By the REV. MERVYN STOCKWOOD
THE country is faced with a large-scale closure of churches. The effects are already noticeable in rural areas and some industrial cities. Villages which for centuries have had their own parish priests are having to share them, while in towns like Bristol and Liverpool -some congregations are dependent upon occasional visits of peripatetic parsons. The position is sufficiently serious to demand the attention of all who have the welfare of the nation at heart, whether or not they owe allegiance to the Church.
Quite apart from doctrinal instruction and religious services, the churches have done much for which the country should be grateful. They have been pioneers in education, hospital-build- ing, youth work and philanthropic enterprises. Life in the east ends of our cities may have been drab and squalid, but genera- tions of devoted clergy have striven to mitigate the gloom and poverty. Now the parson is leaving the scene and the cultural and spiritual influence of the Church is dwindling. The boys' club, the football team, the old folks' social centre and the even- ing classes which brought pleasure and enlightenment to thou- sands who otherwise would have roamed the streets, are closing down. It is true that the State is often bridging the gap with its elaborate and well-equipped institutions, but it can never provide a substitute for the homely club which centred around a parson who lived among his people and knew them by their Christian names.
At the outbreak of the First World War the Church of England had 22,000 clergy • today it has 13,000 ; in 1960 the figure will be less than 10,000. In fact, within ten years the Church will have the same-sized staff as it had at the beginning of the eighteenth century when the population was considerably less than 10,000,000. But statistics are impersonal, and are apt to be .curtly dismissed ; that is why the figures given by the ecclesiastical authorities in recent months have caused little stir. The position, however, is different when people discover that the church-door is locked and the vicarage is empty.
They have taken parson and building for granted and imagined that both belonged to an eternal order. It comes as a shock to find that they are no longer available ; that the chancel steps and font at which generations of parishioners have been married and baptised are in disuse ; that the clubs and youth organisations have written their obituary notice ; that the clergyman whose advice and help were sought by many in times of domestic emer- gency.is no longer at .his study desk. As I write I have such a parish in mind. The church was sparsely attended and the bishop was compelled to issue a closure order. Large protest meetings were organised and urgent requests were addressed to the diocesan authorities. Financial assistance was promised ; but it was too little and too late.
The root cause of the trouble is the inadequacy of the parson's pay. Until a clergynian receives a reasonable salary the priest- hood will continue to dwindle. An ordination candidate has to find £1,200 for his training. If he is intellectually able, he will win a scholarship, and the Church will help with grants. When he leaves the university,and reverses his collar his weekly wage is likely to be less than £5. As the years pass there will be small increments, and when the curate becomes a vicar the stipend will be between £350-£500. There are, of course, exceptions. Some livings are worth as little as £200 ; others run into four figures ; the average is £450. With this sum he is required to maintain and educate his family, meet the many demands made upon his pockets and keep his house and garden in repair.
It is true that he is given a house for which he pays no rent, but rates, taxes and ecclesiastical dues will amount to £2 a week. Moreover, it is not usually recognised that the expenses of office, which in commercial concerns are met by the firm, are normally paid by the parson himself. He is asked to visit hospitals, com- manding officers, law courts, but he has to pay the bill. He has a large correspondence, but he is responsible for the stamp and telephone accounts. In many instances a car is indispensable, but he receives no motoring allowance. He is expected to keep open house, but there is no hospitality concession. It must not be supposed that the parson resents the calls which are made upon him. It is his duty to put' himself at the disposal of his people, and he accounts it a privilege ; but he complains that the job, if properly done, leads to bankruptcy.
If the priest is a bachelor he is relieved of embarrassment. He has no family obligations, and he can probably find a little time to supplement his income by writing and broadcasting. But the Church of England does not believe in enforced celibacy. A clergyman has the right to a _ home of his own, and most parishioners prefer a family in the vicarage. In the circum- stances it is not surprising that young men are holding back from ordination. They do not wish luxury ; they are content to live simply ; but they hesitate to embrace a profession which is rarely free from financial anxiety.
This country, which prides itself on its Christian heritage, must make up its mind whether it wants a Church. If it refuses. to take adequate steps, it must be prepared for the consequences. It believes in education, so it pays for schools and teachers ; it believes in health, so it pays for hospitals and doctors ; if it believes in the Christian religion it must pay for the plant and the men. If it does not believe in it, let it honestly say so, and admit that in the struggle between Christianity and atheistic materialism it intends to do nothing to support the former.
In Switzerland the problem has been solved by a voluntary tax. A man who expects the services of the Church is liable to a small tax, about ten shillings in five hundred pounds. He can contract out, but in doing so he renounces all rightS to the Church, including baptisms, marriages and funerals. Thus the consciences of atheists and agnostics are safeguarded. And there are no denominational difficulties because each tax-payer states his particular preference. The argument on which the tax is based is that people who expeot buildings and parsons to be at their disposal must help to maintain both. I hope that Parlia- ment will have the courage to introduce similar legislation here. If the country requires the Church, it must provide a sound financial basis for it.
Meanwhile there must be temporary measures. Until the salaries of the clergy are raised the Church must free its ministers to supplement their incomes in the professional, industrial and commercial world. The parochial system will suffer, and parishioners must accustom themselves to a part-time ministry and to a reduced programme. But the gains, even though they may not outweigh the losses, will be considerable. A priesthood which is rooted in the secular life of. the nation will give new life to the Church and bring to parson and people a healthier relationship. There are many reasons for the drift from religion ; one of them is the gulf which separates the clergy and the laity. When both find themselves engaged in a common task, there is a chance of a reciprocal understanding. In France suitable people on both sides of industry are being ordained. They remain at their posts and look upon the factory and the office as their parish. In this way the Church is being brought to the people and the people to the Church. I would welcome a similar development in England, and I am glad that the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently permitted two of his clergy to work in a coal-mine. It will give them a fresh approach ; it will help the miners to look at the Church in a new light ; and it is possible that a virile Christian community will establish itself in the mine.
Even so, there will always be a need for some full-time parsons, and these must be adequately trained and paid. Moreover, the cathedrals and parish churches, which are the glory of our countryside, must be maintained. And similar help must be given to other denominations. We still boast an Established Church. The State, in spite of a popular fallacy, does not con- tribute a penny. I ask no preferential treatment for the Church of England, but I state, without fear of contradiction, that unless Parliament faces the problems realistically, all denominations will find their establishments so drastically reduced that the spiritual life of Britain will suffer irreparable damage.