The Bishop of Blackburn has issued a call to end the ‘injustice and inequality’ in the structures of The Church of England that leads to some Dioceses sitting on ‘cash piles’ while others have nothing.
Writing in this week's Church Times newspaper, Rt Rev. Philip North calls out what he sees as a ‘stubborn refusal’ to change direction in relation to finance.
After years of accepting the status quo, Bishop Philip believes it’s time for attitudes to shift inside the church; particularly as it continues to condemn inequality in the rest of society.
In doing so he highlights issues in the North West in his own Diocese of Blackburn (The Church of England in Lancashire) and in neighbouring Liverpool Diocese too.
The Bishop says: “Christians care about justice. The Bible sets before us a vision of a Kingdom in which the hungry are fed, the sick are healed and all live in harmony with each other and the created world.
“We know it is our duty and joy to build that future kingdom now, which is why we are so quick to condemn inequality and speak out against poverty. But if we are to condemn injustice and inequality when we see it elsewhere, we must also be willing to address it within our own structures. And one area where we stubbornly refuse to do this is finance.”
Bishop Philip continued: “Recently the new Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Rev John Perumbalath, wrote to colleagues to outline the severity of their financial situation, one that has resulted in urgent engagement with the national church and a partnership with an Independent Reviewer to help them identify financial solutions.
“This is not because of mistakes on the part of Liverpool Diocese. Indeed that Diocese has for years benefited from some of the finest financial managers in the Church and has shown courage and agility in naming and addressing underlying issues. The problem is that they have no inherited assets, whereas the average level of endowment in Dioceses nationally is £40 million.
“And in the Diocese of Blackburn we are not far behind. The 2022 deficit of the Diocesan Board of Finance here is one of the lowest in the country; while giving in our parishes is heroic and has bounced back from Covid. And yet, in three or four years’ time we may well be where Liverpool is now. Why? We also have almost no endowment income … whilst other Dioceses sit on cash piles which will last them for decades.”
Bishop Philip acknowledges his Diocese warmly welcomes any investment from the national Church and has done so in recent years as the Church Commissioners, working with the Archbishops’ Council, have released funds on an unprecedented scale to all Dioceses for growth and transformation plans. But he firmly believes what Dioceses such as Liverpool and Blackburn (both serving highly deprived parts of the country) need more than anything else is endowment.
“How is it fair that the finances of Dioceses that are supposedly part of the same Church vary so wildly because of a freak of history which means that some got lucky when the big bucks were being given out?”
And Bishop Philip adds: “If we are one Church, why should not every Diocese benefit from that average endowment figure of £40 million? The income from such a sum would both wipe out our structural deficit and give us a surplus to invest in mission without touching the capital sum.
"There is absolutely no reason at all why this should not happen tomorrow."
In making his points, the Bishop invokes the leaders of the early church saying: “Are we or are we not a Church that wishes to live in obedience to the Scriptures?
"In Acts 4:35 the disciples made distribution, ‘To each according to their needs’. While in 2 Corinthians 9:5, Paul incites his hearers to make not an ‘exaction’ but a ‘willing gift'.
Bishop Philip concludes by saying: “Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians 4: 14 ‘I write these things not to make you ashamed’. I don’t want to shame anyone. But poorer dioceses … are no longer prepared to put up with this gross and chronic injustice. So let’s address it not out of shame, but in order to live the Gospel with even greater joy.”
Main picture by Sara Cuff
Ronnie Semley, July 2023