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Letters to the Editor

18 January 2019

Counselling services for the clergy, the Oxford ad clerum, parish vacancies, and pink gin


Counselling services for the clergy

From the Revd Simon Robinson

Sir, — As a clergyman who has been subjected to extreme violent abuse and physical threat twice, both times in services in front of frightened and anxious congregations and both times by the same person, I welcome the proposal from Nick Tolson, director of National Churchwatch, for systems of support and reporting when such incidents happen (Comment, 11 January).

I was previously a head teacher who worked on deprived inner-city estates. When such an incident happened, as it did quite regularly, there were systems for dealing with the assailant, including banning that person from the school premises.

In this diocese, Bath & Wells, the level of support that I received from the Bishops and senior staff after the two incidents that I was subjected to was superb and immediate. I am grateful to them all for their swift action and their intent to ensure that I was OK, not only in the short term, but in the long term also.

The vicarage was checked for security, and new security measures were put in place; but, aside from this, I was had access to three months of weekly psychotherapeutic support through the diocesan clergy-counselling service, a service that is entirely confidential. This provided a lifeline and a sacred place in which to make some sense of what had happened, as well as rebuild my sense of security and self-esteem.

I would hope that every diocese has such a counselling service in place, but I understand from colleagues elsewhere that this is not so. Being able to work out feelings with a trained psychotherapist who is independent of the diocese and yet funded by it is resource both valuable and necessary, not only at times of great stress or trauma, as after an extremely violent incident, but at other times in our lives and ministries.

If there is one particular piece of work that every diocese could undertake, it is ensuring that all the clergy and, indeed, their families have access to such emotional support, fully funded, confidential, and immediate when needed.

Parish Office
The Annex, St Andrew’s Church
Wellington Square, Minehead
Somerset TA24 5NH

The Oxford ad clerum and the response to it 

From Mr J. N. Sykes and Canon Sue Booys

Sir, — We note with interest your report of a letter of opposition to our Bishops’ recent ad clerum (News, 11 January). You mention “more than 100” signatories .

Our experience is that the pastoral letter has been widely appreciated in the diocese — and in many places is regarded as a statement of what should be regarded as the status quo. For perspective: there are some 600 active clergy and 51,500 lay members of electoral rolls in the diocese (figures correct, August 2018). This could be taken to imply that 84 per cent of the clergy support our Bishops’ pastoral letter.

The clergy and laity of the diocese have confidence in the Bishop and his senior staff, and are engaging warmly with our emerging missional strategy around the call to be more Christ-like through our contemplative, compassionate, and courageous lives in Church and society.

Chair, House of Laity, diocese of Oxford
Birchwood, 3 Littlemount Cottages
Church Road, Cookham Dean
Maidenhead SL6 9PS

Chair, House of Clergy, diocese of Oxford
The Rectory
Dorchester on Thames
Wallingford OX10 7HZ

From Mr Brian Anker

Sir, — Your report on the Oxford ad clerum used the abbreviation LGBTI+ (used in the ad clerum itself) twice. In the Revd Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’s article (Comment, same issue), the term LGBTQIA+ is used. I have discovered what LGBT stands for, but the rest of the alphabet used is not explained, and a “+” could be taken to indicate sexual activities that the writers or organisations concerned are unwilling to make explicit. Are they, perhaps, P for paedophilia, or SM for sado-masochism?

It is probably too much to expect that anyone will ever be open and frank about this subject. The impression is being given that your publication and our leaders in the Church of England are intent on promoting such diverse sexual activities as preferable to that which is procreative and within a committed faithful relationship between a man and a woman.

When Ely Cathedral flew the rainbow flag to demonstrate solidarity with a Gay Pride, it may have given the general public the impression that all parishes in the diocese had abandoned support for traditional marriage.

Surely, the full membership of the Church of England should be given the opportunity to make its views felt. Perhaps a referendum would be appropriate?

10 Golding Road
Cambridge CB1 3RP

The process when a parish vacancy arises 

From Mr David Lamming

Sir, — Philip Johanson (Letters, 11 January) draws attention to the “breakneck speed” at which the process to appoint a new Bishop of Southampton is being conducted, since the announcement on 26 November that Bishop Jonathan Frost is to be the next Dean of York. Mr Johanson comments: “It is a pity that parishes are not allowed to work at the same speed when a vacancy is announced.”

It is, indeed, remarkable that interviews for the Southampton post are to be held only two months after the announcement, and before the see becomes vacant on 1 February. The relevant legislation, the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986, does, however, allow for the recruitment process for a parish priest to be started before a benefice becomes vacant, but this is not mandatory.

Section 7(2) of the Measure provides that where the bishop “is aware that a benefice is shortly to become vacant by reason of resignation . . . the bishop shall give such notice of that fact as he considers reasonable in all the circumstances to the designated officer of the diocese”. The designated officer then sends notice of the vacancy to the patron and the PCC secretary (or secretaries in a multi-parish benefice), and a “section 11” meeting of the PCC(s) should then be held within four weeks. That such a meeting can be held before the benefice becomes vacant is highlighted by the provision in section 11(2) that the outgoing incumbent is not to attend the section 11 meeting, but the trigger to start the process is the bishop’s section 7 notice.

It appears to be the practice in some dioceses for the bishop not to give the section 7 notice until the benefice is actually vacant (or even later), which may be several months after an incumbent announces his intended retirement or move to another post. This may soon change, however.

Currently, the Legislative Reform Committee (LRC) of the Archbishops’ Council is consulting on proposals to address the delay issue by a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) that would amend the 1986 Measure. This would be the first LRO under the new accelerated process for amending certain aspects of ecclesiastical law, now permitted by the Legislative Reform Measure 2018. Under the proposals, in the case of resignation or retirement, the bishop would be required to give notice of the vacancy to the designated officer “not later than the day on which the benefice becomes vacant”.

I suggest that this does not go far enough, Although the consultation paper recognises (para. 17) that “there may be good reasons why it would be preferable for the process for filling a vacancy not to begin until after the outgoing incumbent has left,” it also notes (para. 25) that if the bishop “considers that there are special reasons in relation to a particular benefice, in the light of which a delay in starting the formal process would be advisable”, he should use his existing power under section 85 of the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011 to suspend presentation (after due consultation and with the consent of the diocesan mission and pastoral committee.) Accordingly, I would suggest that the section 7 notice should be sent no later than one month after the bishop becomes aware of an impending vacancy.

Responses to the consultation paper are invited by 24 January 2019 to jenny.jacobs@churchofengland.org. May I encourage readers, especially those who can comment on how the process has operated in practice in their own experience, to take up this invitation.

Member of General Synod
20 Holbrook Barn Road
Boxford, Suffolk CO10 5HU

Literary character of Gospel birth narratives  

From the Revd Neil Bryson

Sir, — In his letter (11 January), the Revd Adrian Alker states that he encourages his congregation not to believe the birth narratives as “literal fact”. Those who do so preach and believe it are, in his view, dishonest and should grow up; they should treat “the congregation as intelligent searchers of meaning”.

It may surprise him to know that honest, grown-up, intelligent clergy and congregations are capable of accepting these accounts as biological and historical facts that are also signs of deep spiritual truths that have the power to change “themselves and their world”.

The Bible and the sacraments are the interface between the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural: this is incarnational Christianity; for “the Word was made flesh.” I have no qualms in proclaiming my faith in the virginal conception of Jesus Christ; in the birth of God the Son in that poor cowshed outside a pub in Bethlehem, visited by angel-summoned shepherds and star-led Magi. As Betjeman put it: “The Maker of the stars and sea become a Child on earth for me!”

I have every intention of continuing to encourage my congregation in that same faith.

416 Tonbridge Road
Maidstone, Kent ME16 9LW

From Mr Philip Baxter

Sir, — I refer to the Revd Adrian Alker and his finding “the reluctance of clergy and others to be honest” about the birth narratives.

I think that it is not so much reluctance as evidence of the lack of education. Most people, in pulpit or pew, really believe the narratives are historically true. Consequently, they have a false slant on the very point of the parabolic story: they support the idea of a romantic, even sentimental, welcome to a new Messiah, when in fact Luke’s point is precisely the opposite. He is accusing the Jews of rejection of the Messiah; they had “no room” for him. What a difference!

We have to put ourselves in the position of the Jews and stand, if not accused, at least questioned. Our answer should be in the hymn “Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown”, and especially in the refrain: “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus; There is room in my heart for thee.” The inn of Bethlehem was not a building; it was the heart of the people.

1 Mariners Court
Lymington SO41 3QW

Home communions of the sick: why do national statistics ignore them? 

From the Revd Steve Cook

Sir, — In common with many parishes, no doubt, we have been involved in uploading data for the National Statistics Unit to compile a picture of church activity at both a local and national level.

One area that seems inconsistent is in the collection of data about home communions of the sick. In many parishes, there are substantial numbers of sick communions. Once people are unable to come to church, they are no less members of the Church, and it falls to the parish team to take holy communion to them, as long as they wish to receive it.

From the parish viewpoint, this can add a substantial workload to the team of clergy and volunteers. To overlook those who are at home or in hospital also gives a distorted picture of the size of the church and its activities.

Taking these aspects together, there is every reason to be collecting this data, but the National Statistical Unit does not appear to be doing so. Perhaps it could comment on why this is?

St Barnabas Vicarage
449 Rochester Way
London SE9 6PH

A concerted effort to tackle homelessness 

From Canon Adrian Mairs

Sir, — I should like reply to the Bishop of Manchester’s comments about homeless provision in Manchester in the 1970s (News, 4 January).

During the period 1969 to 1976, I worked in the city as a Church Army officer with the homeless. At that time, there was a concerted effort by many agencies to give meaningful support and rehabilitation.

The Church Army led the way by demolishing an old 100-bed dormitory-style unit, and building a new 40-bed specialist single-room provision, at the time heralded in the Evening News at the Hilton of the North. (That unit still exists today and is still, I think, working with people who are homeless.)

Alongside this rebuild, we pioneered, with Manchester Probation Service, Social Services, the NHS Withington Hospital, and Manchester Alcoholism Service, meaningful rehabilitation and resettlement for all residents. This work was an attempt by multiple agencies and other hostel providers, the Salvation Army, etc., to meet what was a serious issue then, as today.

Indeed, the diocese allowed us the use of the old St Saviour’s vicarage as a second-stage recovery unit for alcoholics.

For all involved in this exciting work, albeit nearly 50 year ago, I feel I must challenge Dr Walker’s remarks: “They [facilities] weren’t great but better than nothing at all.”

I feel his words are a poor reflection of that period, and all the people involved in this area of work.

In 2022, Wilson Carlile House will celebrate 50 years’ service in Manchester diocese and city. I trust that the innovative work started in 1970 and still continuing today, although in a different way, will be celebrated.

15 Salterfell Road
Lancaster LA1 2PX

South Bank Religion and community ministry  

From the Revd Ellis Blackmore

Sir, — Old man that I am, I remember the day in 1963 when Honest To God by John Robinson was published (Features, 4 January), and I, like many other students of the Bible, rushed off to the university bookshop to get a copy.

For young people like me who had not grown up with a traditional Church of England background of private school, the vicarage, or even an O or A level in Religious Studies, there was a challenge in training for the ordained ministry and learning how to interpret the holy scriptures in a world in which the traditional approach to theology and worship no longer spoke to the wider community. Ordinary working people had not attended church in any numbers certainly since the end of the Great War, and, in the parts of Southwark and London in which I have worked, had never attended.

It is a mistake to think that Robinson’s thinking penetrated much further than the “in” crowd of the South Bank Religion, as we came to be known, and even less in the diocese of London, where the Establishment based in the City and the Cathedral continues to be rooted in the social and academic elite.

Nevertheless, he and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, inspired the work of Southwark Cathedral to become a theological and spiritual centre for the diocese, and the generation of real and lasting change through the Southwark Ordination Course (which has become the norm for training throughout the country, and opened up opportunities for ordination training to working women and men); liturgical experiments (which gave life to the participation of all the People of God); lay training; and the urban-ministry initiatives of outstanding leaders such as Eric James and Douglas Rhymes.

Robinson’s writings were often obscured by philosophical detail that passed some of us by, but his theological and pastoral thinking enabled many of us to develop a ministry that has been based in the parish and the community, and to relate to those people who were, and continue to be, outside the Church of England Establishment. This is a tribute to his initiatives as Bishop of Woolwich. We did not give up the liturgy and worship that continue to inspire both our interpretation of the Faith and our social witness, in spite of the challenging political atmosphere that continues to this day.

We were, and continue to be, proud to be labelled as liberal Catholics, at a time when the changing and changed focus of social and community life continues to move against some of the traditions of the Church of England.

I still treasure the memory of the adventure-playground committee that I helped to set up all that time ago, with its leadership of women and men from different religious communities and none, as one of the significant elements of my first curacy and the ministry of faith in north Southwark all that time ago. It was, for me, being Honest to God in parish ministry, and gave me the basis of the next 50 years.

Other dioceses and bishops have also contributed to these positive changes. The current leadership of the Church seems to be moving against this open community ministry in favour of the somewhat closed focus of the Evangelical revival. In some dioceses and parishes, that Establishment ministry continues to inhibit our community ministry.

We can learn from the writing and witness of people like Robinson and the South Bank Religion, and should not underestimate its value or its positive impact on the Church and the community.

35 Leith Mansions
Grantully Road
London W9 1LH

Time for a pink gin?

From Noël Riley

Sir, — Reading the Rt Revd Graham James’s light-hearted item (Diary, 4 January), I was fascinated to learn that “pink gin” was an Anglo-Catholic poison. I had attributed my father’s fondness for pink gin to his war service in the navy, but perhaps he inherited it, with his churchmanship, from his father, the arch-Anglo-Catholic, Athelstan Riley.

Bulmer Tye House,
Nr Sudbury,
Suffolk CO10 7ED


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