Three boys are in the school yard bragging about their fathers.
The first boy says, “My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem. They give him £50.”
The second boy says, “That’s nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a song. They give him £100.”
The third boy says, “I got you both beat. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!”
Somebody asked me, explain why churches beg for money.
It’s a funny thing, this money and the church. I’m afraid the only one I know much about is the Church of England, which, like every other denomination, is unique and doubtless does things entirely different from the rest.
So where does all the money go? Well it’s tricky. There are three real costs. The first is staff. Not merely salaries (or stipends) and accommodation, but pensions, training, National Insurance, etc. To a certain extent this is one of these problems that is self rectifying, as within the CofE the number of clergy is falling and the proportion of those who do the job as volunteers is rising. Also more of what was once considered to be work for the Clergy is being done by lay volunteers.
In our own case the notional cost of a vicar is about £50,000 (which includes stipend, accommodation, training, national insurance, back office costs, etc etc.) The parishes which share our vicar manage to raise from their congregations through collections, concerts, fun-days and similar about that sort of sum which they sent to the diocese to pay for our vicar.
The Second cost is the building. Like pretty well every other CofE parish we’ve got a church. Some are beautiful, some are well designed, some are in the right place. Very occasionally you’ll get one which manages all three. They were designed and built in a different world. Who else is expected to work with buildings that were designed and built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where the population has moved, the road networks have shifted and the costs and expectations of such things as heating are massively different nowadays.
The costs of maintenance of a parish church fall entirely on the congregation, (ignoring listed buildings where frankly you’d be better off if it wasn’t listed because that imposes more cost than benefits) it’s bad enough if you’re a parish church, Durham Cathedral costs £60,000 a week to maintain. Apparently Durham has a sign on the wall suggesting that visitors donate £5. They’ve calculated that the average donation is £0.32. So you can see why Cathedrals are so quick to sniff out any sort of grant funding for historic buildings. Obviously there are individual churches and Cathedrals which might have other sources of money, investments and similar built up over the past centuries but even in their case, the money is almost always spent before it arrives.
Do we need these buildings? Probably not, and even if we need buildings we don’t need the ones we’ve got. The sensible thing is to just walk away, sell them for housing or give them to English Heritage and just hire a local hall of appropriate size when we need one. Save an absolute fortune.
Why don’t we do it?
Some of it is a feeling that some of these buildings are very sacred spaces; some is because the congregations love the building so much they’re willing to make that extra effort.
The main reason in some cases is that parishioners don’t want their daughters to ‘walk down the aisle’ at the local sports centre and they certainly don’t want their funeral service to be held there.
With the CofE, because it’s a parish based church, the church serves not merely its congregation but every person in that parish. Whether they darken the door of the church or not, contribute financially towards it’s annual upkeep or not, they’re entitled to be married there and have their funeral there. They also contribute to the debate, demanding the building be kept open and maintained etc, because so many of their fonder memories are tied up in it.
But really, we don’t need the physical infrastructure. Some people confuse the Church with the building. The Church isn’t buildings, it’s people. The Church would still be the Church if it didn’t have a building to its name and met in the market place.
And then there’s the third cost, the real work of the church which we need money for. This is most simply summed up in Matthew 25 :31-46, which starts with the instruction
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
And the problem is the money tends to be dished out in the order mentioned. Firstly we do have to pay people. The wages aren’t good, the hours can be horrendous and it’s only fair they get a reasonable pension. Then we have this edifice complex and get hung up about the buildings, and finally, what’s left, over and above what might be described as the ‘fixed costs’ goes to the real work of the church.
It’s something that stares every congregation in the face. He, we look at our own church building. A few years down the line we’ll have to spend serious money. Now the congregation doesn’t need the building. We don’t use it all that much anyway, meeting in the village hall about half the time, and frankly we could get rid of it, and all the money that gets poured into it could go into occasional hire of the hall and the rest can go straight into the work of the church.
We’ve talked about it, we’ve had open meetings. Basically we’ve decided that the building has to ‘wash its own face.’ It’s got to pretty well cover its own costs, whether as a part time heritage centre, concert venue, art gallery, office space, starter units, whatever.
If, after a few years of trying, it doesn’t then we’ll have to look at it again. But frankly I cannot see any point in raising six figure sums to maintain it. Indeed if someone turned up tomorrow with an open chequebook and offered us a six figure sum I’d point them into town, to the homeless centre and the foodbank and suggest that they had a word with the people there.
Other places do it differently. Norway and (from memory Austria) have all churches paid for by the State. Some places have a national levy. Personally I don’t want that over here. It’s a big enough hassle being the established church; I’d hate to be state funded as well.
But we’ve got to square that circle. The issue of paying staff and pensions is self rectifying. With less staff, then eventually there’ll be fewer pensions. It’s one of the things where we can grit our teeth and get on with it.
But the nightmare is the whole issue of buildings. Really, in many cases, if the buildings are so architecturally precious, so special, and so expensive to maintain, then congregations are probably best walking away, selling them or giving them to the state and let them worry about the cost.
If the building is the right building in the right place, in good condition and one the congregation can afford, sure, stick with it, a good building can be an asset.
Indeed having a decent building to work out from can make it easier and more cost effective to get on with the work of the church. But having a kitchen and showers might be more important than vestry and choir stalls.