Monday, 14 January 2013

Waiving fees

The legislation which came into effect at the beginning of the month says

the incumbent… may waive any fee payable to the Diocesan Board of Finance (DBF) in a particular case… [and] may, after consulting the churchwardens,… waive any fee payable to the Parochial Church Council (PCC).

The formal explanatory material which accompanied the legislation as it went through the General Synod says

[Fees] may only be waived ‘in a particular case’. That means the incumbent must be able to point to something about the particular case that would justify waiving the fee… DBFs may wish to offer advice to clergy about how and when they wish to exercise their right to waive fees. The [Archbishops’] Council’s advice is that this should only be in cases of clear financial hardship. It is understandable that some clergy have been known to waive fees for those who are long-standing members of the congregation. The [Archbishops’] Council believes, however, that this practice should not be encouraged, certainly as far as the DBF fee is concerned.

So the incumbent has an unfettered right to waive fees. He or she needs nobody’s permission to do so. The Archbishops’ Council offers advice and discouragement, the particular DBF may offer further advice, and the churchwardens must be consulted in relation to the PCC's fee, but none of these other parties may in fact direct the incumbent's decision.

However, the right relates to ‘particular cases’. The incumbent cannot say ‘I don’t believe in the fee system so I will decline to charge fees’. He or she cannot say, for example, ‘the fee for a funeral of someone under 16 is nil, but my general policy is not to charge a fee for a funeral of any teenager’ or ‘my general policy is not to charge those who over time have given substantial financial support to the church’.

What he or she can say is ‘this particular person is in real financial difficulties so I will not charge’, and also, I assume, he or she can say things like ‘I judge it would be a pastoral disaster to charge a fee in this particular case so I will not do so’.

The Lincoln DBF has issued its booklet of advice.  This says, under the heading ‘Key changes’,

Fees cannot be waived generally, only in particular cases and only be the incumbent who must be able to point to justifiable reasons, such as hardship, and should consult the Archdeacon.

This is almost fine so far, although perhaps ‘should consult the Archdeacon’ is already a bit of a stretch from the DBF advising or requesting that the Archdeacon be consulted; since the legislation names consultation which must take place (with churchwardens in relation to the PCC fee) it follows that nobody can actually require additional consultation.

But three pages later the Lincoln DBF advice has a substantive paragraph under the heading ‘Waivers’ which reads in full:

PCCs cannot waive any portion of the DBF fee without permission from the relevant Archdeacon. The PCC fee or any other local fees may be waived by the PCC or incumbent, as agreed between the PCC and incumbent.

It is difficult to believe that either of these sentences has been written or approved for publication by anyone who has engaged properly with the legislation, let alone by anyone who wishes to be taken seriously exercising a formal right to offer advice in relation to it.

The first sentence names the PCC and Archdeacon as the two parties involved in a decision about waiving the DBF fee. But we have seen that neither of them is actually a party to that decision (other perhaps than being parties which the DBF might or might not advise the incumbent to consult).

The second sentence names the PCC and incumbent as the two parties who must agree any decision about waiving the PCC fee. But we have seen that it is the incumbent who decides, after consulting the churchwardens, and the PCC isn’t involved (still less a party which needs to agree).

There are also further obvious problems with naming the PCC as a party to any of this. We have seen that the waiving of fees can only be considered in particular cases not as matters of general policy, so it is very difficult to see what role a PCC might actually play. A PCC will only meet a few times in a year and so simply wouldn’t be in a position to advise let alone agree about a particular case (especially where a quick decision about a funeral fee needs to be made). And anyway it would be totally inappropriate to share any information about the financial situation of individual parishioners with such a body.

It may seem perverse, but I’m actually a little relieved to find this level of incompetence demonstrated so clearly in the booklet. It shows just how far the Working Party who dealt with this matter on behalf of the DBF has gone off piste. The serious but in most cases futile objections I have raised about the rest of what the DBF is imposing on us suddenly looks less like the rantings of one of the diocese’s difficult clergymen.

As I look at other diocesan websites, I see that most (but sadly not all) advice about waiving fees is accurate and reasonable, and no other one makes things up about a PCC role. I also see that the universal new practice elsewhere in the Church of England is that parishes continue to collect all fees and then disburse them as necessary – payments of the DBF’s fee to the DBF being monthly (in some cases quarterly) and accompanied by a single page form listing the relevant services and fees.  I hate to think how much paid time is to be spent in our Diocesan Office administering every individual funeral payment across the whole of old Lincolnshire, or how much extra clergy and volunteer time is to be spent completing a separate form relating to every separate individual fee generating activity.

The photographs were taken after Matins at St Nicolas’ this morning.

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