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SYNOD: Extensive debate on once-a-year PCC meetings

21 February 2014


Speaking up for scrutiny: Canon Jon­athan Alderton-Ford

Speaking up for scrutiny: Canon Jon­athan Alderton-Ford

CANON ROBERT COTTON (Guildford) moved the Church Representation Rules (Amendment) Resolution 2014, which is designed to simplify a number of rules and regulations regarding parish administration, particularly about PCC meetings.

The rules had been devised after consultation with diocesan offices and parishes about "ways where we could open up our church structures and processes and remove burdens that would release parishes, lay leaders, and clergy to reimagine mission and ministry".

"The view of the simplification group was that we should look at the Church Representation Rules because . . . the nature of parochial ministry has changed since the early 20th century. The way charities are expected to run and devise suitable governance arrangements for themselves has changed very significantly and very recently."

Sister Rosemary CHN (Religious Communities) was "horrified" by the suggestion that the minimum number of PCC meetings be reduced to one a year. She recognised the "very demanding burden" on priests with many parishes, but this was not the solution. One option was to allow the vice-chair to take some meetings; another would be to make the benefice the unit for a council rather than the parish.

Cllr Robin Lunn (Worcester) also had concerns about reducing the minimum number of meetings. It would lead to "storing up a huge amount of problems" and the creation of more sub-committees. He also questioned whether it was necessary to enshrine in legislation the ability to change the order of business at a PCC meeting.

The Revd Tony Redman (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) reminded the Synod that it had been suggested in last year's debate on evangelism that one meeting of the PCC every year should be given over to mission. If the number of meetings were reduced to one, how would this be fitted in?

Philip French (Rochester) suggested that some aspects of the legislation went beyond simplification to recklessness. To allow a PCC to meet just once a year would be "downright dangerous". How could members exert their responsibility as charity trustees? The risk was that parishes would be "captured by a narrow and perhaps narrow-minded group". It would be "parochialism of the worst sort". The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, said that sometimes the bishop and diocesan synod wished to consult parishes, but this would not be possible with a PCC that met only once a year. Also, if a parish intended to have only one PCC meeting a year, he suspected that this meant that the parish was dysfunctional: "The answer is not just to make it easier for them, but to make them face their issues."

Canon Sue Booys (Oxford) argued that in some communities, PCCs would be able to deal with all their business in just one meeting a year, "and do other kinds of mission in partnership with other parishes". Being relieved of the responsibility of putting on extra meetings would "help them enormously".

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) also spoke of small parishes. Many PCCs did not need to meet four times a year: "Do not presume that what you think is best practice in the places you know will work everywhere."

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, emphasised that the proposal was to reduce the minimum number of meetings a year to one: PCCs would be free to have more.

Dr Graham Campbell (Chester)spoke to an amendment that sought to encourage churches to hold more than one PCC meeting a year. He said that "alarm bells" began to ring when he looked at the proposals. "This could mean a cabal of an incumbent with two wardens running a parish for a whole year without any accountability. My amendment seeks to introduce some checks and balances. This leaves it to the annual parochial church meeting to determine how many PCC meetings need to be held to prevent a cabal of three."

The amendment was not voted on because it did not have enough backing from members.

Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) spoke to his amendment, which would insist on a minimum of two meetings, which had to take place a least one month after the annual parish church meeting. He wanted to ensure that churches could not be run by a small group. "Things should be scrutinised and debated," he said. "If you don't do it properly, the opportunity for financial malpractice looms large."

Canon Cotton accepted the second part of Canon Alderton-Ford's amendment, which stipulated that a meeting soon after the annual parochial church meeting did not count towards the minimum number of PCC meetings throughout the rest of the year.

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford) said that building a sense of togetherness was a crucial part of PCC meetings. "We need to give people the opportunities to develop that sense of corporate identity so they can contribute to the development of the mission of the parish."

Christopher Fielden (Salisbury) said that reforming the Synod had to begin with reforming PCCs. "If we don't encourage a powerful PCC that meets regularly, we don't get the people going through to deanery synod, diocesan synod, and then this august institution."

The first part of Canon Alderton-Ford's amendment was carried.

The second part of his amendment said that the first of the two PCC meetings could not take place within four weeks of the APCM.

Dr John Beal (Ripon & Leeds) challenged Canon Cotton's assertion that the amendment would prevent a PCC's meeting at or shortly after the APCM. "He could have that meeting if he wants, and then two other meetings. It seems to me a very sensible proposal."

Peter Collard (Derby) asked how a church could function if it could not appoint its officers for a month after the APCM.

In a point of order, Canon Alderton-Ford clarified that this was not what the amendment said. "You can have your APCM and a brief PCC to appoint officers. That doesn't count as your two. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that your two PCC meetings happen later in the year."

The amendment was carried.

Clive Scowen (London) moved an amendment that would remove the requirement to post a notice of PCC meetings on the church door ten days before a proposed meeting: "The current requirement . . . is somewhat out of date and no longer meets its purpose. But that purpose is important and should not be abandoned."

The amendment gave discretion to the person convening the meeting to decide whether to use a notice sheet, parish website, email lists, or Facebook pages - "or even a notice on the church door, if that is what suits local circumstances".

Canon Cotton resisted the amendment: while "the intention is absolutely laudable and right, I'm just not sure that the amendment as phrased here achieves that". Sending emails to everyone "may not be desirable".

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) supported the amendment: "If we don't carry this amendment, there is no requirement for meetings to be announced."

The Revd Paul Ayers (Bradford) said that the proposals in the draft order were "anti-democratic". The rules were meant to protect the interests of the laity, but the proposed changes were "a recipe for clerical dictatorship".

John Freeman (Chester) said that some people were playing "fast and loose" with the rules; so the Church had to be "very careful in introducing more flexibility".

When the debate began again on Wednesday morning, after an adjournment, Canon Cotton moved a new amendment to clarify the rules that had been debated. His amendment would ensure that the rule blocking PCCs from meeting until four weeks after the APCM would apply only to those PCCs that intended to only hold the minimum two meetings that year. He described his amendment as being "to ensure the rules mean what Jonathan Alderton-Ford and Synod clearly wanted".

Canon Alderton-Ford said that he was happy for this new amendment to go ahead.

The Revd Ruth Walker (Coventry) said that the new rules would cause concern for some parishes, even as they reduced the burden for others. "As a Church, we are all in very different places, and one size does not fit all."

The amendment was clearly carried.

Canon Alderton-Ford stood to propose his amendment, as part of what had already been agreed.

Canon Cotton urged the Synod to accept this amendment.

The amendment was clearly carried.

Mr Scowen proposed an amendment to stop the new representation rules deleting the existing rule that business not on the agenda could be discussed by a PCC only with the consent of 75 per cent of the members.

He said: "That is and continues to be a very important safeguard, and is common in many other organisations. Good practice, good order, and prayerful deliberation requires that business not on the agenda should not normally be taken." The rule needed to be kept to prevent controversial business's being rail-roaded through a PCC.

Canon Cotton said that wisdom and good intentions could be thwarted by the imposition of rules. "By keeping this rule, we're making protection against bad behaviour and flexibility into a zero-sum game. . . There are others ways of protecting PCCs from bad behaviour, but what we are trying to do is increase flexibility, so if things are urgent, they can still be discussed." He also said that, elsewhere in the charity sector, most rules required a 75-per-cent margin only for foundational change. "Here we are trying to make things simpler."

Mr Ayers said that Mr Scowen was "absolutely right" and Canon Cotton was wrong. "Seventy-five per cent is a high margin, but zero is a very low margin. I've been at many meetings where people have tried to bounce items on to the agenda, and where vague items have concealed what it's really about, where financial matters have been brought up with no chance to work though beforehand. Simplification is very often the rhetoric of people who want to get things done their way."

The Archdeacon of Cleveland, the Ven. Paul Ferguson(York), said that he had hoped the debate would focus on how good PCCs generally were, but instead it had focusedon the problems. Nevertheless, he called for the amendment to be supported.

Peter Smith (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) said that there was a risk that the Synod might draw up very different rules by amending them clause by clause. He suggested that draft rules should not be drawn up in this group of sessions, but that the Synod should wait, and allow legal officers to check the wording.

The amendment was carried.

Dr Campbellintroduced an amendment that would retain the minimum size of a standing committees. He warned that if the minimum was reduced to three, a disruptive faction could infiltrate the committee by electing themselves churchwardens and then outvoting the incumbent.

Canon Cotton said the draft rules were about flexibility and allowing standing committees to be only three members where that was advisable. "It's worth remembering that the standing committee only receives power from the PCC," he said. "This is a useful bit of flexibility." He urged the Synod to resist the amendment.

Canon Martin Wood (Chelmsford) said that he would also resist the amendment, as many small parishes had PCCs that were so small that having a five-member standing committee would be disproportionate.

The Revd Simon Cawdell (Hereford) said he would resist the amendment because of parishes with PCCs of only eight people.

The amendment was lost.

The Archdeacon of Tonbridge, the Ven. Clive Mansell (Rochester), made a point of order, asking for an adjournment until July. He said that a long debate over two days on technical issues needed a delay to make sure there were not unforeseen implications.

Canon Cotton said: "Our objectives must be about strengthening capability of groups of local Christians as they take wise and innovative and responsible decisions for the sake of the church, neighbourhood. and parish. We don't control bad behaviour by rules. We control it much more by encouraging, empowering, giving people responsibility, and helping them fulfil that wisely."

He also supported adjourning the debate: "We can resume the entertainment and enjoyment of Church Representation Rules in July."

The Synod voted to adjourn the debate until the sessions in York in July.

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