MEDIA WATCH

I am, I have decided, a nerd. No, I am not one of those be-anoraked men who stand on railway platforms collecting train numbers. (Why, I ask myself, do they do it?) Nor do I expose to public gaze the inadequacies of the Greek legal process by going plane spotting in a manner only the English could begin to understand. And I don’t write to The Times in January with a list of the previous year’s most popular first names, culled from the announcements in the Births column. (Not surprisingly given the source, names like Sharon and Tracey tend not to appear.)

But I have developed a weekly ritual that may give me the status of nerd. When the Church Times arrives, I retire to the smallest room in my house and turn to the Gazette page and the list of appointments. Time was that I always knew someone among those on the move (they are now in the Deaths column), but it is the titles rather than the names that now interest me. And over the many weeks and months I have been doing this, an interesting fact has emerged.

The slow death of the incumbent

If you ignore NSMs, curates moving to second curacies, clergy transferring into non-parochial ministry, announcements about the appointment of rural deans, Air Training Corps chaplains and such like – in other words everyone not moving to a parish post of incumbent status – one clear pattern emerges. In the vast majority of parochial appointments in almost every diocese, the freehold has been taken away. Gradually the percentage has moved from 50/50 until on most weeks it is now about 70%.

Of course attacks on the freehold are nothing new. Thirty years ago, I was attending the installation of a new priest in a neighbouring parish, and in his sermon Bishop Runcie (as he then was) explained genially why the man was to be priest-in-charge rather than the vicar they had always had.

‘At one time,’ the bishop said, ‘a priest needed to be protected from his bishop and so was given the freehold. In these days that is no longer necessary.’ Sitting next to me on the front row, just below the pulpit, was Canon Murdoch Dahl, a formidable residentiary canon from St Alban’s Abbey. ‘There speaks,’ he proclaimed, in a voce not quite sotto enough not to be heard by the preacher, ‘a man who has never been a parish priest.’

Pastoral Measure?

The Pastoral Measure of 1968 had recently come into force and this did provide the legal means whereby in suitable circumstances presentation could be suspended so that a priest-in-charge might replace a freehold incumbent, and in a time of experimentation with group and team ministries that was necessary and appropriate.

This was confirmed in the Pastoral Measure of 1983 but with many safeguards in the Code of Practice, ostensibly drawn up to prevent abuse. Of course such a Code is not a legal document and cannot be enforced if the appointing authorities choose to ignore it, however damaging that might be to any trust in the relationship between parish and diocese.

Even so, it can be a useful weapon where episcopal power is being abused. I think it was just before I retired that I had a phone call out of the blue from someone I had known as a boy. We had lived across the road from each other during my early life and attended the same school, though he was a little older. By now, he was lay vice-chairman of the PCC of a prestigious and well-attended town centre parish church, whose incumbent had recently died.

Ps and Qs about ABCs

There was a private patron of importance in the county but who would probably appoint a new Rector who fitted the traditional beliefs and patterns of the church concerned. It was not a parish likely to pass resolutions A, B or C, though there would, I suspect, have been ructions if a women had been appointed. But that was not the issue – rather it was about orthodoxy and about respect for the customary ways of worship.

But the parish had been informed that presentation was to be suspended, though there had been no real consultation about this. Now let it be said that in these days of reducing clergy numbers, there will need to be ‘rationalization’ of plant, and many clergy in parishes that once had been a sole charge will find they have to take on other parishes as well.

This does not, however, make it necessary for all parish clergy to lose the freehold, and in the particular instance I have described, it was a church that would never in the wildest episcopal imagination become a daughter church of another parish. I haven’t identified the parish, not least because up and down the country I suspect there will now be readers of ND saying to PCC lay vice-chairmen, ‘I didn’t know you knew George Austin.’ For sadly I fear it is a story that could be mirrored in many a diocese.

Gadfly for God

What advice did I give? Well, I could do little more than send details of the Measure and of the safeguards in the Code of Practice, but it was some sort of basis for action for my old friend. It was much more to the point that having, like me, been brought up in a no-nonsense part of the country, he was ready to stand up to the church authorities and if necessary to fight to the last ditch. And in the end he won. An excellent appointment was made of a rector who, with the freehold, will be free to speak boldly, never having to fear getting on the wrong side of the bishop and being removed as soon as his five-year contract ends.

And the history of the Church in England clearly shows that it is almost always the clerical gadflies, priests who refuse to knuckle under to harassment from the authorities, who have brought new life to a dying church. Look at the Evangelical and Catholic revivals in the nineteenth century. And if orthodox priests are sidelined in today’s revisionist Church, let them remember the great priests of the Catholic tradition who brought God’s glory to the poor in the depressed areas of our towns and cities to which they were banished.

What more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Tooth and Enraght, Dolling and Mackonochie and Lowder and all the confessors of the faith of Catholic Anglicans. They were persecuted and threatened and imprisoned for the faith they sought to preach.

We need more gadflies today, for the lesson of church history is that in the end God’s truth always wins.

There speaks a man who has never been a parish priest.

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page