Thursday, 13 June 2013

Privatisation of the Church of England

Clearly in my position I'm privy to a lot of secret stuff. And normally I keep it pretty quiet. But this is dynamite, so I'm going to have to leak it.

Civil Service lawyers have been checking the Act of Supremacy pretty carefully, and they reckon they're on solid ground. And they're setting up for the announcement in the next Queen's Speech, that they're going to float the Church of England on the Stock Market.

Now this is a much-loved institution, woven into the fabric of English history and culture that we're talking about here. So you can't just flog it off. Oh no. First you've got to break it up into dysfunctional parts with tricky commercial relationships. In the case of the C of E, this fundamentally means separating estates, property and operations.

Operations - congregations, dioceses, food banks, street pastors, visiting the sick, weddings and evangelism - are a generally cash-generative division. Each diocese will be floated as a separate company. Since the Government's watchdog, OfMitre, has identified a lack of entrepreneurship as a weakness, congregations on the edge of dioceses will be able to open branches in other companies' areas.

Additionally there will be three national operations. Two will offer services to traditional Anglo-Catholics and  Evangelicals respectively, and their boardrooms- sorry,  Bishops' palaces - will be fitted with special glass ceilings. The third, EasyCleric, will be a no-frills operation, allowing people to know the joy of Church without all that cost of discipleship. In contrast, the Anglo-Catholics will offer a high-frills operation.
Estates - a lot of Church of England real estate is tied up in low-return fixed assets. Or, to put it another way, graves. The job of Godsacre plc will be to scour the graveyards of the country, looking for unused bits that can be flogged off to the developers of executive homes. Where the presence of dead people makes this difficult, the spin-off Church of Entertainment will be developing niche attractions such as wildlife walks, weekend breaks in rectories during interregnums, and ghost hunts.

Godsacre will be looking actively at the reintroduction of bone crypts and ossuaries*; these will free up more prime village development land, formerly known as "churchyards". And the storage fees that will be payable to BildChurch will be returned a hundredfold in real estate values.

Plant - Finally we turn to the loss-making area of buildings. The new not-for-profit organisation, BildChurch, will be responsible for the maintenance of places of worship, and for raising money to keep them standing through the arms-length fundraising organisation, OfTherm.

BildChurch will be trying to charge a market rent for these buildings. Although in the short term this may result in a number of branch closures, there will be a welcome cash boost when any spare capacity is sold off to the Godsacre company. This rationalisation will also generate a number of high-end country properties which can all be sold to new holding company, Old Rectories plc.

In a complete lack-of-monopoly like the British religious world, there is no real need for an Ombudsman or oversight board. But you've got to find jobs for the right sorts of people. So the HouseBish organisation will be responsible for ensuring that the new church companies are charging reasonable fees for weddings, and not engaging in uncompetitive practices with respect to funerals.

Floating the Church of England brings with it some risks. Concerns have been raised that, after privatisation, the British water and power companies ended up in foreign ownership. Already it is believed that an Italian operation may be interested in taking over some branches. American churches may be interested in some more profitable evangelical congregations. And Richard  Branson has indicated that, given sufficient State subsidy, he will be able to guarantee three-hour conversions. It's going to be an exciting new world.

(Late edit: It would appear that Eccles got a whiff of this last year. Albeit he missed out on the organisational details above. Truly nothing new under the sun, and of the writing of satire there is no end.)

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