis.

Most have no power to determine how the Commissioners invest their vast holdings. But who is to blame? Who really administers the Church of England's money? The answer that emerged two years ago, when it was discovered that pounds 800m had been lost in property speculation, was 'no one': these things just happen. 'Some you win and some you lose,' in the words of Sir Douglas Lovelock, who as First Church Estates Commissioner had presided over the debacle.

It is true that no one was punished, and no one who mattered, least of all Sir Douglas, has apologised for his role. But it may also be true that no one could properly have been held responsible. The Assets Committee of the Church Commissioners, the six men who actually make the decisions, did not report to the Board of Governors. Still less did they report to the General Synod or the Archbishops. By law, they were obliged to report only to Parliament.

The reasons for this extraordinary arrangement lie in 1835, when the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were formed to administer the assets of the Church of England. Before then, these had been the assets of individual cathedrals and dioceses, some of which were unimaginably rich. Around 1820, the Archbishop of Canterbury had an annual income of pounds 19,000. The Church Commissioners include, ex officiis, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary and the Speaker of the House of Commons.

There are 96 Church Commissioners, of whom 30 sit on the Board of Governors, and perhaps 50 take some sort of active role.

The crucial decisions about investment were taken in the Assets Committee, which is responsible to Parliament alone. It was the Assets Committee, under Sir Douglas, that decided to go for broke in the property boom of the Eighties. But not even the members of that committee knew the full extent of the muddle - due to the lack of proper accounting methods or even an audit committee.

The Lambeth Report into the committee's catastrophic pounds 800m losses marked a profound change of heart when it came out last summer. Sir Douglas had retired, unchastened. His successors were determined to avoid his mistakes. The new First Estates Commissioner, Sir Michael Colman, comes from the Reckitt and Colman mustard company. He has promised quarterly reports to the Board of Governors and has to appoint a Finance Director.

The Church Commissioners are seriously worried that they will be unable to pay even their pension commitments in the future, let alone the 40 per cent of clergy stipends which they contribute at present. The majority of dioceses, says a confidential Church Commissioners report 'fear that an even greater crisis could be precipitated, which would do irretrievable harm to the ministry and risk a downward spiral as clergy were forced into unemployment'.

The average churchgoer gives about pounds 3 a week to the church, or 2 per cent of net income. In some dioceses, the figure goes up to 3 per cent, but it is still very low indeed.

The answer seems to be that people give willingly to their own church, missionary activities and charity. But the woman in the pew cares no more for the problems of the Church Commissioners than do John Major or Michael Howard.

(Photograph omitted)

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