Following the churches’ money trail

By Giles Fraser
May 11, 2007

As the vicar of a large Anglican church in Putney, South London, I have recently been involved in making a short film for my parishioners about where our ‘parish share’ (the money that goes to the diocese for common services and for redistribution) gets spent.

We’re talking a bob or two. The share we pay is nearly £¼ million, and rising. That sort of money requires the best and most accessible explanation I can provide.

Unlike the ‘central-casting vicar’, who comes over all spiritual and gauche at the first mention of hard cash, I get enthused by talking about money because so often it leads to the core of an issue. “Where your treasure lies, there is your heart”, says Jesus in the Gospels. And the modern parish share is no exception.

What this system of spreading resources around (and thus aiding churches in poorer areas) lays bare is a conviction about what sort of church we want to be. Money is the language of our interdependence, our bodily functioning.

It is one heck of a job to get the majority of churchgoers to recognise that the church is not, in fact, a building on their high street. The temptation to narrow-minded congregationalism runs deep.

Clergy meet other clergy, and talk about each other’s parishes. Bishops take grand tours of their dioceses. But ordinary parishioners often have little insight into the parallel lives of churchgoers just a few streets away. I expect it is true in other denominations, too.

If more churches would follow their money, either where it comes from, or where it goes, they would develop a much more comprehensive — one might even say catholic (universal) — vision of the church. This would enable more to recognise why the refusal to pay parish share is such a great sin against Anglican ecclesiology.

League tables are invidious, but I’d love to see a league of dioceses, ranked with respect to non-payment of parish share. Which dioceses have the highest percentage of non-payment? Name and shame, I say. A cleric in the diocese of Manchester told me that non-payment is rife in his area: it has become part of the culture. This is nothing more than anecdotal evidence, but, if it is true, it is scandalous.

A couple of weeks ago I was filming on one of the poorest estates in London. Gun and knife crime are rife. Of a night, the warren of flats becomes a grim amphitheatre for organised dog-fighting. The Evangelical vicar of that parish is a star, and his work with schoolchildren is hugely inspiring. His parish share is £4000 — and I wonder how he manages to scrape that together. Clearly, it doesn’t go far in covering his salary and accommodation.

This is why parishes like mine — and no doubt others — have to find the money. If we are not supporting ministry in places like this, we are no more than a spiritual country club that meets on a Sunday. And, if that’s all we are, I’d prefer to be honest and spend Sunday on the golf course.

This piece is adapted from a recent article that appeared in the Church Times newspaper

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