Freehold in freefall

Jonathan Redvers Harris on the English Clergy Association

 

Serving the people and their parishes’ sums up the work of what was previously the Parochial Clergy Association, founded in 1938 by Edward Courtman when the glebe was under threat. Its aims were revised in the early Nineties and the English Clergy Association now exists to support all clerics in the Church of England, to uphold the parson’s freehold, to oppose unnecessary bureaucracy, to monitor legislative changes, and to promote the good of parochial life and welfare of the clergy – not least through our Benefit Fund which makes clergy holiday grants.

We see ourselves as complementing the work of the clergy and church workers section of Amicus, the trade union, and our core membership of what is, in part, a professional association, comprises several hundred clerics of the Church of England, but we are open to all Anglicans of the British Isles, including laypeople.

Work in recent years has in particular focused on churchwardens (for whom we have produced a guide for use in a vacancy) and also supporting private patrons. At our annual meeting we are joined by the Patrons Consultative Group, and this year’s annual address, to which all are welcome (16 May, St Giles in the Fields, WC1, at 2pm), will be given by Brian Hanson.

Flagrant disregard

Despite the rather quaint-sounding title of our half-yearly magazine, Parson and Parish, our aims could barely be more relevant to today’s critical times. Recently we have contributed to the debate over the Churchwardens Measure and the Clergy Discipline Measure, and have given our views in the present review of the Pastoral Measure and related legislation. One of our particular concerns is the freehold, and we are pleased that Paul Benfield will be taking up this matter in a future article in this publication.

Our Association is distressed by the flagrant disregard of the present Pastoral Measure when, without much whiff of a suggestion of any pastoral re-organisation, the patron’s right to present a priest to the living is all too frequently suspended, or when ‘consultation’ proves hollow for those with statutory rights.

The law does not, at present, allow bishops to suspend livings simply on the basis of diocesan clergy deployment plans, and we eagerly await the day when a patron with the means to challenge suspension, by means of judicial review, does just that.

What is freehold?

We understand the shorthand phrase ‘freehold’ to be more accurately – and biblically – a trusteeship, with the incumbent as a temporary custodian holding the office, and the property attaching to it, in trust, in faithfulness to past local benefactors who often have made financial contributions, for the benefit of the people of the parish and for their successors.

Given the very, very modest stipends of the clergy, and the experience of both bishops and archdeacons sometimes behaving badly, together with the vulnerability of priests serving incarnationally at the sharp end, we consider the protection and independence of the freehold an essential security.

Work to be done

While our Association applauds some of the proposals in the first phase of the McClean Report on clergy service, especially ‘common tenure’ protection for merely licensed clerics, we vehemently oppose the abolition of the freehold now recommended in the second phase and the proposal that church, churchyard and parsonage, in already asset-stripped parishes, be vested in the diocese.

We are deeply unhappy too about the suggestion of compulsory ministerial review and the imposition of intrusive ‘capability procedures’ founded on functionalist notions of performance. It is one thing protecting the clergy with some employment rights, but another to reduce them to the status of mere employees with no proper salary and conditions to accompany it.

Anyone wishing to join should write to: The Old School, Norton Hawkfield, Nr.Pensford, Bristol BS39 4HB (annual subscription £10, which includes Parson & Parish). The Association’s website: www.clergyassoc.co.uk

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