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Living a long way from Dibley

07 February 2020

A new research project explores the lives of clergy families in the inner city during the long 1980s. David Geiringer and Alastair Owens explain


Young mothers with toddlers in the playground, 1989

Young mothers with toddlers in the playground, 1989

ON THE night of 11 April 1981, Archbishop Robert Runcie looked across south London from the tower at Lambeth Palace, to witness the blazing fires and blaring sirens of the Brixton riots.

Speaking in the House of Lords the next day, he made the point that, in the case of the inner city, clergy were “unique among public servants in that they are the only ones living there”. Runcie’s comment not only reasserted the Church’s national position at a moment of profound social unrest, but also highlighted the distinctiveness of the vicarage as a space of home and work in the troubled inner city.

Our new research project is investigating everyday life in urban vicarages during the “long 1980s”: a period that is book-ended by the oil crisis of 1973 and the ordination of women in 1994. These years witnessed the so-called “crisis of the inner city”, when anxieties about urban decline, economic deprivation, and racial tensions reached fever pitch.

The project focuses on London and Liverpool: two cities whose communities were among those hit hardest by Thatcherite deindustrialisation. In response to riots in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, Runcie established a commission which eventually published the radical report Faith in the City (Comment, 20 February 2015). It called for the establishment of a “Church Urban Fund” to target inner cities (Features, 8 December 2017), and laid the foundations for the Commission for Black Anglican Concerns — an early attempt to combat institutional racism within the Church and beyond (Letters, 5 February 2016).


WHILE Faith in the City continues to be a touchstone for histories of the Church in the 1980s, there remains little consideration of how the clergy responded to these issues at an everyday, parish level. We have been speaking to clergy and their families about life in inner-city vicarages, uncovering the varied but central part played by the clerical home in inner-city spaces and communities.

The testimony captures the complexity of vicarages, which housed an array of activities that went beyond the daily duties of domesticity and ministry: hospitality and temporary accommodation for the homeless, refuges for victims of domestic abuse, nascent meeting spaces for LGBT support groups, and sites of mediation between the police and rioters at times of unrest. The voices of those interviewed offer a new perspective on the parsonage, and, through this, the part played by the urban Anglican Church in an apparently “secularising” society.

From the tales of Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley, the parsonage has traditionally been imagined as a cosy, Victorian-built dwelling. This green and pleasant image of the clerical home has served as an analogy for popular perceptions of the Anglican Church in changing modern times — quaint and pastoral, but also dated and detached.

The BBC2 comedy series Rev. (2010-14) marked a conscious attempt to challenge this “bucolic” — in the words of its star and writer Tom Hollander — presentation of the vicarage (Features, 4 November 2011). The award-winning series followed the trials and tribulations of the Revd Adam Smallbone, a hapless End End vicar, as he attempted to negotiate the demands of an eclectic and eccentric congregation, pernickety area deans, and everyday married life.

The vicarage, particularly its doorstep, is a key setting in which the comedy unfolds. Colin, a homeless character who regularly pitches up at the vicarage with lager can in hand and trusty dog Bongo in tow, refers to Smallbone not by his name or title, but by the label “Vicarage”. It might come as little surprise that a homeless man identifies the priest with his house, but this also speaks of the significance of the vicarage as a physical marker of the clergy’s place in the community.


THE design and management of parsonages became a hot topic in the post-war decades. These debates came to a head in the early 1970s, when financial constraints, coupled with the professionalisation of diocesan administration, prompted a nationwide process of selling-off and replacing the Victorian mansions with smaller, more efficient vicarages. This move was staunchly opposed by certain sections of the Anglican community, and remains a bone of contention to this day (News, 27 May 2011).

The Church Commissioners produced a guide aimed at dioceses, architects, and clergy to advise on the design of future vicarages in 1975. Known as the “Green Guide”, owing to its luminous cover, four iterations were published between 1975 and 1998; each one increasingly emphasised the need to take measures to separate the public and private aspects of vicarage life. The vicar’s study should be located near the front door, the front room needed to be big enough to host both parish meeting and family activities, a ground-floor toilet was a must, and windows should not be overlooked by neighbouring houses.

Although intended as a guide rather than a straitjacket, the booklet included attentive, perhaps even fastidious, details. It specified the preferred distance between coat hangers (2.5 mm), the ideal temperature for the lobby (a chilly 13 degrees), and precise dimensions for every room in the house.

The Green Guide came under fire from incumbents who were unhappy with its prescriptive and generalised guidelines. It was not until the 1998 edition that the guide acknowledged the specific challenges of the inner city. One priest serving in an East End parish explained that the building of his new vicarage in the early 1980s had been “shackled” by the prescriptions of the Green Guide. He bemoaned being lumbered with mod-cons such as “glazed screens, sliding double doors, cumbersome fitted wardrobes, heavily armoured central-heating systems, aluminium windows, showers instead of lavatories, and French windows in sitting rooms”. Indeed, the French windows were targeted by thieves in an attempted break-in, just one year later.

The incumbent wrote to the diocese and Church Commissioners, complaining that this had been an inevitability, the French windows typifying the inadequacy of his Green Guide-approved vicarage for accommodating the specifities of inner-city life and ministry. In a letter demanding that the French windows be removed, he argued that “few parishes (if any) could be rougher than this one, no parish has such a high criminal population — adolescent unemployment is rife and the incidence of burglary has increased considerably since the recession.”


LIVING in a vicarage meant that the challenges of the inner city were constantly seeping into the family home. The radical priest Ken Leech served and lived in Bethnal Green during the 1970s and 1980s, one of the most deprived and socially fractured parts of the country at the time (Obituaries, 2 October 2015). His willingness to confront the National Front, which had a growing presence in the ethnically diverse East End, earned him a death threat from the paramilitary fascist organisation Column 88.

Delivered to his vicarage front door, the package contained a bullet and the words “Your next caller may be your Maker, Father,” written in blood. This was not Leech’s first death threat, and, although he was targeted more than most, the prospect of violence was common to most inner-city vicarages. A vicar whom we interviewed, who served in south London during the late 1980s, explained that he felt that Rev. was too tame in its presentation of inner-city ministry. He once had to take out a restraining order against a regular “unannounced caller”; the man was known to carry a machete everywhere he went.

In spite of these incidents, clergy and their family members were wary of alarmist accounts of their experiences, which might further “pathologise” the inner city. Most tended not to remember feeling afraid in the vicarage: the majority felt that it was a place of happiness, hospitality, and home. The inner city itself was at the heart of many inner-city vicars’ vocations. An incumbent in south London, who served in an area with one of the lowest scores on the deprivation index in the 1980s, explained that “I had felt a call to the inner city from when I was first a Christian. I’m wired to do things that other people don’t want to do.”

This spiritual response to the challenges of the inner city was common to many clergy people, but clergy family members also spoke warmly of their home lives. The title of Sarah Ann Henshall’s 1991 book Not Always Murder at the Vicarage neatly typifies this sense that the benefits of vicarage living outweighed the obvious challenges.

In the foreword, Eileen Carey, the wife of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, explained that the book was testament to those who had been fortunate enough to have “experience of the joys, privileges and the immense job satisfaction to be found in vicarage life”. Clergy partners spoke of taking great pleasure from the “hustle and bustle” of inner-city vicarage life — meeting people and situations that they would never otherwise encounter. One was convinced that she would have “died of boredom in a comfy, suburban parish”.

Inner-city clergy couples spoke of the great joy which they took from sharing their vicarage gardens with parishioners for barbecues and social events. Many of the parishioners living in high-rise estates did not own gardens of their own: one of those interviewed described the vicarage garden as “an oasis in an urban wilderness”.

While sociologists in the long 1980s, bent on proclaiming the city “secular”, busied themselves counting bums on pews in churches, the vicarage next door, down the road, or in the next street, bustled with Christian life, belief, and action. Recovering the intimate histories of these unique spaces enables us to tell a new story about the Church in a changing and turbulent world.


David Geiringer is a Post-doctoral Research Associate, and Alastair Owens is Professor of Historical Geography at Queen Mary University of London. They would welcome hearing from clergy families involved in inner-city ministry in London and Liverpool from the 1970s to the 1990s. d.geiringer@qmul.ac.uk .

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