Has the Bishop of Norwich a £7m slush fund?

The Bishop of Norwich controls a charity with minimal oversight and scant reporting, can it truly be for the Public’s Benefit?

Did you see this article?

“W.Va. bishop gave powerful cardinals and other priests $350,000 in cash gifts before his ouster, church records show”

Here in the UK we might have a similar situation (well, just the cash gifts); step forward the Bishop of Norwich and his Anne French Memorial Trust. In just the last two reported years he has dispensed £347,014 ($435,190) to individual members of the clergy without identifying them or providing explanation, is that ok?

The Anne French Memorial Trust was set up under the will of Brigadier Frederick French in 1963 and registered as an official charity in 1969. The 2018 financial statement shows funds of £7,115,655 available, it also lists just one trustee — The Bishop of Norwich — and that grant applications are “individually considered and approved by the Bishop”. So just one person decided what will be spent, for what purpose and oversaw it himself.

Are there restrictions on what the money can be spent on? The charitable explanations are wide open:

Aims & activities

Grants for charitable purposes within the Diocese of Norwich with focus on the support and training of the clergy, support for certain activities of the Norwich Diocesan Board of Finance and other Norfolk charities.

While the Charitable Objects are looser still:

FOR ANY CHARITABLE PURPOSES WHATSOEVER WITHIN THE DIOCESE OF NORWICH.

The Public Benefit statement is also frustratingly vague and makes no attempt to justify why the trust should be a charity:

Public Benefit

The Trustee has had regard to the Charity Commission’s guidance on public benefit and the supplementary guidance for religious charities.

The Trust makes grants for a wide range of charitable purposes in the area of Norfolk and North Suffolk covered by the Diocese of Norwich.

So how much money has been handed out and on what? Over the last five years £2,350,280 has been given and while some recipients are clearly identified (£760,200 to the Diocesan Mission Fund and £50,000 to the Priscilla Bacon hospice) a large proportion (£1,034,247) is listed simply as “Disbursements by the Bishop”, what might they be?

The Disbursements are broken down into a few maddeningly vague line items. For example grants to ‘Non-clergy’ just list ‘Norwich Charities’ and ‘Norfolk charities’ as recipients but the grants to Clergy Support, Youth Training, Clergy Training, Building Maintenance and the intriguing ‘Diocesan Expenses’ are completely obscure.

“Support to Clergy — General” is £90,000 over 5 years, for what?

“Support to clergy — Holidays” is £153,000 over five years, an average of £30,000 a year. HOLIDAYS?! Is this one very expensive holiday or 1,000 camping trips? It doesn’t say.

It goes on:

“Training of clergy - General” is £61,700, again no explanation given.

“Building maintenance — Granary Court” £25,029 over five years requires no explanation as Granary Court is where the Bishop lives. But should he write grant cheques to make his own home more comfortable? He gave less than half that sum to “Building maintenance — churches” over the same period.

A last item of concern? The vague “Diocesan Expenses” which was running at £4,000 a year until 2017 when it jumped to £18,195 then rocketed to £47,057 in 2018. What is the reasoning and actual expenditure behind that increase? No explanation.

All these listed grants were made by the Rt Rev Graham James who retired as the Bishop of Norwich in Novermber 2018, were some a last wild flourish of the cheque book before he retired to Cornwall? Possibly; under Disbursements there are not enough details to know what he was thinking but for the grant to the Priscilla Bacon Hospice we can see the reasoning, it’s where his wife worked.

Will we see changes to the transparency of this charity in the future? I hope so but amid signs of change I’m not too confident.

In May 2019 a new Bishop of Norwich was chosen, the Rt Revd Graham Usher and the Trust has been given two new trustees, Steven James Betts and John Stuart Jones. Will they provide better oversight and control? Given they are respectively the Archdeacon of Norfolk and Registrar of the Diocese and therefore both work for the Bishop it’s not a good sign. Government advice for trustee appointments state:

Aim for a minimum of three unconnected trustees with a good range of skills. You need enough trustees to govern the charity effectively.

So the updated oversight still falls far short of meeting the recommended requirements.

A £7m fund at the gift of an individual with limited oversight and vague reporting, weak aims and effectively no Charitable Objects is hard to justify as being for the Public Benefit and a poor example of how to run a charity. There’s no reason to suggest any unlawful behaviour but the lack of transparency obviously raises serious concerns.

Time for the Charity Commission to investigate?

Anne French Memorial Trust figures from 2014–2018

Father, husband, work in technology, dabble in secularism.