Saturday, December 15, 2007

I feel a Maggie Thatcher moment coming on...

Just to explain that cryptic comment a few months ago ;-)

I'm coming to the conclusion that the present distribution of parish share, most particularly as it affects the Mersea Benefice, is unfair not proportionate or reasonable, and that this has consequences for both my health and the health of the communities in which I serve.

First graph, with Mersea in dark blue. This gives the relationship between parish share and stipendiary posts (ie diocese-paid) using 2007 parish share figures. St John's pays the largest share but has two posts, hence they don't show up so strongly.

Second graph, giving the relationship between full time posts and church membership size. This one is more intriguing, but the figures aren't quite so reliable as they are a mix of usual Sunday attendance (for those churches that filled out the questionnaire for the Deanery Plan) or Electoral Roll, which is rather a different number. However the larger churches did fill out the forms, so if anything this graph exaggerates the size of the smaller churches. Again, bear in mind that St John's is divided by two, although it is (only just, grin!) the largest church in the Deanery.

This final table is simply re-ordering the data, using 2008 parish share figures, to give an indication of what each patch 'pays' for a clergyman. Again, bear in mind that the St John's figure is half their parish share.

Deanery Balance 2008

Name of Benefice

2008 share/ftsp - ascending order

Greenstead St Andrew


Colchester St Barnabas Old Heath


Colchester New Town & The Hythe St Steph St Mary Mag & St Leonard


Fingringhoe St Andrew


Berechurch St Margaret w. St Michael


Myland St Michael


Colchester St Peter & St Botolph


Shrub End All Saints w St Cedds


Colchester, St James & St Paul w All Saints, St Nicholas & St Runwald


Wivenhoe St Mary Vn


Colchester Christ Church w St Mary at the Walls


Colchester St John & St Luke


Lexden St Leonard


Mersea Benefice


A different way to put this is to say that the Mersea benefice transfers around £50k into the central pot. Or, to explore that from a different direction, the Mersea benefice is equivalent to two other benefices put together - say Shrub End plus Fingringhoe (which would then match the number and variety of churches).

Is this reasonable? It's true that there is now a large staff team here, but a) the associate priest is paid for by the parish (ie not included in the above figures) and subsidised by a former member of the congregation, an arrangement which won't last for ever; and b) the system is kept in place by the support of a number of retired clergy - and is it fair to expect the system to keep going on the backs of those who have already given their life in ministry to the church? And there are other questions as well - nobody I speak to disputes the need for the stronger parishes to support the weaker, but at what point does that obligation become fulfilled? If places like Mersea (and Lexden and St John's) are the ones upholding the diverse ministry across the Colchester area, does that support need to be done in the way it presently is done, or can it be done differently? And what happens when the this transfer of wealth becomes directly damaging to the donors, ie it inhibits the strengthening and development of mission in their own communities? That sounds like a recipe for locking-in decline.

In other words, is the present system of parish share - a classic example of mid-20th century state socialism - the best way to support ministry, or would we be better off going back to a pattern of livings, whereby those ministries that were successful and prospered were able to reinforce their success by direct funding and control of further mission? My suspicion is strongly that the existing system will soon collapse (because of wider economic trends as much as anything else) and that more historic system will re-emerge. Then we shall have Mersea Minster as the central resource for discipleship and worship in the area south of Colchester. I find that prospect rather encouraging.

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