A Major Financial Change is Coming

Financial pressures mean changes will be needed in the future.

Long-term members of St Mary’s will know that, over many years, the Diocese of Southwark has operated a system of funding its ministry called Fairer Shares. The basic principle has been that, in order for clergy to be provided to parishes in areas where they cannot afford a full-time priest and to fund the essential central work of the Diocese (but not bishops, who are funded by the Church Commissioners), larger and wealthier churches have paid more than the costs of having a full-time priest, while smaller, poorer churches have paid less. The assessment for this work has been done by a confidential income survey of every church member once every three years.

This system has worked well for over thirty years, and levels of collection of around 99.5% of the Fairer Shares assessment have been regularly reported.

In recent years, however, levels of collection have been dropping and are currently around 95%. While this may seem a relatively small amount, in an overall diocesan annual budget of £18 million, 4% corresponds to the loss of a significant number of clergy posts (the central costs of the Diocese have been very low for some years). At the same time, some of the larger, wealthier parishes have been finding that their assessments under the system have become crippling. St Mary’s is at the higher end of assessment, which means that before we do anything local, we were asked to make a contribution of £117,000 in 2013. Some parishes are assessed at twice or three times that amount: which these parishes are finding increasingly unsustainable and an impediment to their local mission.

Over the past years, a Working Party has been exploring changes to Fairer Shares. Under my chairmanship, last November a group entitled Root & Branch made radical proposals to change the system from one based on what might be thought of as a ‘taxation’ based system (a calculation leading to a ‘bill’ to be paid), to a ‘generosity-based’ system where each parish is asked to make a contribution of its own choosing. That recommendation received warm approval from the Diocesan Synod and is now being worked up into a full system, which could be implemented in 2016. Conversations are beginning across each Archdeaconry of the Diocese to engage every parish in this work. The Wandsworth Conversation will be on Monday 9th June at 7.45pm at St. Mark’s Church, Surbiton. You are welcome to attend.

This change means that St Mary’s is going to have to think carefully about how much it contributes to the wider mission of the diocese. Our Church Council is committed to supporting the ministry of the church in less prosperous areas than our own. But there is the risk that every church in the diocese thinks that this is their opportunity to give less, resulting in a significant loss of income (and therefore clergy posts) in the years ahead.

To prevent this happening, our review group has proposed a key set of principles that every parish should reflect carefully upon.

  • The principle of proportionality: Richer, larger churches should continue to follow the biblical principle of supporting smaller, poorer churches;
  • The self-financing principle: Every church should aspire to become self-financing, even if that remains a long-term goal.
  • The principle of informed generosity: that every parish should start from a position of being generous with all that it has. Instead of a tax bill to be paid, we are asked to give from the fullness of what we have.

It is this last principle that will challenge St Mary’s the most and we will need to give careful thought and study to what it means in the coming year. We remain, as a congregation, one of the less-generous parishes in terms of the proportion of our individual income that we give to the church. Many poorer congregations and many poorer Christians in Southwark give far generously and more sacrificially than we do. This requires further work of explanation, conversation among ourselves and a deeper understanding of the principles of Christian Stewardship. However, it also provides us with an opportunity to grow. It is one of my priorities at St Mary’s to help us grow in our giving.

If you wish to read the report, you can find it on the Strategy for Ministry pages on the diocesan website, southwark.anglican.org. There is also a study guide on the Root & Branch pages to help you think more.

More details will be made available when the final scheme is designed. But feel free to discuss the issue with me in the weeks and months ahead.

Simon Butler