Here we go again. I don’t often lose my temper, but this morning I nearly did.

The Church of England Newspaper (which hardly represents the Church of England) today has a scandalised headline that states: ‘Bishops expenses rise by millions since recession’. The ensuing article goes on to claim that ‘the news has riled clergy who believe the church is too top heavy and that resources should be distributed to support more mission and pastoral work for those “doing the ground work”.’ (‘Riled’? Really? How? And which clergy? How many? Who?)

Let’s take a moment’s silence while we try to hide our collective embarrassment at this hopelessly poor bit of ‘reporting’. Consider the following:

  • Recognising that the 2009 costs were hundreds of thousands of pounds lower than in 2008 (a good thing or not?), the profligate bishops cost more than they did in 2007! Funnily enough, they also cost more than they did in 1995 or 2002. What has that got to do with ‘the recession’?
  • The use of the word ‘expenses’ is wilfully misleading. The vast bulk of bishops’ expenditure goes on salaries for staff and the costs of running a functioning office. Why does a bishop run an office? For the sake of his own personal gratification or entertainment? No. In order to serve the clergy and parishes of his diocese as best he can.
  • A union officer shows staggering ignorance when she states: “More questions need to be asked about why there are these huge increases when clergy are not experiencing the same increases”. Er… that is breathtakingly inept. This year’s reduction is now ‘a huge increase’? Does she think this refers to a bishop’s income over against a vicar’s income? If anything, more questions need to be asked about why this union officer appears not to know the business of her core client.
  • A Church Society spokesman complains about “rising bureaucracy in the Church’s hierarchy” – without saying what this so-called bureaucracy involves. Might it have to do with the massive increase in legislation and legal responsibilities now lying at the bishops’ door? Does he think bishops live for bureaucracy. Not having heard of the ninth Commandment, he doesn’t even say to what he refers. What price facts?
  • The chairman of Reform admits he doesn’t know what the figures mean, but that doesn’t stop him joining in the whinge.

Now, forgive me for being over-sensitive here, but where does reality intrude into this nonsense? The entire report basically says that costs have gone down this year, but have gone up in past years – without congratulating the bishops (or the Church Commissioners) for reducing costs in the face of increasing demands (legal and financial – such as pension costs of staff). That would be inconvenient, wouldn’t it?

Here are some facts from one minor bishop:

  • Suffragan bishops are housed by the diocese, not the Church Commissioners. That is the only cost on the diocese. We don’t live in ‘palaces’, but in houses that should be fit for purpose. Mine is excellent – it used to be a vicarage.
  • Bishops are not paid by their diocese, but by the Church Commissioners. There is not a necessary correlation between finances available for bishops and diocesan clergy. Or would we prefer bishops’ costs to be borne directly by the dioceses? (Some would say ‘yes’ – but they need to check the realities before concluding.)
  • Many of us don’t spend our allocated ‘expenses of office’ because we are careful with them. At the end of October I have nearly £7,000 in my account; I will not find things to spend it on in order not to lose it (as someone recently suggested bishops do) and I will lose it at the end of the year and that is right. I am not alone.
  • Bishops cover wide distances in the exercise of their ministry and are leased a car (if they wish) for that purpose.
  • The last time I looked, bishops were involved in ‘mission and pastoral work on the ground’. What else are we supposed to be doing – often under great pressure and at some personal cost? What do they think motivates a bishop?

What do the people who write this stuff think we do all day? Do they think we swan around in purple being grand and remote? Do they know anything about the reality of a bishop’s life, diary or ministry? Do they ever check facts before exposing their prejudices?

Being a bishop is a privilege. The bishop’s fundamental role is to enable the clergy, parishes and institutions to do their ministry and mission in their parishes – resourcing, encouraging, leading and supporting. To do this well comes at cost. If it is to be done differently (which might be right), then we need to work out what it would cost… which might be more than financial.

Over-sensitive, I may be. Unwise to write it out like this – possibly. But, this stuff shouldn’t go unchallenged – and I haven’t seen anyone else challenge it yet.