Wednesday 18 December 2013


Read this. (Click on it, I mean.)

My shortest post.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Filthy Lucre

Someone asked me: 'so how are Catholic Clergy paid, then?'

Well, there are many different answers to that. Some dioceses collect in all the various myriad methods of income and pay each priest a salary. That makes things very easy for filling in a tax return.

My diocese, like many others, sticks to the ancient system, which is mostly governed by custom. The priest is guaranteed his board and lodging, which (within reason) can be paid for directly from the parish account. We are allotted a weekly sum for our food, for which we do not need to present receipts; the figure, however, has not changed since at least 1995, despite all the inflation since then. This, I gather, is an Inland Revenue stipulation, not the diocese's. Inevitably, a lot of that figure goes on entertaining; people help themselves generally to coffee, milk, biscuits &c on a daily basis, and this is very hard to quantify as generally parishioners on business share the presbytery kitchen with me.

We have to buy our own car, but receive 45p/mile to run it on parish business.

Then there comes private income. Well, this can vary substantially according to the parish we serve. One source is the system of Mass stipends. This is a bit like the mediæval chantry system; basically, you pay a priest to celebrate Mass for the intention you direct. The idea originally was that the sum should keep a priest for a day. Of course these days the sum is usually a token, and I know of no priest who would refuse to say Mass for someone who couldn't pay (if he were to refuse, it would be very redolent of simony, I think). Some priests refuse Mass stipends altogether, a position I have some sympathy with, though in parishes where the other forms of income are lacking or low, (especially where the Church is under pressure for one reason or another) they can be a lifeline.

After this, there are 'stole fees'. There are no charges for the sacraments, but it is customary to make an offering to the priest or deacon who officiates at weddings, baptisms and funerals. Generally speaking he may spend quite some time on each service, with the preparation &c, and this may be reflected in the offering. No figure is specified; it is left to the generosity or resources of the individual to decide.

The other source of income (and the largest) is the two collections at Christmas and Easter. Instead of going into parish funds, the collection taken at Mass is divided among the priests of the parish. This does not include the money paid by standing order, which goes to the parish as usual (I'm not sure people know that), nor the money recovered from Gift Aid (since individual priests are not charities).

So you will understand that working things out for the annual tax return is not much fun, especially if the individual struggles with numbers as I do. The government even require us to estimate the second-hand value of the furniture in the presbytery and tax us on it.

In this country, deacons are not paid at all, other than their stole fees. They do it all for the love of God. And I think their reward will be great in heaven.

That's how it works, folks.


I cannot tell you how glad I am to have the return of Fr Hunwicke, now unquestionably my brother and priest, to the blogosphere. I'm well aware that his calm logical style will not be to everyone's taste, but his simple rational ability to cut through the crap (forgive me!) is just what we need right now. His most recent post on the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate is one of his best. Euge!

Friday 13 December 2013


Today I had a funeral; the deceased (please say a prayer for her) was not practising for many years, nor were her relatives and friends, so the service was in the Crematorium. That was a feature on its own, because the minister who preceded me exceeded his allotted time unapologetically and truncated what I could offer to the deceased lady and her loved ones.

However, some things occurred which interested me. The first was a comment from an undertaker who had had to deal with the preceding service. He is a nice guy, and we chatted about the services at which he assisted. He remarked that he had no time for clergy who stuck their noses into a book and simply read things out; 'I would like to think that my loved ones wouldn't simply have rehashed material' he said; 'I would like to think that this was the first and last time that something had been heard'. I pointed out that I was actually required to perform the rites of the Church, but he wasn't impressed. No good; I don't think we'll be doing his funeral.

Our conversation (it was quite protracted, because the service beforehand was seriously overrunning) then went on to secularist/humanist services. We talked about the fact that secularist service officiants could simply set themselves up as officiants without any training or expertise. He commented that there was a lady locally who set herself up as something of the sort, and also offered training for 'secular' officiants; she charges £600 for the course and is coining it, apparently. The undertaker told me that he would never employ this lady himself for any sort of a funeral; apparently her 'services' are dire beyond belief (no pun intended).

Another common feature these days is clergy who have obtained ordination from some source or another and set themselves up as funeral officiants. Their ordination comes from 'Old Catholic' sources, or 'Liberal Catholic' sources, none in communion with the Catholic Church or indeed with the Church of England or any other mainstream Christian Communion. But these 'clergy' make a nice living at funerals, and are a serious threat to the Church of England clergy. These days the Church Commissioners of the Church of England decree a fee of £160 plus for a funeral: in the past I and most priests have simply said to undertakers who are perplexed by our reluctance to charge a specific fee for a service, 'give us what the Church of England specify'. But £160 seems excessive to most of us, and we generally, in high embarrassment, suggest to the undertakers some lower figure. But not these 'vagi' (vagus=wandering, unattached, cleric) who, having obtained some sort of ordination from once source or another, make a rare old living locally, and no doubt elsewhere in the country. These people are less of a threat to us, though it is not unknown for them to contact the undertaker firms introducing themselves as 'Catholic priests'; we had a case locally, where the Dean had to intervene. Pressed, these vagi will confirm that they are 'independent Catholic priests', but to an undertaker who is having difficulty finding a priest or deacon for a family who won't notice the difference…… And there are lots of these guys around, it seems.

This vagus situation bites particularly hard for the Anglicans who, when in active ministry, are required to hand over all stipends to the Church Commissioners in exchange for their salary. Anyone else (including us Catholics) can simply trouser the fee*. So to see these vagi, ordained by strange wandering bishops, hoovering up their parishioners for a fat fee, when they themselves would have received nothing for the service adds to the sense of annoyance. And it would seem that the word is getting around that this is a lucrative market. And, presumably, as the number of services reaching Anglican clergy declines, the Church Commissioners will be required to put the fees up again simply to try and break even.

The undertaker I was speaking to today commented 'there aren't enough funerals to go around for all the clergy these days!'

*—in our case because we are not salaried at all; our income comes from such sources as these.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Dumbing down

I don't know if anyone else saw that programme on BBC4 this week, Byzantium, a tale of three cities. It was pretty disappointing, so don't rush to see the next episode. When one considers how much they pay to make these programmes, it staggers me that they do not set aside a little bit of the budget to employ someone to make sure they get their historical facts right. I suppose that what they are trying to do is make a good story, so why let facts get in their way? Perhaps it is because they employ scriptwriters to write these things, not historians. A historian would have been able to help a scriptwriter negotiate the sweep of history with greater accuracy, dismissing nutcases or distracting minor stories and helping the larger picture appear.

I don't think there were any actual nutcases in the programme, but there were annoying distractions, such as the guy with a private theory about having discovered Constantine's real tomb, which he identified on the grounds of it having peg holes drilled into the sides (because we know that Constantine's tomb had hangings around it) and a labarum (the Chi-Rho) on a gable end. That's pretty thin evidence; I'm sure more than Constantine's tomb had hangings, and after his time the labarum was in common use.

The two egregious errors that annoyed me most were the definition of Arianism (which Simon Sebag Montefiore pronounced 'arrianism') as being a heresy that said that Jesus was a mere human being, and the assertion that Constantine was converted to Christianity at the battle of the Milvian bridge.

The latter error may, perhaps, be forgiven: it is a common view, and I think that both Eusebius and Lactantius (our main sources for that episode) wanted to create that impression with their accounts. But the evidence paints a much more interesting picture.

Nobody doubts that Constantine died a Christian. He was baptized (by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, as it happens) on his deathbed. But what happened between the Milvian Bridge and his baptism is not straightforward. Only a short while before the battle, he had had, in Autun, a vision not of Christ, but of Apollo. His coinage for the next ten years carried an inscription of devotion to the sun God (identified with Apollo) soli invicto comiti. Though the Edict of Milan (whose 1700th anniversary we celebrate this year) expressly ended persecution of Christianity, Constantine did not identify himself with it for many years. There seems to have been a sort of syncretistic policy followed of devotion to the 'Summus Deus': a notion of divinity that leaves the individual believer to fill in the blanks according to his own taste. 'We all worship the Highest God; you may call him Christ, I'll call him Apollo.'

Some historians point to the fact that the Chi-Rho / labarum was never used by Christians before Constantine's time. The labarum, not a simple cross, seems to have been the sign that he saw in the sky before the battle; some have suggested that in fact the labarum is a sign of Apollo. But the CH+R can certainly be made to suggest 'Christ', especially if you aren't worried about blurring the two a little.

In the cemetery which lies under St Peter's Basilica in Rome, there is a tomb which is without doubt Christian. In that tomb is a mosaic which would appear to show Christ—but is it Christ? It shows a bright charioteer, which is usually our representation of Apollo. Was there a deliberate policy of identifying Christ and Apollo in those early days of Constantine?

And, more intriguingly, was this the way that Constantine was induced to adopt the Christian faith? And if that is so, then who did the inducing? Who led him from a paganism sympathetic to Christianity to a wholehearted profession of the faith? My money is on a shadowy figure called Hosius of Cordoba. He was with Constantine from at least the Milvian Bridge to after Nicæa as, effectively his closest religious adviser. It was he, probably, who came up with the word 'Homoousios' at Nicæa, and thereby solved one problem and created others. He was to live on to over a hundred years old, being probably tortured into signing an Arian creed in extreme old age.

Can we honestly say that in fact a sort of syncretistic gradualism, or even dumbing down, was used to lead Constantine slowly into the faith? Well, maybe.

Let's go back to that porphyry supposed tomb of Constantine. The significance of that labarum which was on the gable end was missed by the programme. It was set into the loop of an Egyptian Ankh, the symbol of life. The ankh is known to have been used by Christians for a while: you can find it called the Coptic Cross or crux ansata, but it leads me to wonder whether there was more syncretism going on in those days than we might find comfortable. The picture shows a Christian ankh, with an ordinary cross in the loop rather than a labarum.

And here is another thought. It is becoming increasingly clear that, improbably, Celtic Christianity owes a great deal to Egyptian Christianity. Could this perhaps be the source of the famous celtic cross?

I could probably go on, but I must go and do a wedding. Pray for Lisa and Mark, please.