The Bishop of Derry and Raphoe has complimented elected members and staff of the Representative Church Body (RCB), without whom—he said—parishes and dioceses risked exhaustion and exasperation in the coming years because of the increasing demands of compliance and reporting.
Rt Rev Ken Good was seconding the report of the Representative Church Body on the second day of business at the General Synod Londonderry.
Presenting the report, Henry Saville, highlighted the services offered by Church House including support for property transactions, administration of trusts, investment management, treasury management, payment of (some) clergy stipends, administration of the Clergy Pension Fund and payment of pensions, provision of legal support and library.
In addition, he said there was a degree of cross-over between the trustee body and Standing Committee, and said particular support had been developed and provided in the areas of charity legislation and safeguarding.
Mr Saville said that all the activities required a strong and effective management team, incorporating in particular, financial management.
Mr Saville said that, unlike preceding years, the executive reported a decrease in total balances on General Funds for the year 2018. But, he said, a historic inability to live within our means had been brought more under control last year and was forecast to remain so in 2019.
“Whilst the excess withdrawal in 2018 was significant, much of this was due to the exceptional item of €3.35m relating to the closure of the Staff Defined Benefit Pension scheme. The outturn before that exceptional item was an excess withdrawal of some €60,000, a reduction of €500,000 from the prior year,” he said.
The reasons for this improvement were a reduction of cost of operations and allocations of almost €300,000 and an increase of incoming resources of over €200,000.
He made the point that the reduction in allocations was a movement in the wrong direction. “One of our objectives must surely be to attain a level of financial resilience and performance to create the opportunity for a growth in allocations,” Mr Saville stated.
The budget outturn for 2019 projected a small surplus of permitted withdrawals over cost of operations and allocations, he said, adding that within that there was a continuing squeeze on the total allocations figure which he reiterated must be a priority to reverse.
For the first time in some years the value of total general invested funds fell from a total of €184.4 million at 31 December 2017 to €167.7 million at 31 December 2018, Mr Saville reported.
The last quarter of 2018 was a very difficult period for equity investments, he said. RB portfolios were positioned defensively but were still hit hard. The funds have recovered strongly over the first quarter of 2019 reaching a figure of €178.7 million by 31 March 2019. He said the investment market continued to be volatile, partly reflecting an uncertain economic outlook globally and more particularly local (i.e. European in its broadest sense) political uncertainty and the knock–on effects.
Environmental, social and governance issues continued to feature in the management of the investment portfolio. There was a continued investment in new green initiatives including a number of renewable energy projects as well as divesting elements within the fossil fuel sector.
Mr Saville said that an important development this year was the digitisation of trusts project. The benefits included security of legal records, accessibility and increased efficiency and long-term cost savings.
Mr Saville paid tribute to the Head of Property & Trusts, Mr Trevor Stacey, who is retiring this month after 45 years working in Church House.
In relation to the closure of the Staff Defined Benefit Pension Scheme, he said there had been extensive engagements with members of the scheme and their representatives and agreement was reached in March 2019. He thanked the members of the scheme for their positive and professional approach.
He acknowledged the dedication of all the staff of the RB in conduct of their professional delivery of services.
BISHOP GOOD SECONDS REPORT
Seconding the report, Bishop Good said he was pleased to address Synod before his retirement to express his appreciation to the RCB for the great work its elected members and staff do.
Bishop Good recalled the history of the RCB which was formed soon after disestablishment and given the onerous responsibility of holding and safeguarding the financial and property assets of the Church. In 1870 the RB became the charitable trustee for the parishes and dioceses of the island of Ireland. He said that the RCB’s role had evolved considerably to provide services to the wider church.
“This service role will become even more important as the Church of Ireland looks to the next 50 years. Why do I say this? Because, as Mr. Saville has noted, the statutory burden of compliance and the heavy demands of reporting are increasing all the time so that—without a central service to support us—we risk exhaustion and exasperation at ‘reinventing the wheel’ again and again at a parish and a diocesan level,” the Bishop said.
Bishop Good wondered how the RB could determine what services would be needed. “I would suggest that RB staff should continue to do what they are already doing: engaging with and listening to—and maybe even visiting—rectors, Select Vestry members, diocesan secretaries and even bishops. We were all appreciative of the fact that, in recent years, RB staff had held seminars around the country providing pension advice, GDPR advice and Safeguarding advice. These initiatives had been much appreciated. By meeting with and listening to the needs of parishes, the RB was able to determine what services were most needed to reduce the burden that parishes were facing in relation to compliance, regulation and reporting,” he said.
Bishop Good illustrated the relationship between the mission of the church and the service of the RB with reference to city walls – not the walls of Derry-Londonderry but the walls of Jerusalem during Nehemiah’s reign. He said that Nehemiah was given permission by King Artaxerxes to rebuild the wall of the city and given resources. But he said it was not the resources that rebuilt the walls, it was the people who were inspired by Nehemiah.
“As I retire after 42 years in ordained ministry, I can confidently say that I have come to appreciate and value a growing unity of purpose between the RB and the Standing Committee,” the Bishop said. “I am struck by a more harmonious working ‘next to’ or ‘alongside’ each other, particularly in recent years, such that parishes and dioceses are being supported by a more cohesive sharing in God’s mission in the church and in the world.”