A New Measure of Flexibility

Jonathan Redvers Harris brings us up to date on a Review of the Pastoral Measure

‘Of course,’ says the archdeacon to the ageing incumbent struggling to fill his sub-zero temperature church with a handful of elderly ladies and to pay even a fraction of the parish share, ‘you do realize that when you go you’re not going to be replaced’. Meanwhile, in another – and financially-viable – benefice comprising four rural parishes, letters from a diocesan secretary are received by all four PCC secretaries at the beginning of an interregnum, each letter purporting to ‘consult’ but pointing out that ‘the bishop intends to suspend presentation to this benefice and appoint a priest in charge’. Further afield, there is the churchwarden, munching his toast and marmalade before dashing off to work, who is briefly telephoned by the bishop – only to find out later that this was ‘consultation’ as required under the Pastoral Measure 1983.

Anecdotes such as these may doubtless be multiplied many times over, and for some the Pastoral Measure, and the reorganization of parish ministry which it enables, evokes a picture not so much of the shepherd caring for his flock in pastures green but rather of scheming diocesan powers in a finance-driven Church struggling with a diminishing number of stipendiary clergy.

Finance driven

Lack of money and clerics, of course, is nothing new – even if the current crisis may be more acute than before. It was the post-war shortage of clergy coupled with a fall in the value of benefice incomes which led to the 1946 legislation enabling pastoral reorganization (through suspension of presentation). This was followed by a further measure in 1953, before the Pastoral Measure of 1968 (when the need for the patron to give his or her written consent was swept away) and the present governing Measure of 1983.

The purpose of the Measure, says its preamble, is to ‘make better provision for the cure of souls’. In other words, at its heart lies the aim of pastoral care, and much of the Measure is about the scope and role of the diocesan pastoral committee and the use of pastoral schemes and orders. This, at its best, is the purpose of ecclesiastical and canon law: to facilitate and enable the ordering of the Church so that she may better fulfil her mission, rather than negatively prohibiting – a perception sadly held by many.

Not for sheep

The way in which the Pastoral Measure has been used, however – as the opening anecdotes suggest – has not always fostered trust and respect. One bishop at least has been accused of operating an almost blanket policy of suspension in his diocese as each living fell vacant. Others have been challenged by the beginning of, or threat of, judicial review proceedings in the High Court. Yet another has admitted that, although the Code of Recommended Practice (complementing the Measure) urges that he should not have made his mind up before carrying out the statutory consultations, nonetheless, ‘I think it is unrealistic in practice to expect the bishop to have a totally open mind… and, at the end of the day, it is the need for some flexibility which I find persuasive…’

The difficulty is that flexibility in the deployment of clergy can become an excuse for repeated periods of suspension (there is no limit to the number of five-year periods) affecting a whole cluster of parishes – all waiting for that final awkward incumbent to retire – before any reorganization may take place. Meanwhile, unless the diocese, through its archdeacon and others, is particularly gifted in good, honest and open communication with the parishes concerned (together with any temporary priests-in-charge), mistrust and instability are inclined to flourish.

Nonetheless, flexibility is the name of the game, and at present an Initial Consultation Exercise is taking place, through a Review Group appointed by the Archbishops’ Council, to consider the Pastoral Measure and related Measures. The purpose of this review is ‘to ensure flexible and cost-effective procedures which fully meet changing pastoral and mission needs’. The Review Group has invited initial responses by means of a questionnaire, by March 21 this year, following which the Group will begin to shape its recommendations, when a further round of consultation will take place, enabling it to report with definite proposals to the Archbishops’ Council by mid 2003. These recommendations, if approved by General Synod and Parliament, could see new ‘flexible and cost-effective procedures’ reaching the statute book in about 2005.

Questionnaire

The questionnaire is largely directed at dioceses, and some of the responses sought require factual and statistical information obtainable most easily from diocesan offices. But the Review Group is also inviting responses from individual synod members together with a range of organizations with an interest in the operation of the Measures – and there is, it seems, nothing to stop any individual completing the document (obtainable from the Dioceses and Pastoral Measure Review Group, 1 Millbank, SW1P 3JZ, or electronically by contacting dpmr@c-of-e.org.uk).

Perhaps all this sounds rather dry, distant and academic. Yet there is nothing dry, distant and academic about proposals which could possibly see the biggest shake-up of the parochial system for generations. Some of the key issues raised in this Initial Consultation questionnaire challenge the very continuation of parishes and benefices as we have known them. Views, also, are invited on whether new and developing models of church mission should be brought within a revised Pastoral Measure (consider ‘church plants’ for example, or the place of NSMs and ‘house for duty’ arrangements). Buildings, too, come within the scope of this consultation exercise, with consideration given to the declaring of churches as ‘redundant’ under the present Measure.

Cui bono?

Flexibility and cost-effectiveness – these are the driving themes in the review of the present legislation. But flexible for whom? If new legislation enables an all-resolutions-passed parish church to further its mission by a ‘church plant’ in a part of the diocese poorly served by traditionalists, then we may rejoice at the new flexible arrangements. But if flexibility means flexing diocesan muscles so that rights of patron and PCC are watered down further, and insufficient checks and balances are in place to protect those in the parish (who dig deep into their pockets only to feel left in the dark), then where is the justice in that? As to cost-effectiveness, of course we must be wise stewards of scant resources, and we cannot forever indulge those who will not pay (especially if they can pay), but there remains the theological principle of God’s extravagance and lavishness which also needs to find expression in our pastoral organization. And in the final analysis it is theological principle which must underpin the organizing of parish and diocesan life – not outdated management-speak.

The Reverend Jonathan Redvers Harris is Vicar of Houghton Regis in the Diocese of St Albans.

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