Can the Church of England afford same-sex blessings?

(Photo: Church of England)

The General Synod meeting in York next month is being overshadowed by revelations of the dire financial state of most of the Church of England's 42 dioceses.

The staggering picture of the C of E's financial decline in the Diocesan Finances Review Update, circulated to Synod members ahead of their July meeting, comes as the C of E's bishops seek approval for their plan to allow standalone services of blessing for same-sex couples to go ahead on an experimental basis.

The latest proposals from the bishops, announced on June 20, are "designed to help hold the Church together amid deep disagreements over questions of sexuality".

After Synod voted to approve services of blessing for same-sex couples in February 2023, the introduction of standalone services where couples could have dedicated celebrations in C of E parish churches has been delayed by legal arguments.

Vicars have been allowed to use the blessings in regular services since December 2023. But church lawyers have told the bishops that the standalone services require a two-thirds majority vote in Synod for permanent approval because they would represent a change in the Church's current teaching on sexual morality.

The latest document circulated to Synod members, 'Moving forward as one Church', recommends allowing individual incumbents to use the standalone services at their discretion for "an intentional period of discernment of at least three years" from 2025.

But as the bishops try to get the standalone blessings launched, the Diocesan Finances Review Update, signed by Carl Hughes, chairman of the Archbishops' Council Finance Committee, and Joanna Woolcock, director of finance transformation, National Church Institutions, reveals that C of E dioceses are now facing "underlying aggregate deficits" of more than £60 million per year.

"Most dioceses are now in a structural deficit position with 30 dioceses reporting underlying operating deficits in 2022, and 35 expecting to report a deficit in 2023 and beyond," the paper reveals.

The paper quotes the 2022 Parish Finance Statistics which state that parish incomes are down by 14% in real terms from before the Covid pandemic struck, and that "the number of regular givers has fallen from 538,000 in 2015 to 480,000 in 2019 and just over 400,000 today".

Parish share, the voluntary contribution paid by C of E parish churches to their dioceses, is down by 9%, closer to 30% in real terms, on pre-pandemic levels.

Summary graphs appended to the paper reveal "a deteriorating picture with aggregate diocesan deficits of £29m in 2022, expected to more than double to £62m in 2024".

The paper reveals: "The number of dioceses in deficit is increasing, with 18 in deficit in 2019 and at least 35 expecting to be in deficit in 2024. Declining attendance (by at least 25% since 2015) has driven a real terms reduction in parish share in all mainland dioceses, with a significant mismatch between parish share collected and the cost of resourcing ministry and mission.

"Half of dioceses face some short-term liquidity risk with 23 holding less than 3 months' cash reserves, 13 of which do not have any easily available investment assets to liquidate."

The Church Commissioners, which have assets of £10.4 billion, would have to step in if a C of E diocese were to go bankrupt. But bailing out dioceses could impact on the Strategic Development Funding which the Church Commissioners are providing for church growth projects in dioceses.

This month the C of E announced that £60 million of Church Commissioners' money is to be awarded to three dioceses, Blackburn, Southwark and London, "for long-term programmes of transformation including parish renewals, children and youth work and outreach to low-income areas".

Carl Hughes, in addition to his other high-level C of E voluntary roles, chairs the Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment Board which approved the grants. He said they would fund "very significant long term programmes, working in partnership with the dioceses and the Board to ensure that parish churches from all traditions are renewed and revitalised in their mission to share the good news of the Gospel."

Hughes, a former chairman of City of London accounting firm, Deloitte UK, is a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), which opposes the services of same-sex blessing.

In November last year CEEC launched its Ephesian Fund to "enable people in churches across the dioceses to continue to support orthodox Anglican ministry when in good conscience they might otherwise withdraw or reduce their giving to their parish church as a result of their bishop's support for the Prayers of Love and Faith initiative".

With the dire financial picture presented in his paper, Hughes might well be wondering whether the Church can afford the deeply divisive same-sex blessings which its bishops are so determined to bring forward.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Lancashire.