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Plug the gaps to stop people draining away

by
08 April 2016

Extended gaps between incumbents can hurt a parish. Could designated interim priests help? asks Ron Wiffen

FIGURES from the latest annual report Statistics for Mission (News, 15 January) once again show a decline in church attendance. This is not the case everywhere, however: in some areas, there has been remarkable growth. All power to the elbows of those who have produced excellent books and reports in recent years to stimulate growth, leading to encouraging experimentation. And yet, despite their efforts, the downward trend continues overall.

This makes me wonder whether, in addition to looking for new ideas for growth, we ought to look at the existing set-up, and ask whether some of the established procedures, which are easy to take for granted, have become a hindrance to growth.

Take interregnum. There may be perfectly valid legal reasons why we have to have them; and they give lay people a wider opportunity to exercise leadership and to stand on their own two feet.

Having been on the receiving end of interregnums for many years before I was ordained, however, it was my continued experience that, during them, many people drifted away from the church, never to be seen again. There were also instances of power-bases being built up, making life difficult later for an incoming priest. Such problems surely arise when interregnums are drawn-out affairs, while the official procedures are being followed.

 

WHAT business corporations would allow their top positions to remain unfilled? For them, the fear is that the organisation could be in danger of collapse without someone at the helm. So most companies take immediate steps to appoint a successor when executives announce their departure, in the hope of a smooth handover.

The Church is not a business organisation, and yet, in a way, we are in business — the business of building up the body of Christ. In interregnums, some parishes coast along aimlessly without someone steady guiding them. In such circumstances, people can melt away, and newcomers are not always given adequate support to encourage them to stay.

We can learn from the world of business and seek more continuity. When an outgoing priest announces his or her departure, a successor should be appointed without undue delay.

To take growth seriously — and head off a leakage of numbers — any restrictive legal issues need to be confronted; for although the encouragement of an active lay ministry has been a great help, there is no substitute for a full priestly and sacramental ministry.

For the well-being of the Church, we need to find a way to abolish long interregnums. This is not going to happen overnight; so more thought needs to be given to how we handle interregnums in the mean time. A temporary solution springs to mind, involving a more efficient use of retired clergy.

 

MANY parishes are grateful to retired clergy for covering services during an interregnum. Nevertheless, there seems to be no officially recognised system for them to do this. It is done on a basis of Permission to Officiate (PTO), where clerics remain entirely at the whim of churchwardens or others to invite them to help. This often leads to a different priest taking the service each Sunday. It does nothing for the stability and continuity of parish life.

Generally, people feel more comfortable with the same face all the time, and that same face has the advantage of being able to recognise any newcomers in the congregation, and to offer encouragement.

Sadly, in some churches, friction and power-struggles can arise during interregnums, which can lead to people’s walking away. The appointment of a specially designated interim priest, however, could help the parish to flow more smoothly, so that, later on, the long-term incoming priest is not distracted by such issues, and can focus on outreach.

 

I SUGGEST that an officially recognised interim priest should hold the fort during interregnums. This could be a retired priest, given a special licence to that effect, who would then revert to PTO once the new parish priest arrived.

Many retired priests — though obviously not every one: they would need to be volunteers — would be willing to take on such a ministry. Here, again, we find the business world offering a pointer. The DIY chain B&Q actively recruits people over retirement age, recognising that they have much experience to offer. Other companies are moving in this direction. As many people are living active lives for longer, it could be that the Church is lagging behind in not acknowledging this.

My suggestion would be for each diocese to identify such retired clergy, if they are willing, and work towards offering, say, one such priest in each deanery the position of interim priest, on a limited licence to cover interregnums in that deanery.

The retired priest would not be obliged to accept such an offer, and could remain on PTO status, yet still be of help on a lesser scale, covering the Sunday holidays of the permanent clergy, or an overflow of occasional Offices.

Doing away with interregnums, and using licensed interim priests would be a temporary stepping-stone towards moving forward in mission.

 

The Revd Ron Wiffen is a retired priest whose final post was in the diocese of Norwich.

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