Perspective: Pennies from Heaven; Religious Affairs Reporter Helen Bruce looks at the clergy's case for a potentially ruinous 50 per cent pay increase.
A campaign to win a pay rise and better working rights for members of the clergy is threatening to bankrupt the Midland dioceses of the Church of England.
Church leaders say there is not enough money in the collection box to fund the 50 per cent pay rise called for by the vicars' union.
Archdeacon of Aston, Birmingham, the Very Rev John Barton believes the demand is insulting both to the clergy and to the congregation members who foot the priests' pounds 16,400 salaries in voluntary donations.
If the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union, which represents 1,500 Church of England clergy in England and Wales, has its way, that wage could rise to pounds 20,000, or pounds 25,000 with an inner city allowance.
That would put vicars on a similar rate as archdeacons, provosts and suffragan bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England's top post, earns pounds 55,660.
'To pay all the clergy the same rate as canons or more would bankrupt the Church overnight,' says Mr Barton.
Vicars are paid a stipendiary wage, intended as a living allowance, which is drawn from contributions made by church goers.
Money for pensions, National Insurance and training must also come from these donations, which are pooled at first at diocesan level and then by the Church Commissioners.
Mr Barton adds: 'In Birmingham in particular, where the average income per person is amongst the lowest in the country, people are giving us almost the highest amount in the country.
'What these union members are really saying is they want lay people to give us more money, that they are not giving enough.'
Vicars' salaries are augmented by free accommodation in the local rectory, as well as a non-contributory pension.
'I have never heard a member of the clergy asking for more,' continues Mr Barton. 'If anybody says remuneration should be gauged by other similar work, then they are devaluing what we do and why.'
Worcester diocesan spokeswoman Nicola Currie adds: 'The funds would have to be found from somewhere, and the responsibility would fall largely on parishioners or mean a reduction in clergy.'
The Worcester diocese's preference is for a rise of just 3.1 per cent, to be rubber stamped at a regional synod meeting on Monday.
The Manufacturing, Science and Finance union (MSF) complains ministers have no security of employment or income under the present system.
The union's campaign included a demand for holiday cover and calls for ministers to be able to buy equity in the church houses they occupy.
'Ministers of the church are committed and professional workers. They should be afforded the status of professional salaried staff and paid accordingly,' says MSF national secretary Chris Ball.
'It is a disgrace that in the second millennium members of the clergy have no employment rights or economic security. It's time for a change.' The union argues that members of the clergy should be paid similar levels as other professionals including teachers and social workers. Its evidence-gathering report states: 'A salary should be seen as a proper reward for hard work, skill, knowledge and professionalism rather than for one's beliefs.
'Other workers expect a salary for the work they do, and clergy should receive one too.'
The pay dispute has come at a high profile time for the Church of England, coinciding with its seventh annual General Synod. Set to conclude today, the opening ceremony at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday was presided over by the Queen, who in 1995 warned the Church it faced 'great challenges'.
The Synod, which votes on and determines church policy, has debated a number of crucial topics over a busy three days.
On the agenda today is the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and the Church's reaction to it, as well as the controversial issue of sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The General Synod, which was created in 1970, was responsible in 1994 for the historic decision to approve the ordination of women.
WHAT SHOULD THEY EARN? Comparison of starting salaries and salaries after three years in the profession
TEACHER: starting salary pounds 16-17,000, rising to pounds 24,000 plus
NURSE: starting salary c.pounds 14,000, rising to pounds 20,000 plus
SOCIAL WORKER (Birmingham City Council): pounds 16,167 rising to pounds 20,364
CHURCH OF ENGLAND VICAR: pounds 16,400 - no increase
RECOMMENDED PAY SCALE WITHIN CHURCH OF ENGLAND
Vicar: pounds 14,680
Residentiary Canons: pounds 20,200
Archdeacons: pounds 24,630
Deans and Provosts: pounds 24,790
Suffragan Bishops: pounds 24,790
Diocesan Bishops: pounds 30,120
Bishop of London: pounds 45,480
Archbishop of York: pounds 48,770
Archbishop of Canterbury: pounds 55,660
Rev Robert Johnson took a substantial cut in salary to become a curate, leaving his career as an industrial chemist general manager when he felt drawn to the Church.
He is now priest in charge of Newtown, one of the poorest parishes in Birmingham. Mr Johnson says his conscience would not allow money to become a motivation for his work.
'I am concerned that people are pretty stretched for cash, and I would feel bad about putting pressure on them to pay more,' he says.
'I'm already probably one of the best paid people in Newtown - most of the people in my church are on income support, family credit, that kind of thing.
'I can see the union's point but I would oppose anything that put me in a totally different income bracket from my parishioners.
'I felt called to work in a place like Newtown, and I think it would be immoral to be so much better off and say, 'God loves you but I'm alright, thanks'.'
Staffordshire vicar Rev Allan Buik and Warwickshire vicar Rev David Capron are more sympathetic to the union's plea. They say money may not be all important but job security is, and both were concerned by a court hearing in 1997 which ruled that vicars were not protected by employment laws because they work for God.
When Rev Alex Coker of Southwark, London tried to take his unfair dismissal claim to an industrial tribunal, Lord Justice Staughton said: 'A minister of religion serves God and his congregation. There is not a contract that he will serve a terrestrial employer in the performance of his duties.'
From his vicarage at Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, Mr Buik says: 'This man was employed by God, but he was not dismissed by God. That concerns me much more than money, even though I might sometimes cast a jealous eye at the salaries of doctors and dentists.'
Mr Capron, of Alcester, says: 'If vicars do not have a freehold, if they are just priests in charge or team vicars they can be shifted about at the drop of a hat. They have no employment rights at all.
'This debate isn't about money, it's about having the same employment rights and consultations on pay as people would get in commerce or the wider industrial world.'