Fit for a King (or Queen): ‘opulent’ lifestyle of bishops revealed

Bishops’ "lavish lifestyles" cost £100,000-a-year on top of their salary, the Church of England has revealed, amid fears that the parish system will collapse under financial ruin.

Houses with more than six bedrooms, gardeners, chauffeurs and entertaining and hospitality are among the "opulent" spending by the Church of England’s 42 diocesan bishops – each of whom earn £46,180 per year. 

Church officials released the new financial data ahead of the sitting of General Synod, the Church’s legislative body, which will run from Friday to Monday. 

The figures revealed that bishops receive up to £100,000 on top of their salary, sparking criticism from Synod members who are calling for them to stop "living like Kings or Queens while the Church of England goes bankrupt". 

The criticism comes after the Archbishop of York, the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, last year drew criticism for his vision of "a revitalised parish system within which new and inherited worshipping communities flourish together" amid fears that the parish system was being dismantled as it battles against financial ruin amid multi-million debt as it struggles to pay clergy.

Church leaders are also trying to recruit new churchgoers amid a declining number of congregants.

In written questions submitted ahead of the conference, Sam Margrave, a lay member of General Synod and a former local councillor, asked Church Commissioners, who are responsible for managing the Church’s £9.2 billion investment fund, details relating to bishops’ spending in 2020. 

The published data shows that the average annual cost of the ongoing maintenance of bishops’ houses is £70,310 per house, that 26 bishops live in houses with more than six bedrooms, and that "a number of bishops have staff who will on occasion do some driving for them in particular situations".

It also showed bishops had an average local expenses spend of £36,976, and their average spend on meetings and hospitality was £3,200.

However, in 2019, for a pre-Covid-19 comparison, average local spend was £53,446, and average spend on meetings and hospitality was £15,238. 

The last time similar data was published was in 2015. At the time, it found that the average annual cost of the ongoing maintenance of bishops’ houses was £61,079 per house, that 26 bishops lived in houses with more than six bedrooms, and that 11 bishops had drivers (four of whom also acted as gardeners) at a total cost of £207,400 per year.

Responding to the latest data, Mr Margrave said: "As a member of General Synod for over a decade I have questioned the cost of bishops’ lavish lifestyles, and opulence at the top while parishes up and down the country struggle to meet their bills, and even close their door.

"Parishes are having to find the Parish Share which is a tax on local Churches, some of which goes to the national church. 

"The Church of England as things currently stand is in danger of being one of the country’s largest pyramid schemes. 

"If we are to maintain a presence in every community and have a bias to the poor, we need to change the way money is shared out … Bishops should be helping the poor, not helping themselves."

He added: "No one needs to live in a £2 million house. There are plenty of large houses in every diocese near an estate church. It’s time bishops got out into the real world and stopped living like Kings or Queens while the Church of England goes bankrupt."

In response to Mr Margrave’s question submitted ahead of General Synod, Dr Eve Poole, Third Church Estates Commissioner, said: "This question has not been asked since 2015 so we are grateful for its timeliness: in the light of Transforming Effectiveness, we are currently working with bishops to review episcopal costs, so we invite members of Synod to contact the Secretary of the Bishoprics and Cathedrals Committee with any views they may have on this subject."

She added that Church Commissioners are required to provide a house for a diocesan bishop which is "reasonably suitable for the purpose", and that their stipends and support for their ministry is paid as per the requirements of the Episcopal Endowments and Stipends Measure 1943. 

"Bishops’ expenses are effectively delegated through the block grant process, so individual queries would need to be taken up with bishops directly," she added.

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