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Letters to the Editor

29 June 2018

Vicarage gardens, Home Office fees, and the abortion debate since the Irish referendum


Glimpsing the sly shade of an Interim Area Dean

From the Revd Toddy Hoare

Sir, — I really am most dismayed at Canon Rodney Nicholson’s claim (Letters, 22 June) that vicarage gardens are a burden. His letter is a saga of missed opportunity and lost potential. Although many new vicarages are now to be found in the grounds of the old, they are still one of the few assets that the Church offers her clergy.

On the positive side, consider: it forces manic ministry to slow down and realise nature’s pace; it is hallowed space where houses might be crowded together; it is space for rest and recreation, whether a lawn for croquet or the church fair, or family space; it can supplement the weekly shopping with fresh fruit and veg, or space for hens; surplus produce can be left at the gate for others; it is a reminder of the rural roots of the gospel and the background to many parables; it is a place of gentle activity before occasional offices that demand a certain calm and concentration; it is a place to compose, think, reflect, and collect thoughts for prayer and preaching; it is an interest, and even if a necessity for some, that can be shared with others and be part of outreach: local gardening club, sharing resources, cuttings, seeds.

Heaven knows why Canon Nicholson wastes time and resources taking away or binning grass cuttings, when these are a very good base for home compost or mulch for raspberries. Gardens can be quite forgiving rather than a showpiece. Interesting specimens can be grown, or the garden can be a haven for rare species, or made into an orchard for less intensive management and sown with wild flowers for bees. Embrace the potential.

Pond Farm House
Holton, Oxford OX33 1PY

From Canon Cheryl Collins

Sir, — I read Canon Rodney Nicholson’s letter on the burden of clergy gardens with relief. As a single person throughout my ministry, I have found the large gardens of the properties that I have been required to live in have been a source of anxiety and stress.

In our diocese, we have just received an updated property handbook that warns us that, if we do not maintain our gardens, the Archdeacon will appoint a gardener to do it, and we will bear the cost. When I moved into my present rectory in September 2016, the large garden was completely overrun with bindweed. I was given a one-off payment by the diocese to help clear the worst of the garden, but, as readers will know, an infestation of bindweed which is strangling most of the plants in the garden is almost impossible to eradicate.

Last week, I had a professional gardener come to look at the property to see if he had any ideas to help with the bindweed. His opinion was that to get and keep this garden, which contains mature trees and shrubs, really in good order, one could expect to employ a gardener for a day a week, which is completely unaffordable; nor do I want what is meant to be a sabbath rest completely taken over with manic manual labour. As someone who had been a churchwarden, he considered that this was an unrealistic demand on clergy.

I know of fellow clergy, both married and single, who are either spending large sums of money or a substantial amount of time trying to keep on top of the garden. I understand that dioceses do not have the resources themselves to deal with large gardens that have got out of hand, and there is no easy solution, but I have asked the Property Committee in our diocese to consider the matter as one of clergy well-being.

The Rectory, Christopher Lane
Sudbury CO10 2AS

From the Ven. John Morrison

Sir, — I was concerned to read Canon Nicholson’s report that the maintenance of vicarage lawns is such a burden to so many clergy.

As an ordinand, I was given a copy of The Priest’s Book of Private Devotion, which includes advice on self-examination before sacramental confession. It includes: “What time do I waste in vain conversations, in frivolous amusements, in light reading? Do I spend too much time in recreation? In my garden?”

So, maybe it is not a sin to neglect the lawn.

39 Crown Road, Wheatley
Oxford OX33 1UJ

From Miss Primrose Peacock

Sir, — Canon Nicholson’s generation has, sadly, missed the vicarage croquet lawn. Seventy years ago, this was the main teenage summer entertainment in an isolated Devon village. Contemporaries still recall our fun with them and/or our parents and visiting clergy.

After much effort, and helped by Absalom and Abdullah, the churchwarden’s ploughing team, a semi-derelict front garden was transformed into a slightly quirky lawn. The croquet-box key remained in father’s study until the lawn had been push-mowed by my sister and me to his satisfaction.

This is now just a happy memory or a photograph in Country Life of “the old vicarage/rectory”. Tempus fugit.

4 Crescent Rise
Truro TR1 3ER

PS The current churchwarden says the Old Vicarage is now for sale and the croquet lawn still exists. Savills are asking £995,000 for the house, which looks lovely.

Evidence on Home Office fees needed promptly

From the Chairman of the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council

Sir, — A year ago, Birmingham diocesan synod brought a motion on citizenship fees to the General Synod. It was carried unanimously. It called on parishes to raise the issues with their MP; the Mission and Public Affairs Council to make recommendations to the Government; and the Lords Spiritual to address the issue in debate.

It also encouraged parishes “to continue to support those known to them who are struggling with the cost of citizenship fees without incurring debt and to signpost responsible lenders or local credit unions for advice”.

I welcome the decision by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration to investigate the Home Office’s charging for services in respect of its asylum, immigration, nationality, and customs functions. David Bolt, the Chief Inspector, has issued a Call for Evidence, with the short deadline of 16 July.

The MPA Council will submit evidence, supporting the case that levels of fees are disproportionately high in comparison with other countries; are far higher than the cost to the Home Office of processing applications; and impose real hardship on people and families already struggling under unreasonable pressures, especially if they are denied the right to work.

It will help this investigation greatly if as much concrete evidence as possible can be submitted. It can be sent either to the MPA Council at martin.kettle@churchofengland.org; or direct to chiefinspector@icinspector.gsi.gov.uk; or by post to ICIBI, 5th Floor, Globe House, 89 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1PN.

Mission and Public Affairs Council
Church House
Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3AZ

Abortion debate since the Irish referendum  

From Mr Colin Armstrong

Sir, — It is a pity that Paul Vallely chose to take his information on the history of Catholic attitudes to abortion from a highly tendentious article in The Irish Times rather than from any more authoritative source (Comment, 1 June).

Had he troubled to consult, for example, Professor David Albert Jones’s The Soul of the Embryo (a work commended by Lord Willliams of Oystermouth), he would have found that (pace the views of his journalistic source) that what he terms “the absolutist position of the Catholic Church” is not “comparatively recent”.

He would have learned that absolute opposition to abortion has been constant over two millennia, regardless of debates over the moment of ensoulment. If Mr Vallely goes further in his reading and consults the Anglican symposium on Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life (edited by J. H. Channer), he will find an essay on opposition to abortion in the Early Church by the Durham patristics scholar the late Gerald Bonner.

Flat 2a, Ulidia House
34 Donegall Road
Belfast BT12 5JN

From Mr Andrew Todd

Sir, — Mr G. M. Lyon’s question (Letters, 1 June) on the Irish referendum, whether the unborn are considered subhuman, gains renewed pertinence after the Supreme Court’s judgment on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

While finding by a majority — only in the abstract, without particular cases to rule on — that the European Convention is being breached, the Court referred repeatedly to the 2015 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in A, B and C v. Ireland that the prohibition on abortion in the Irish Republic was not contrary to the Convention.

This 2015 judgment was recognised as having been based on consideration of the “interests of” and “right to life of” the unborn, and as establishing that, “the woman’s right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing rights . . . including those of the unborn child”.

The latter dictum was supported by a previous decision in Vo. v. France (2005), which was also quoted by the Supreme Court in saying, “article 2 (which guarantees the right to life) was silent as to when life began”, this being a question which “came within the states’ margin of appreciation because there was no European consensus on the scientific and legal definition of the beginning of life, so that it was impossible to answer the question whether the unborn was a person to be protected for the purposes of article 2”, and therefore “it would be equally legitimate for a state to choose to consider the unborn to be such a person and to aim to protect that life.”

Presumably, then, the UK still accepts as a matter of European human-rights law that states may opt to give legal recognition to the human life of the unborn, even though this is not the position in any part of the UK.

22 Pegasus Court, Shelley Road
Worthing BN11 4TH

Encouraged by hearing GAFCON voices  

From Julie Lucas

Sir, — Listening to GAFCON in Jerusalem last week (News, 22 June) was an absolute joy. I was so encouraged to hear clear presentations of the gospel from bishops and archbishops, many of whom were suffering real persecution back home. Such bold bravery and, may I say, a refreshing change.

I am truly grateful to God for those who stood up for the truth of the word of God; and I am indebted to those who made it possible for me to share the joy through the technical wonder of livestream.

The Rectory, St Botolph’s Road
Barton Seagrave
Kettering NN15 6SR

Pressure on human rights from Humanist lobby 

From the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe

Sir, — What a difference a word makes! The Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg has made it very clear that international human-rights law stipulates only that there should be freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

This was summed up in the judicial opinion given in support of a specific ruling. A mother of the only non-Christian pupil in an Italian school class could not demand that the school authorities take down the cross on the wall of his classroom as an infringement of his right to freedom from religion.

“The Convention has given this Court the remit to enforce freedom of religion and of conscience, but has not empowered it to bully States into secularism or to coerce countries into schemes of religious neutrality.”

But, despite this, repeated references to a so-called “right to freedom from religion” are voiced at international gatherings by those with a secularising agenda. Last week, when the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief visited Brussels, I was invited, along with other faith-based organisations and NGOs, to send a representative to a round-table meeting at the European External Action Service for an “exchange of views”. I sent my Attaché, as my travel schedule meant that I had to be away from Brussels that day.

He discovered that, along with 12 individual representatives of Churches, religions, and faith-based NGOs, there were two representatives of the European Humanist Federation. These two insisted very stridently that Freedom from Religion should be included in the Rapporteur’s mandate.

It was explained to them that their right to hold to their views was not compromised by the expression “freedom of religion and belief”. In the international human-rights documents, belief does not have to be theistic. But they were not placated by this. Only theistic belief counts as a religion, was their response. People should have the right to be free from it. It should be limited to the private sphere.

This week, my Attaché attended a briefing for MEPs at the European Parliament. It concerned the latest case law of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the EU European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on religious freedom issues. So-called “neutrality policies”, used by firms to prohibit their employees’ wearing dress or symbols identifying their faith, came particularly under the spotlight.

In fact, it was said, although giving a surface appearance of even-handedness, neutrality policies were actually inherently discriminatory. This was because only religious employees were negatively affected by them. The judges’ view was that it could be justified only in exceptional circumstances when there was a clear need for it, and the means promoted for implementing the policy were proportionate to that need. The default position should be that the wearing of specific religious dress or symbols should be accommodated, not outlawed.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is very explicit about freedom of religion. It is not just a private matter. The Charter affirms the right of adherents to practise their religion individually and collectively, in public and in private. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance” (Article 10).

Trying to confine religion within the four walls of a church as an entirely private matter was the Stalinist approach to religion. It has no place in a society that claims to be free and democratic.

47 rue Capitaine Crespel
B-1050 Ixelles, Belgium

Homosexuality and the Bishops’ responsibilities 

From the Revd Dr David L. Gosling

Sir, — Much as I appreciated your sensitive interview with Vicky Beeching (Features, 22 June), I doubt whether her “softly, softly” approach to the Church’s current homophobia will do much to influence the hard hearts of its present leadership.

In addition to the 14-year-old Mancunian girl who took her own life as a consequence of tensions “between being gay and being Christian”, I have personally kn­own at least three young people who have killed themselves for similar reasons. I consider that this issue, more than any other, lies at the heart of the current impasse over inclusiveness and human sexuality, and I believe that all the bishops bear collective responsibility for refusing to face up to it.

But the Bishops are not themselves immune from the consequences of their own homophobia. In my late teens, I was confirmed by Robert Nelson, then Bishop of Middleton, at an Evangelical church in Manchester. A week later, my mother thrust into my hands a copy of her favourite tabloid announcing that the Bishop had killed himself in a London hotel. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after a letter to the Church Times, that I received a letter of explanation. Apparently, the Bishop had been having sex with a rent boy who threatened him with blackmail.

Another Church Times reader sent me a copy of a cutting from The Manchester Guardian (as it then was) commenting on the Bishop’s suicide, adding that the diocesan, Bishop Greer, had given instruction that clergy attending the cathedral funeral should not wear clerical dress, and that the event was being held on a Sunday afternoon in the hope that the press would not find out.

Concealment, the silence that Ms Beeching encountered, kicking the issue into the bureaucratic long grass, looking in the other direction: these are the ways in which the Church currently betrays its calling and its responsibilities. And, in so doing, it fails countless people struggling with their fundamental identities — including some among its own leadership.

2 St Luke’s Mews, Searle Street
Cambridge CB4 3DF

From Sandra Newton

Sir, — I was surprised to see the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas (News, 8 June), suggest in response to the letter from the Bishops of Lichfield that (extra?) repentance was necessary before LGBTIQA people could be welcomed to participate in holy communion. Surely, everyone seeking to receive communion does so through a penitent, humble faith in the infinitely generous love of God, expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the active inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the publican for our lasting instruction, whatever our position in the Church.

(Hon. Lay Canon Emeritus)
50 Broomgrove Road
Sheffield S10 2NA

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