The lockdown has been more than a passing financial crisis for the Church in England and Wales. It has been a wake-up call that is challenging the way parishes and dioceses are funded and managed
When the doors of Catholic churches across Britain clanged shut in late March, it was a terrible blow to Massgoers. For priests, too, it was a terrible moment – and not just for spiritual reasons. The timing – just a few days before Holy Week – could not have been worse. For however much priests focus on the spiritual side of Easter, it also looms large for another, very practical reason.
Easter Sunday is one of only two days in the liturgical calendar – the other is Christmas – when the Mass offerings are divided up between the priests of the parish. These offerings are a welcome boost to priests’ low incomes. They can mean the difference between having a broken-down jalopy or a decent reliable car; between managing only a few days’ break with relatives or having a proper fortnight’s holiday in the summer. But this Easter there was almost nothing.
In Southwark, priests have been authorised to take a minimum £1,500 as their Easter Offering from the general parish collection, even if the amount given by the people did not reach that amount. Some parish priests, knowing how low funds have fallen, have been unwilling to take that much.
Of course, it was not only Easter Sunday when the pews were empty. Churches in England and Wales were closed for 13 weeks. While in some parishes – usually more affluent ones – people increasingly make their financial contribution by standing order, plenty are still heavily reliant on cash. In the Diocese of Leeds, for example, nine parishes went into lockdown entirely reliant on offertory envelopes and cash in the collection plate. As one diocesan trustee said to me: “The lack of the plate has been a disaster for parishes.” And not only for parishes: money from the laity is the bedrock of church finances, so the lockdown has hit diocesan finances too.