In this age of bloated bureaucracy, pity the poor churchwarden

(Photo: Facebook/Church of England)

Charles Moore revealed in a recent article in The Telegraph, of which he was formerly editor, that his wife is both churchwarden and treasurer of her parish church.

"Martyn's Law is coming soon," he wrote. "Named after Martyn Hett, one of the 22 murdered by the Manchester Arena bomber in 2017, the Bill has the laudable aim of better protecting premises from terrorist attacks. Its consultation period, for those with 'smaller premises' such as churches and schools, ends on 18 March."

Lord Moore of Etchingham continued: "The churchwarden in our country parish, who happens to be my wife, has been looking into what this means. All churches will be required to register with a new regulator."

He concluded: "The church has no paid workers, only volunteers, most of whom are over 70 years old, their numbers more than decimated by Covid. As churchwarden and treasurer, she is overworked. Should she really be forced to become a security guard as well?" 

This prompted some recollections from my time as the vicar of a South Yorkshire parish. For the last five years of my time there until I left in 2019, I was acting treasurer for the church. The small congregation had been unable to produce a volunteer.

Fortunately, an accountant at a large evangelical church nearby, with which our church had recently formed a mission partnership, very kindly agreed to prepare the annual accounts for the Annual Parochial Church Meeting (APCM). She was a God-send.

But most of the routine administration landed on me – banking the Sunday collection; logging payments; leaving audit trails; keeping the Parochial Church Council (PCC) fully in the loop on the finances; liaising with the local diocesan board of finance; and paying (after obtaining the requisite counter-signature on the PCC cheque book) electricians, plumbers, architects, organists, window cleaners, roofers, builders and the pest control expert who advised the church after it suffered an infestation of squirrels.

The church was advised to wait until the mother squirrel's litter grew up and then the whole drey would leave as a matter of course. I recall seeing one of the creatures perched on top of the Mothers' Union banner with a very impertinent look in its eye.

I was fortunate to have had a very supportive churchwarden. I do not know Lady Moore's circumstances – she may, like I was, be helped by an accountant who prepares the annual accounts. Perhaps, unlike me, she has mastered online banking and so saves time from lugging around the PCC cheque book.

But if she is a normal church treasurer and does the APCM accounts herself, from my knowledge of what a churchwarden's role involves, my conservative estimate is that her combined role would take up an average of three nine-to-six working days per week.

But those hours are spread out taking up many evenings, so I would imagine Lady Moore struggles to get a full weekly day off from her voluntary church work.

Elected annually by the APCM, churchwardens have particular responsibility for the church building and its other properties. They serve ex officio on the PCC. They are often the first to arrive on Sundays to open up the church for the services and the last to leave. They often have practical responsibilities at weddings and funerals. They have, particularly in rural settings, a public role in the parish and are expected to attend various diocesan meetings.

The churchwarden role alone is a significant commitment. Lady Moore is clearly devoted to her parish and to its ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Her parish in rural Sussex is part of Chichester Diocese. In the last 10 years of my ministry I noticed that the local diocese was becoming increasingly bureaucratic and centralised. I have noticed in my role now as an evangelical journalist that my former diocese is not alone in this.

Some of this bloated bureaucracy is the result of increased government regulation over the past 20 years. But my observation is that many dioceses have been centralising control beyond the demands of legislation and the necessary requirements of better safeguarding.

I get the impression that Chichester is more sensitive to the growing demands on frontline clergy and church volunteers than most dioceses. In an article on the volunteering crisis in the Church of England, The Church Times reported that Chichester's "parish adviser on finance, stewardship, and governance, Sarah Rogers, runs training sessions for treasurers throughout the year, both online and in-person".

Meanwhile in the Diocese of Wokeshire, would it be a stretch to reckon that the 'diversity, equality and inclusion enforcer', working from home no doubt and having laid yet another heavy bureaucratic burden on the parishes, clocks off at lunch?

The Book of Common Prayer Collect for today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, is of course a prayer for all Christian people. But readers minded to pray it might like to uphold in particular frontline churchwardens and PCC treasurers such as Lady Moore:

"We beseech thee, Almighty God, to look upon thy people; that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord."