Suffolk churches are facing a Covid crisis
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In a frank interview Church of England bishop Martin Seeley talks to our reporter James Marston
Suffolk’s senior clerics are set to ask for £500,000 in donations to help plug a £1million Covid cash shortfall and ensure the church can carry on serving the county’s hardest hit communities, it has been announced.
Bishop Martin Seeley and bishop Mike Harrison are writing to 1,000 “Suffolk saints” to ask for their help in supporting clergy and congregations in the most deprived parts of the county.
Bishop Martin, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, said the Church of England diocese – an area which includes most of Suffolk’s 450 or so parishes – is facing a funding shortfall due to Covid-19.
He said: “We have worked hard these past five years to make our finances sustainable in the long term and turn a deficit into a modest surplus but, as a result of Covid-19 we are now facing un unprecedented deficit of £1.6million this year and likely a similar sum next.
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The bishop who is the leader of the diocese’s 150 strong clergy, said the church commissioners, which manages the historic assets of the national Church of England, have stepped in offering a grant of £600,000 to the diocese, reducing the funding shortfall to £1million.
Bishop Martin added: “Every church in the county essentially has to support itself, paying for their clergy as well as maintaining the worship and outreach activity and buildings.
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“Through these last eight months, we have seen the network of clergy and congregations across Suffolk respond with incredible speed and generosity to the needs of their communities. It is these very churches in communities of greatest need in Suffolk that are hardest hit, losing income from events, hall bookings and individuals.”
Bishop Martin, who was consecrated Bishop in 2015, said the diocese finances, which had historically been kept afloat by the sale of clergy housing, had improved in recent years. He said: “We had recently made a surplus without having to sell vicarages. I do not think we are back to square one as we now have the financial foundations in place.”
The bishop also said he had no intention of closing churches or reducing clergy numbers.
He added: “I cannot see how we can sustain the life of the church in Suffolk with fewer clergy than we have, and closing churches isn’t the answer. We are committed to maintaining a presence in every community, and we have seen over these last months how vital this has been. This is why we are asking friends of the church and of the diocese for help.”
The bishop said the diocese hopes to raise some of the cash by Christmas to help churches continue to serve communities over the winter period.
He added: “I have visited churches and communities across the county in recent weeks and I am encouraged by the work I have seen that is going on. This year people have shown that Suffolk is a place which understands life is about other people rather than simply looking out for ourselves. It is a measure of our faith that we love God and love our neighbour.”
Bishop Martin, who has spoken publicly of his disappointment at the closure of churches in lockdown two, said statistical evidence from internet searches suggested the Covid pandemic had inspired people to ask questions about faith and spirituality in recent months.
He added: “People across Suffolk have responded to online church and they are participating in new ways”.
“People who want to find out more can do so without having to cross a threshold. I think when things we are used to and familiar with a stripped away we look at what’s left and ask questions about our lives and about God. The experience of faith sustains and encourages people with a sense of purpose and that enables people to live through these strange times.”
The church during Covid
The Bishop of Dunwich, Mike Harrison, said the church in Suffolk had responded to the Covid pandemic with a wide variety of measures to support communities and those most in need.
He added: “During lockdown churches across the county have been working hard to support their communities, with food banks and pop-up shops, telephone trees for care and support, food parcel deliveries, prescription collections, meal services, as well as a range of pastoral care to the sick, lonely and struggling.
“However without regular services, churches and service collections churches across the county have taken a considerable financial hit.