Tiffer Robinson writes: I was at a conference recently with some truly inspirational lay people who had only recently come to faith, and who were really full of ideas and energy. At one point I responded to a suggestion with the words “Well what you’d need to take into account is how to resource that idea” and one of them said “No, that’s what you need to take into account – I don’t need to worry about that”. And she was quite right: some of us are called to be visionaries, and some of us are called to keep an eye on the details.
For those who haven’t heard, Philip North gave a talk at New Wine last week about ministry to the poor, which has been widely acclaimed as prophetic and important. I want to start by saying I am a huge supporter of Philip North, albeit at a distance, and I was very saddened by the behaviour of many in the Church when he was announced as the next Bishop of Sheffield and later withdrew. I also agree with the main thrust of his talk, and he has identified a few practical issues that need to be dealt with, as well as a more general spiritual problem in the Church of England—namely a lack of presence in poorer areas. It might seem odd to want to challenge something that you agree with, but I hope it’s more than mere pedantry—we need to be able accurately to identify the problems as well as being able to recognise where improvements have been made. It also needs to be said that this was a talk to a particular group of people, and not an essay or an article, but it is now being read and quoted much farther afield so I feel a critique is justified.
My first issue with this talk is the use of a statistic that Bishop Philip has used before:
Nationally we spend £8 per head of population on ministry. In some rural areas that figure rises to £24 per head. On the estates we spend just £5 per head, by far the lowest. The poorer you are, the less the church values you.
This is a shocking statistic that is very powerful, and really helps to make his case. But it’s also very misleading. Essentially what it is doing is taking the number of stipendiary clergy and dividing their cost to the diocese by the number of people in their parish—so of course parishes with small numbers of people will have a higher “cost per head” because of population demographics. A rural priest might be leading 8 or more congregations meeting in different buildings, which serve a population of 5000. A colleague in an urban parish might have two or three times the population but only one church building. This isn’t about rich or poor, but simply where people live—and there’s usually far more churches of other denominations in urban parishes too, as well as those of other faiths.
But the key error here is that it assumes that the money for clergy is all sitting in a big central pot and then being dished out to richer areas, when in reality most stipendiary ministry is paid for by the churches that receive it themselves through the parish share system. If you were instead to look at how much central money goes towards supporting ministry in areas which cannot afford to pay for their ministers, you would find that poorer parishes receive far more financial support than other contexts—as well they should!
My second concern is to the way he accuses the General Synod of increasing fees for funerals and weddings and pricing the poor out of ministry in the church. He is correct that in 2013 the fees for weddings and funerals went up considerably, but he gives no background to why they increased. First, they had been kept very low for many years, and hadn’t kept up with real costs—indeed they had been frozen for the previous year. Secondly, the increase was part of an overall change which made it illegal for churches to charge for many extras that would now need to come out of the main fee, which was increased to account for it. Thirdly, and most importantly, the right to waive fees in cases of financial hardship was given to incumbents as part of this change, meaning that no one should be unable to afford to get married or buried in the Church of England. While I would admit that clergy haven’t all caught up with this change (it’s only been 4 years after all!) I would suggest that Bishop Philip overlooking it here doesn’t help matters. Charging higher fees across the board and then waiving them for the poor is surely quite a kingdom approach to such things, rather than keeping all the fees low and making everyone pay the same, whether rich or poor.
Then there is a slight confusion around church planting. He says:
The church-planting movement, which is making such a difference in so many areas, needs to put the poor first rather than last.
But earlier he has already said
The best person to speak the Gospel into an urban estate is someone who has grown up there, so we need to be courageous and take risks in raising up a local leadership. Catapulting in 200 white, well-educated, beautiful people from the nice bit of town will dispossess and disempower local residents.
There is a tension there I would admit, but it does rather imply that white well-educated beautiful people (I’m 2 out of 3 myself!) are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Obviously church planting into estates needs to be done sensitively and in a culturally appropriate way, but please could we have a bit more clarity about whether it’s being encouraged or not?
Bishop Philip makes reference to the new funding formula for dioceses, where some central funds are given out to support ministry. The old “Darlow” formula was felt to be subsidising failure, and the dioceses that were in receipt of it were not necessarily those in the poorest parts of the country. This has now been changed so that 50% of this money is given to strategic development projects—as Bishop Philip mentions. Yes this includes church planting, but also ministry to Black and Minority ethnic communities and other mission initiatives. What Bishop Philip fails to mention is that the other 50%, around £24 million, is being given to “Lowest income communities” to ensure mission and ministry is supported in areas which cannot manage to pay for it all themselves. This doesn’t sound like a church that is seeking to leave the poor without ministry—rather the opposite.
There’s an assumption behind the talk that the poor are mainly found on estates. But no one has a monopoly on the poor. In rural parishes the poor live alongside the rich within the same catchment areas, and so average one another out on poverty indicators. It’s simply more hidden, and arguably harder to address as a result. Bishop Philip explains why these estates have particular issues, and why they need to be properly resourced, and I agree entirely.
Clearly we have a huge spiritual problem, including amongst the clergy, around the reluctance to minister in poor and challenging estates, and to effectively empower and raise up leaders from these contexts. The picture the Bishop paints is a bleak one, and one which hopefully has convicted many clergy and lay people to seriously consider their priorities, and I too have been challenged by his call to arms. But I would argue that the spirit is willing even if the flesh is weak. We must not make excuses, but neither should we ignore the work that is already happening, even if we need there to be more, to ensure the Church of England does not continue as a Church for the rich, but as a Church for all.
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