Church of England bishops should be forced to declare extra earnings and outside interests, according to radical proposals submitted to the church’s general assembly.
The call for bishops to state any income on top of their salaries and membership of clubs, organisations and political parties on a register of interests comes amid growing concern over cronyism and conflicts of interest at the heart of government.
“We know that relationships and interests that people in public office have can impact on decisions made behind closed doors,” said Sam Margrave, an academic and lay member of the synod who has tabled the proposals.
“Many senior people in the C of E hold their copy of Machiavelli close while leaving their bible on the bookshelf,” Margrave added. Niccolò Machiavelli was the author of The Prince, a 16th-century guide to the dark arts of politics.
Margrave wanted to “kickstart a debate on how we can rebuild trust in the church”, he said. “I think there is a lot of appetite for being more open, particularly among a new generation of clergy and laity.” The church “can’t afford any more skeletons hidden away”.
He is also calling for bishops’ salaries to be cut, to match the pay of parish priests. “At the moment, with bishops earning more money, it suggests they do more work than parish priests. It reinforces ‘God syndrome’ within the church.”
The C of E’s 42 diocesan bishops are paid just over £46,000 a year, compared to a parish priest’s stipend of £27,000. All clergy get free housing, with some bishops living in historic palaces or other heritage properties. “I would go as far as to move bishops out of their palaces,” said Margrave.
His proposals come amid anxiety about the consequences of the C of E’s cash crisis as a result of the Covid pandemic. Clergy pay has been frozen and some dioceses are planning to reduce the number of paid parish posts – even though the church has almost £9bn in assets.
Margrave is also demanding the C of E should be legally obliged to respond to freedom of information requests “to ensure accountability, transparency and trust in the established church”.
He said: “The church has a huge culture problem. Even now, we have to be honest about our historical crimes [regarding child sexual abuse] … One way to address these issues to allow the public and the press to find out how decisions are made, to then be able to hold people to account.”
Margrave’s three private member’s motions are included on the agenda for next weekend’s remote meeting of the synod. He said he hoped to gather the required 100 signatures to allow the motions to be debated later this year.
A C of E spokesperson declined to comment.