The Crown’s right to choose priests

by
17 July 2007

RESPONSES to the Green Paper The Governance of Britain (News, 6 July) have been generally positive (but see Bishop Buchanan’s reaction). Almost all have concentrated on the senior posts. The Green Paper, however, also makes explicit reference to the 200 Crown livings, as well as a small number of cathedral canonries, which are in the gift of the Queen and filled on recommendations from the Downing Street appointments secretary; and also to the further 450 livings administered by the Lord Chancellor’s office. The Green Paper suggests that these, too, should be governed by the basic principle that the Prime Minister should not take an active part in the selection of individuals.

The subject of patronage is so complex that it is hard to discover who is responsible for what. The bishops and archbishops control 49 per cent of livings, and the Crown about eight per cent. About one third of patrons are private individuals, ecclesiastical societies, or bodies such as Oxford or Cambridge colleges. The reorganisation of benefices in recent years means that, in about one third of parishes, the patronage rotates by turns between two or three patrons.

The office of Lord Chancellor was threatened with abolition in 2003, but, in the end, merely diminished. In the consultation, Lord Falconer asked for views about the disposal of the 450 livings: whether the patronage should be exercised by (a) another government minister, such as the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs; (b) the Prime Minister’s office, with the other Crown livings; (c) the Church. There were 239 responses, of which only seven per cent favoured the transfer of control to another minister. The majority of the respondents were split evenly between those who wanted all the Crown livings to be dealt with by Downing Street (44 per cent) and those who favoured a transfer to the Church (43 per cent).

Of the seven bishops who responded, six favoured retention by the Crown in some form. Those respondents who wished the Church to assume control of the Crown livings were also asked to indicate which part of the Church they meant. Of these, 52 per cent favoured diocesan bishops; 17 per cent chose diocesan boards of patronage; eight per cent suggested archbishops; and 19 per cent expressed no view.

This is not a ringing endorsement of change. When fewer than one quarter of the total respondents opt for the likeliest solution, were the Crown to abandon its livings, it would be foolish to attempt to unravel the present system, which has the additional merit of appearing to work. One of the submissions to the consultation, from Dr Augur Pearce, a Cardiff law lecturer, suggested that the patronage process continued to “bring fresh ideas to the appointment process, and to work against any trend toward the creation of a monochrome diocesan clergy”. Of everything the Prime Minister has on his plate, he will surely discover that reforming the ecclesiastical patronage system can be left for a little longer.

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