Change, not decay: the support of parishes through interim ministry
From the Revd Helen Gheorghiu Gould
Sir, — Thank you for a very thoughtful article by the Revd Ron Wiffen on the exciting opportunities that are emerging for interim ministry (IM) (Comment, 8 April). As one of those currently working in IM and thinking through how we help to resource this area for the future, I would, however, like to take us beyond the vision of “plugging the gaps” as the purpose of IM.
We are, in the Church of England, at a unique juncture in discovering how we apply the process of IM in our context, although it has been used in other provinces, notably in the United States, for more than 40 years.
The General Synod approved last July provisions in the clergy terms of service which will allow interim appointments. As recent issues of the Church Times show, IMs are increasingly being appointed. Chelmsford diocese has been allocated funds to offer some leadership and pump-priming in this area, as part of a wider diocesan project, which, we expect, will include networking and training in this area in due course.
IM is best deployed at those “hinge moments” in parish development which Mr Wiffen describes, when a vacancy period becomes an opportunity to build a vision for the future at a time when a parish is most open to ideas, and when it is most open to the support and capacity-building of diocesan staff. (I prefer the term “vacancy” to “interregnum”, since the latter implies that lay people and their ministry are not important, only priestly ministry, which we all know is far from the truth.)
Far from plugging the gaps, even with very experienced and able ministers, IM is about working through an intentional process of change. I have adopted the well-tested US model for want of a better one, which includes working through a series of five specific development tasks about the history, identity, leadership, denominational linkages, and future vision of the parish, which are designed to be inclusive and participatory, thus avoiding some of the pitfalls of power-bases’ being established in the vacuum, which Mr Wiffen raises. These run alongside a series of process tasks about connecting with the parish and managing the IM process.
It is not necessarily just late-career priests who are able to contribute to this. I was just out of my curacy when I took on my first role (although with previous charity-management experience); and there are well-qualified lay people with skills in change management, community development, and business consultancy.
What it most requires is Christian leaders with the capacity to lead and encourage new thinking and vision, while holding together a community that will inevitably be feeling the anxieties and loss of change, while remaining a “non-anxious” presence throughout. It is a calling that some have the gifts and skills for, and others not.
Since IM postings require commitment and secure resourcing, I am doubtful about suggestions for more ad hoc resourcing. These posts need the same care and consideration as other ministerial appointments, particularly in relation to housing and remuneration, in order that the IM can remain non-anxious and stable for what might be an appointment of anything from one to five years. The changes to terms of service have helped in terms of offering a way forward for licensing.
New resources and opportunities are emerging in this young field for the Church of England. We are early in the process of establishing networking, research, an evidence base, training, and resources, and finding out how we can use the tool of IM to greatest effect as we all steer through this time of change.
A paper on IM is available for those who are interested from email@example.com.
HELEN GHEORGHIU GOULD
Interim Minister and Vacancy Development Adviser, diocese of Chelmsford
The Parish Office
St Giles Church
Nazeing EN9 2HU
From Jessica Pacey
Sir, — I was saddened to read the article by the Revd Ron Wiffen on the ministry gap in an interregnum. He writes, and I agree, “Generally, people feel more comfortable with the same face all the time.” Where I part company with him is that he appears to think that the answer is a priest or nothing.
Many parishes do have a familiar face all the time during an interregnum: a Reader, who can and will take non-eucharistic services in his or her parish, and assist a visiting priest in a eucharist.
I am a Reader, and do take regular services during our current interregnum, and even, in fact, on Christmas Day and Easter Day, led a service of communion by extension (with the Bishop’s permission). I am not alone. Readers who live in (or, in my case, near) the parish they serve make a huge contribution to parish life, especially in interregnums. It is, frankly, hurtful, to have that contribution ignored.
3 Dickinson Way
Newark NG23 6FF
From Canon Brian Stevenson
Sir, — Where I live as a retired priest, in mid-Kent, we have four interregnums close by at the moment, and over the past six years it has been rare not to have a vacancy in the deanery.
I don’t think interregnums are the main cause of falling attendance; other factors can be influential, such as the death of a popular and loved organist or the moving away of significant laypeople on retirement. I have been impressed with the churchwardens and administrators who deal with the clergy rota, and only once have I turned up at a church to find another priest in the pulpit, as in your fine cartoon.
I have not heard of a “no show”. Interregnums now last a year, however, and the Revd Ron Wiffen’s suggestion of an interim priest has some merit, especially where an appointment may be delayed because of pastoral or other considerations.
Happily, where there are retirements, there is always a ready supply of retired clergy who enjoy being asked to lead services, and (we hope) hand on the parish and most of the congregation to the new incumbent in good shape. And we are economical. . .
Stan Lane, West Peckham
Kent ME18 5JT
From the Revd Dr John Caperon
Sir, — The idea of parishes’ having a designated interim minister makes good sense. I don’t think my recent experience as a self-supporting priest with permission to officiate is likely to be unusual: three local parishes have been without priests, and I have been able to offer especially sacramental ministry in contexts where it would otherwise have been absent or intermittent.
What has been remarkable is that neither diocese nor deanery seems to have planned for these situations, or to have had a sense of who might be available and willing to support the parish in the interim period: my involvement has been inadvertent. It is as if the resource represented by clergy not in substantive parish posts but still capable and available is simply not recognised. The body of unlicensed priests — who may or may not be “retired” — constitutes a cadre of experience and capability which could be better deployed.
East Sussex TN6 1YE
From Canon Hugh Broad
Sir, — I was delighted to read of the Revd Ron Wiffen’s experience. I would like to echo all that he says, based on my own experience in the diocese of Gloucester.
When I returned to this, my home diocese, after ten fulfilling years in the diocese in Europe in 2013, the then Bishop of Gloucester invited me to take up such a position as interim priest of Ashchurch and Kemerton, in the Tewkesbury area. Bishop Michael suggested that it would be for a few months, until a new appointment could be made. In effect, it lasted 19 months. I had no qualms about this, although it was an almost 40-mile round trip from where we had set up home in Gloucester.
I was able in that time to exercise a full pastoral ministry, which had been my life for well over 40 years. I was also welcomed as a member of the deanery clergy chapter, and thus got to know and contribute to the life of the wider Church.
This interim ministry was put on a proper liturgical footing with a eucharist of welcome led by the Archdeacon, and at its conclusion by a similar liturgical service led by the Suffragan Bishop.
I do feel that this kind of appointment has much to offer to the Church at times of change, and offers to priests who have energy and enthusiasm to offer to God an opportunity to do so in a full and effective way.
44 Vensfield Road
Gloucester GL2 4FX
Tax avoidance and the authorities’ successes
From Dr Phillip Rice
Sir, — Those who complain about tax avoidance (Leader comment, 8 April) are often themselves complained about. Yes, I agree; but it would be helpful to get some sense of scale about how big the numbers are before we pass judgement on who or what is failing.
As you claim that the HMRC was swamped by this, it may be helpful for me as a retired tax economist in HMRC, who worked on the tax-avoidance methodology, to write.
Perhaps I should start by giving some international context: the US tax authorities had more than a decade ago the second largest computer system power in the US targeted on reading contract documents and tax-world literature aimed at sophisticated and well-advised persons and businesses.
This sophisticated processing picks up participants, bank names, and locations, and can make inferences about the revenues at risk. Offshore-compliance programmes have delivered tens of thousands of disclosures by taxpayers and billions of dollars in revenues from voluntary disclosure and more in enforcement. The UK has tended to go for voluntary-disclosure programmes with taxpayers, e.g. with Liechtenstein and Switzerland, offering lower tax-geared penalties, which has brought in published Exchequer yield of in excess of £1 billion in recent years.
I fear your leader does an injustice to the tax officials who have not been swamped. There has been a decade of work by tax authorities on the signals of tax avoidance around the world. They are not going to be surprised by the existence of Mossack Fonseca or its like elsewhere.
The issue remains: how much tax revenue is actually retrievable after existing tax-compliance programmes, after voluntary disclosures on tax returns, and this includes the deterrence effects of taxpayers’ paying up rather than face the risk of criminal sanction for non-disclosure.
This is not a blind-eye story that government or its tax authorities are incompetent. But it does tell us that the journalists have helped the Western world’s tax authorities with the most difficult of concepts: how to boost the deterrence effect of being found out in your own tax authority. For this, I reckon, great service has been done by journalists here: in paying to Caesar what tax is due (as in Romans 13.7).
Tax economist (HMRC retired)
23 Christchurch Square
London E9 7HU
Housing: issues that Christian comment needs to take into account
From the Revd Kenneth Padley
Sir, — I echo the concern expressed by Canon Angus Ritchie and Sarah Hutt about the state of the British housing market (Comment, 8 April). I agree that the impact of the problem is expressed in a plethora of pastoral challenges: worries about money and security of tenure, overwork, overcrowding, homelessness, postponed childrearing, and so on. I also agree that this is a spiritual issue: the chronic and crippling inefficiency of the British housing market is a serious barrier to human flourishing.
I am not, however, convinced that the solution will be found in rent controls or the language of covenant. The nub of the problem lies in hard economic reality: a chronic undersupply of houses compared with an inexorably rising quantity demanded. In a market economy, the cost of resolving this problem is to be measured in what it will take to rebalance the market: lost amenity of green belt, and/or greater public incentivisation of marriage through the tax system, and/or a different pattern of net migration.
Housing, migration, welfare, and green-belt policies are symbiotic, but only when successive governments are prepared to accept the politically unattractive necessity of locking them together will the first of these get an equitable look-in.
The Vicarage, St Michael’s Street
St Albans AL3 4SL
From Mr John Alty
Sir, — Canon Angus Ritchie and Sarah Hutt touch on an important issue in their article on housing. The Church is not at its best, however, when it adopts a self-righteous, lecturing tone on complex economic and social issues.
Take Sunday trading — one of the examples given by Canon Ritchie. Leaving aside its failure to become law only because the Scottish Nationalists decided to vote against it, it is not clear whether the Church is saying that the current position is fine, in which supermarkets can open but just not for quite as long as the Government proposed; or the position in Scotland is fine, where shops are open for longer, but people are assured of extra pay; or whether they think Sunday trading is evil and people shouldn’t be allowed to shop on Sunday (except online, of course). What is the right balance between personal freedom and minimum standards?
Similarly, references to the “untrammelled free market” in housing just undermine the credibility of the Church’s contributions to the debate. Perhaps Canon Ritchie has never heard of planning law, social housing, or legislation on landlord-tenant relations. Well over half the housing in Hackney is social housing (I think it may be about 70 per cent).
And what about serious issues of excessive concentration of economic activity in the south-east? In my home city of Liverpool, there are plenty of cheap houses, which, unfortunately, people don’t want. The housing issues are entirely different from those in London. You cannot divorce housing issues from wider issues of rebalancing our national economy.
Yes, we need to raise and debate social issues such as housing. But let’s not pretend that it is all the fault of the market, that the state is not already active in this area, or that there are simple answers without wider consequences.
20 Meynell Crescent, London E9
Times to wear, and not wear, the clerical collar
From the Revd Jenny Bridgman
Sir, — I have followed with some bemusement the debate taking place in your letters page (1 and 8 April) regarding correct clerical garb.
As a young female priest, I make a point of wearing my clerical collar in public. It is central to my priestly vocation to challenge traditional stereotypes of what clergy look like, because who we are says something about who God is. There are times, however, when my wearing a clerical collar is not only unnecessary, but may impose a barrier between me and those to whom I minister.
My conversations with other young parents at the nursery door happen more easily when I am in “mufti”, and yet I am still nurturing valuable pastoral relationships with those not part of my flock. Further, there are times when, contrary to Mr Jennings’s assertion, my private life must take priority over my public ministry. When accompanying my children to a doctor’s appointment, or catching up with my husband over a coffee, removing my clerical collar frees me to give careful attention to the vocations of parenting and marriage.
In these particular moments, I am giving a clear signal that my family, and not the parish, are my God-given priority.
The Vicarage, 12 Thorley Lane
Timperley WA15 7AZ
From the Revd Claire Wilson
Sir, — Shamelessly elbowing my way on to a crowded tube train last Friday, I reflected that I wouldn’t feel the same freedom to do this if I were in clerical attire. We all need a bit of time off.
Ground Floor Flat
26 Frognal Lane
London NW3 7DT
These that have turned the world upside down
From Mr Christopher Briscoe
Sir, — I never thought to see the Church Times confuse heaven and hell. Alas, the splendid feature by Pat Ashworth on Lancelot Brown (8 April) does just that. (The main illustration is inverted.)
2 Clyst Hayes Court
Budleigh Salterton EX9 6AR