Tuesday 26 July 2016

Not found in data source

Nine months ago, I posted about the diocese’s greatly increased expectation (significant step by significant step increases over three years) about how much each parish should contribute to the central funding which we hold in common.  The post including sadness that the diocese had not followed through on its earlier stated intention to explore things individually with the 10% of parishes for which the new assessment system throws up excessive or rogue results (as any new assessment system would do).

Since then we have been a passive participant in what the diocese regards as an appeal system – ‘an appeal’ only in so much as the diocese sent us a letter which said our response about how much we would expect to be able to pay in 2016 would be treated as an appeal and then a later letter which said that our appeal had been considered and a lower figure had been agreed (still a 45% increase on what we managed to pay in 2015, slightly more money than the larger, better attended and better resourced parish next door to us has been able to pay off in the opening months of the year) – not an appeal in the sense that we know the nature or membership of the tribunal, when it met, or the reasons behind its judgement.

This week we’ve had a further letter, an early sentence of which ( ‘... and in particular thank you for the £Error! MergeField was not found in header record of data source. which you have paid to the end of June 2016...’) doesn’t inspire undue confidence.  The letter reminding us that, although a reduced amount was agreed for 2016, ‘no reduction was agreed for any further years’ and that the figure on the escalator for 2017 is twice what we managed to pay in 2015 (which would be about £9.25 per ‘usual Sunday attender’ per week – not, quite rightly, that this is a method of calculation which the diocese uses).

The attitude in the parish among those aware of the situation is, I’m afraid, that the vastness of the gap is more of a problem for the diocese than it is for us.  We do, however, have well advanced plans for a ‘stewardship renewal’ exercise in the autumn.  This will include, among other things, writing to the hundred or so households which form the backbone of our funding by giving half of the £1000 or so we spend in an average week (a third of which we send on tot he diocese).

We have picked up an obvious and helpful tip from another parish - which is that a single standard bit of publicity doesn’t do the job.  One of the things which we will do over the summer holiday is instead to craft quite a variety of letters pitched at different sorts of people.  There is no need to clutter up publicity with information about Gift Aid for those who already give in this way or for those for whom it is irrelevant.  It would be unhelpful to write to those who faithfully put £2 in a ‘giving envelope’ each week to point out that the average giving in the wider Church of England is now about £8 a week rather than really thank them and gently suggest that £3 might be a target.

But as we begin to prepare this material it appears that the results for us may not be as spectacular as the other parish expects.  It had pointed out the advantage of things like bringing new attenders into the ‘planned giving scheme’ for the first time with one sort of letter and beginning to be able to make tax recovery claims for others who have not signed a Gift Aid form in the past as a result of a different sort of letter - whereas our initial analysis shows that we’ve been quietly diligent about such things over a long period and there is very little slack like this in our parish.

Anyway, there is an offer in the latest letter from the diocese ‘to come and meet you’ ‘if your parish would like to discuss your parish share payment for 2017’ which might be the opportunity to begin the conversation we thought the diocese was going to have with us over a year ago (unless the offer is in fact a coded request to allow someone to come and present the diocesan need to us) and the Parochial Church Council may indeed want to pick this up when it next meets in the autumn.

The diocese is actually planning to run a huge deficit for a few years in the expectation that this will reduce as systematic increases take place in parish giving.  I only hope that this does not depend on too many unrealistic figures being written into the diocesan budget until it even gets the point which the diocese of Rochester has now reached when there are no balances left and rapid cuts in expenditure have had to be announced.

Meanwhile, the gargoyle is not local (the picture was taken on a recent visit to Byfield in Northants where my parents worshipped for twenty years and where their cremated remains are buried) and I was only able to get close up to it like this because it is now in the porch there.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Bats and other priorities

The main purpose of a church building is to provide a roost or toilet for bats.

This isn’t a polemic point but an objective piece of analysis. 

I once came across an apparently loaded claim that a hospital was being run chiefly for the convenience of administrators.  It turned out that the claim was based on a careful evaluation of a number of very specific binary decisions (such as ‘make this small change to increase patient care but make administration quite difficult’ and ‘make this small change to make administration run smoothly but make carers’ lives more complicated’) and was simply a straight deduction.

So all one has to do is look at the balance of specific decisions.
‘This bat population is damaging the historic fabric’ or ‘that bat population is making it an unpleasant experience preparing for or participating in regular worship in a particular place’?   The bats win and solutions need to be found which don’t disturb the bats - or the size of the fine might be astronomic.

I’ve been reminded of all this because it has just been announced that St Nicolas’ has got the full cost of the repairs needed to its south aisle roof from Government heritage funds (over £50 000, plus the refund of any VAT) - which is a great relief and we are really thankful. 

Almost the last thing we have to do before we can go ahead with the work is provide proof that there are no bats there.  I’m glad to say we are sure there aren’t and that we are trying to resist any resentment that we actually have to prove this to be the case.

But rather than appear to have a go at bats, this approach to analysis is really a sobering act of self scrutiny.

Objectively, the provision of a roost or toilet for bats is the main purpose of the provision of a church building.  The preservation of built heritage is the second.  Bat arguments win over heritage arguments, but otherwise heritage arguments usually win over any other arguments. 

They certainly win over most mission arguments (‘this particular change to the fabric of the church would enable us to undertake mission in a better way’, ‘this money would be best used to address a pressing social need rather than repair the fabric to quite the standard heritage bodies would like’).

Third comes demonstrating compliance - or, to put the point positively, being clear how we are keeping people safe. 

This doesn’t beat bats and heritage - if there are bats or valued heritage and a church can’t deliver things safely then the building may become disused and surrounding by hoardings to protect the bats or the fabric.  

But it, quite rightly, beats almost everything else.  From child protection policies to fire risk assessments reminders come in regularly about the levels of compliance required of us.

And, most shockingly, since this is a piece of self scrutiny rather than an anti-bat tirade, in fourth place is the provision of good manageable working conditions for stipendiary clergy. 

Bats, heritage and being clear one is keeping people safe are more important and cannot be overlooked whatever pressure they put stipendiary clergy under, but otherwise the life of a church is actually arranged chiefly for the benefit of people like me.

Why do we have to raise quite so much money?  Because the diocesan budget requires income to deploy hundreds of people like me.  

Why are these churches asked to show loyalty to this particular wider grouping of churches?  Because they share one stipendiary clergy appointment. 

Why does this particular pattern of worship obtain in this group of churches?  Because that is the one he or she can sustain. 

In the end, arguments about other things which might benefit from the sacrificial giving of church members, about the natural grouping of churches or about a different rhythm or variety of worship in a particular place, are valid but are usually trumped by how things work best for the deployment of stipendiary clergy.

So, the main purpose of church buildings is to provide a roost or toilet for bats.

The preservation of built heritage is the second, and only the presence of bats is really allowed to trump this.

The next thing in importance is demonstrating that every precaution is being taken to keep people safe - unless this conflicts with bat protection or heritage preservation, in which case things should remain unsafe and unused.

Then (provided this doesn’t conflict with bat protection, heritage preservation or human safety requirements) things will be arranged so as best to enable a pattern of stipendiary ministry to operate smoothly.

If there are no bat protection, heritage preservation, human safety or clergy flourishing issues, then aspects of care, mission and prayer may set the agenda.  Or there may be something I haven’t yet spotted so clearly which will push these things further down the queue.

Meanwhile, the tree cut down at the east end of St Nicolas’ a short while ago is having a good go at sprouting.

Friday 15 July 2016


Neither the piece I have been working on to post here nor my sermon for Suday have yet come out anywhere near right.  Instead the best post is the tweet of the widower of Jo Cox MP (whose funeral has taken place this morning).

Jo wld ask us not 2 fight hate with hate but draw together 2 drain the swamp that extremism breeds in.Thinking of all victims of hatred 2day

The photograph is the second of a pair taken at Deddington recently.

Wednesday 6 July 2016

God on the gallows

The death of Elie Wiesel at the weekend sent me to take his Night down from my shelf.

His searing account of surviving the Nazi Death Camps was published just before I was born.  Growing up in faith, I came to know it to be one of the classic texts of the twentieth century, definitive of my (of anyone’s) understanding.  It has taken me among so many others to Buchenwald, from which he, unlike so many others, was finally liberated.

I hadn’t realised until reading his obituaries, however, how little focus there had been on the Nazi genocide of the Jews in the dozen or so years between the end of the Second World War and his writing, nor how it was his own use of the term Holocaust – the Greek term for the whole burnt offerings of the Hebrew scriptures – which had been particularly influential in bringing that term into wide use.

There is a passage in the book which is the most quoted and which I’ve often come across used in Christian writing.  While being forced to witness one particular horrific prolonged hanging of a boy there is an overheard conversation in which the question ‘Where is God now?’ receives a response ‘He is hanging here on this gallows’.

I came to be deeply uncomfortable with the Christian appropriation of this passage.  The book touches often on the death of faith, the death of any credibility in the idea of God, the death of God.  It seems abidingly important that this is what he is laying out at this point and not to swerve around it. 

For me, the sense that God is indeed found hanging on gallows is also, of course, of abiding importance.  I can understand why there is a temptation to use this short passage as a Christian text speaking into that reality.  Indeed, I notice Wiesel very unexpected touch on one word of Christian language himself a little later in the book when writing a particular Rabbi’s loss of faith in the face of ‘this Calvary’. 

But that does not seem to be a sufficient excuse for a Christian colonisation of a text which takes us to the heart of a Jewish reality, a reality which challenges everything which trips off the tongue too easily about ‘western Christian civilization’, a reality which seems almost obscene to me to use as a hanging peg for Christian apologetic.

The word Holocaust has also, of course, come to be recognised as deeply problematic, indeed it has slowly become not to be the preferred term lest it smuggle in any sense that this was an offering made to God or a sacrifice made by God.

The picture is of one tiny face now over five hundred years old on the edge of one of the brasses in St Nicolas’, Great Coates.