Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?*

John Masding promotes the next Guardians’Day

 

Juvenal’s famous question inspired me nearly twenty years ago to call for a change in the law of parochial vacancies, so that each benefice could have an impartial Guardian, drawn from an elected regional panel, who could veto the rip-off by which a bishop may be advised to sell unprotected parish property, namely, the parsonage.

Churches and parsonages do not belong to ‘the diocese’, but are parochial properties, vested each in its incumbent, through a type of ownership in some ways resembling a trusteeship, where the sole ‘trustee’ holding the property is the rector or vicar, a corporation sole in law. Common tenure will not change this. Many in General Synod voted for the existing position out of concern that, if, as proposed, houses were transferred to diocesan ownership, they could be seized in settlement of debts when dioceses got into financial diffficulties. Earlier, the brains behind this mad scheme in Synod had even proposed to transfer the ownership of parish churches to dioceses; but this was quite quickly exposed as folly.

When there is merely a priest-in-charge the ‘ownership’ is in abeyance,but the bishop, through legislation, can deal with the property, including in certain circumstances its sale. The original thinking behind giving the bishop this right, rather than the parish (churchwardens or the PCC), was to prevent sale during a vacancy!

The bishop was thought to be a safe pair of hands to safeguard the interests of the next incumbent and his future ministry. It has not turned out like that, as we all know!

So Cost of Conscience used the term to launch successfully the idea of a series of Guardians’ Days, to assist parochial officers and others in acting wisely and well during vacancies. Ignorance is not bliss. Diocesan financial imperatives reflect serious shortfalls in funds.

It is impossible not to feel a real sympathy, therefore, for overwhelmed bishops and diocesan boards of finance; but I suggest they have nothing to fear from an impartial, outside Guardian, not answerable to besieged parishioners either, but there to seek the wisdom of Solomon. Anecdotal evidence suggests that next for sale in a vacancy will be certain struggling churches… let us prey, perhaps?

In England all are entitled to defence, a defender of the right, and an impartial judge.

The Revd James Patrick, a practising barrister engaged in parochial ministry, leads the day with his inimitable blend of incisive knowledge and humour. He pinpoints several erroneous beliefs held by many diocesan bishops: for example, about their supposed right to chair meetings during a parish vacancy. With his admirable blend of shrewdness and humour, he describes what every parish should do the moment they know their parish priest is leaving.

The English Clergy Association is a broad, non-party body within the Church of England, founded over 70 years ago, with men and women clergy, patrons, churchwardens and other lay people as members. Its magazine is Parson & Parish. The web address is <www. clergyassoc.co.uk>. The Association is inviting patrons, church officers and clergy to a Guardians’ Day in the West, at Christ Church with St Ewen, All Saints’ and St George, City of Bristol, on Saturday 20 February from 10 am onwards, until early afternoon.

The Guardians’ Day is free, and we are grateful for the opportunity to meet in Christ Church. Lunch is provided without charge, although participants may of course prefer to bring their own. Any wishing to attend should email me on <benoporto-eca@yahoo.co.uk> and further directions can be given as required.

*‘Who will guard the guards themselves?’

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