Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Crumbling Edifice: The Church Commissioners and the Decline of the Anglican Establishment

Review: Andrew Chandler, The Church of England in the Twentieth Century: The Church Commissioners and the Politics of Reform, 1948-1998 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006).

On January 15, 1991, First Church Estates Commissioner Douglas Lovelock brought disturbing news to the bishops of the Church of England. After more than a decade of property speculation that had significantly increased the value of the investments of the Church Commissioners, the economic bubble had finally burst and the Church of England faced a need for drastic economic retrenchment. Almost overnight, a cacophony of protest erupted as Anglicans in the pews (and episcopal palaces) denounced the hubris of the Church Commissioners in so believing in their financial expertise as to squander long-term security for short-term gain.

Andrew Chandler's weighty tome on the fortunes the Church Commissioners represents a most valuable contribution to scholarship, with still relevant insights concerning the way in which ecclesiastical assets can and should be managed. Much of the value of The Church of England in the Twentieth Century derives from its reliance on the internal papers of the Church Commissioners, providing a window into the mindset of the relatively small group of men (and occasionally women) who set postwar fiscal policies that allowed the Church of England to establish adequate pay scales for its clergy and maintain church buildings that would otherwise have fallen into disrepair. Their correspondence throws an equally revealing light on the activities of Anglicans in the pews in the years following the Second World War. 

Formed in 1948 from the merger of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (a corporation established by Parliament in 1836 to manage church estates and revenues) and Queen Anne's Bounty (a charity organized in 1704 to provide grants to poor benefices and loans for the repair of clergy houses), the Church Commissioners were one of the fruits of the twentieth century managerial revolution, and enjoyed the active support of Geoffrey Fisher, perhaps the last archbishop of Canterbury to take much interest in the institutional church. Chandler demonstrates the increasing detachment of future archbishops from the work of the Commissioners, typified in the lament of Archbishop Michael Ramsey to the then bishop of London in 1967. "One of the more godly laymen on the Board of Church Commissioners," he wrote, "has asked why the meetings do not begin with prayer. When I became Chairman I was informed that it was not their custom to have prayer and I followed the existing pattern. I must confess that at the time I sometimes used to feel the proceedings were so ungodly that the custom was just as well, but there is really no reason why this should be the only ecclesiastical body which does not pray at its meetings." (Michael Ramsey to Robert Stopford, 19 May, 1967, quoted on 150-151).

Ramsey's comments reflect the unease with which many churchmen contemplated (and still contemplate) the world of finance. The general lack of clerical experience in that arena (the present archbishop of Canterbury notwithstanding) coupled with the perception that markets were not renowned for respecting the dignity of the individual only accentuated the gulf between the guardians of the Church's purse and the shepherds of its souls. That said, the history of the Church Commissioners is in great measure a history of the postwar Church of England. Despite the relative autonomy granted by the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act of 1919, the half century that followed attested to the enduring supremacy of Parliament (characterized most notably by the parliamentary rejection of a proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1928). The Church of England remained a national church, its clergy vested with responsibility for all within their pastoral cure, not merely those who identified as practising Anglicans, and its assets were intended to benefit the nation.

The early Commissioners, insists Chandler, bore the stamp of the era in which they were formed, "a pragmatic liberal bureaucracy; a brisk but humane enterprise set in motion by experienced and committed executors who understood their tasks sensibly, rationally, without the show of politics." (24) They were typified by Malcolm Trustram Eve, Third Estates Commissioner from 1952 to 1954 and First Estates Commissioner from 1954 to 1969. A seasoned industrialist (with interests in cement), Eve sustained and developed the policies adopted by the Church Commissioners in the late 1940s, that included an embrace of Stock Market transactions at the expense of the Church's earlier reliance on the purchase of government bonds, investment in commercial property and the reorganization and consolidation of the scattered agricultural holdings of the Church of England.

Such policies brought about a sea change in the relationship between the Church and those who continued to be its tenants, whether London householders or rural farmers. Particularly after the lifting of rent controls in London in the early 1950s, the Commissioners began to emphasize the income potential of their properties in the London districts of Maida Vale and Hyde Park (although they conceded the importance of affordable housing for their tenants in Paddington). Similar concerns reshaped relations with their farmer tenants, particularly after the suppression of the glebe as a mechanism binding the income from a specific piece of land to a particular incumbency. Agricultural land that failed to provide an assured source of revenue was now as likely to be sold as retained.

The transformations of the 1950s, though striking, were as nothing compared to the revolution of the era that followed. The success of investment in London commercial property during the 1960s and 1970s, encouraged the Commissioners to pursue more risky schemes a decade later. The lifting of exchange controls led to extensive investment in foreign property, both in the United States (especially California and Texas) and Japan, and by the early 1980s property accounted for two-thirds of their portfolio. The Commissioners also embarked upon a series of what Chandler terms economic "dreadnoughts," most notably shopping centres such as St. Enoch's in Glasgow and the Metrocentre in Gateshead. Sizable commercial loans (often without fixed interest rates) were secured from the high street banks, including a staggering £250 million line of credit from National Westminster Bank. With the hindsight of the past decade, the inevitability of a crash seems inescapable.

There was, however, another side to the story, one for which Archbishop Ramsey's earlier comment is revealing. Both the Church Assembly and its successor the General Synod responded to the Commissioners' early successes with requests for ever increasing levels of expenditure on clerical stipends, pensions and investment in bricks and mortar. The results of this collaboration between the Commissioners, the Church Assembly/General Synod, and the Dioceses were frequently beneficial but they were also costly. Few of the beneficiaries, whether parishes, clergy or bishops, seemed conscious that with increased costs come increased liabilities. The long drive to raise clerical stipends that culminated in the establishment of Central Stipends Authority in 1973 was accompanied by an unseemly degree of inter-diocesan strife over funding priorities. When the widening gap between assets and obligations toward clerical pensions became evident during the 1970s, the unwillingness of the General Synod to embrace a measure of fiscal restraint arguably set the Commissioners on the road to the speculative plunge of the 1980s. Dioceses and parishes were always quick to identify uses for new income but slow to propose sacrifices that might keep the budget in balance.

Chandler's narrative is replete with illuminating insights into the mind of the postwar Church that range from the debates surrounding the closing and consolidation of rural parishes to the bitter struggle over divestment from South Africa. Bishops, dioceses and cathedrals all receive attention, as do the financial ramifications of such intra-church matters as Faith in the City and the ordination of women. For an institutional history, the number of vignettes of local situations (the evoling of the debate over the sale of redundant churches first to Roman Catholics in 1950s and subsequently to Muslims and Sikhs in the 1970s and 1980s is particularly fascinating) is extensive. One will search in vain, however, for references to Honest to God or the "Durham Affair," there is little discussion of church-state relations prior to the cataclysm of 1991, and the wider Anglican Communion is conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps the most misleading feature of the book is its title, which might lead the casual reviewer to assume a comprehensiveness which is absent, but as a revelation of the workings of the institutional church, Chandler has provided something of enduring value. Anthony Trollope's Archdeacon Grantley would have understood the mindset of the Church Commissioners all too well, which perhaps adds poignancy to Chandler's ultimate conclusion:

The historian of the last fifty years is left only to wonder what the next fifty years will bring. Unless the societal patterns which have gathered such force in the later twentieth century are superseded by new ones which combine to benefit the cause of corporate Christianity, at some point decline must bite through the sinews of the body and into the structures, the very bones, which give it solid form and movement. Arguably it was the achievement of the Church Commissioners between 1948 and 1998 to maintain, by a steady, ongoing reform of particulars, the contours of an order and a method which might well have decayed and even collapsed in some areas without their efforts. Perhaps a future age will observe that their legacy was simply to hold back for a period of time a decline which was altogether too formidable to be halted by the Churches. (481-482)

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