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Leader comment: Why does HTB get it right (and everyone else get it wrong)?

10 December 2021

THERE were two emotions discernible on social media this week in reaction to the news that Canon Archie Coates is being lined up to succeed the Revd Nicky Gumbel as Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, next year. The first was joy: many concur with the view of the selection committee that Canon Coates is a natural successor to Mr Gumbel, and a core member of the HTB family (and it is a family: his assistant curate in Brighton since 2009 has been Jonny Gumbel, Nicky’s son). The other emotion, though, was envy. This was not based, surprisingly, on Canon Coates’s future position, but his present one, that of “vicar-designate”. Mr Gumbel, Snr, plans to retire next July. Canon Coates takes over in September. This gives him nine months to prepare for the new post, albeit alongside his duties at St Peter’s, Brighton. More particularly, it gives Holy Trinity merely a long summer holiday between incumbents.

There is nothing at all wrong in this arrangement — and that is the cause of the envy. Few other churches in the C of E manage to replace their incumbent without a significant vacancy, as interregna are often now called, often of many months’ duration. A review group under the Bishop of Leeds is to look at high-level dysfunctionality in the Church; there would be more support for a group that sorted out this perennial irritant. It persists, we would suggest, because each benefice encounters it only periodically.

Setting aside a basic lack of organisation, there are three reasons put forward for vacancies — although the topic is remarkably little discussed. The first is practical: newly appointed incumbents must serve at least three months’ notice in their current parish; housing often needs to be renovated or decorated; new schools, or partners’ work, might need to be arranged. All of these, bar the decoration, could be accomplished during the notice period. The second is financial: dioceses are believed to welcome vacancies to cut the overall stipends bill. For the Church as a whole, at least, this is partly an accounting fiction: if the new incumbent is recruited within the diocese, that stipend is simply being paid in the “old” parish; if without, then by another diocese. There is an overall saving if an incumbent is retiring and their (reduced) income is picked up by the Pensions Board — but, looked at in the round, this is not enough to justify the strain on a parish that a long vacancy often causes. A further reason offered is to avoid interference by the present incumbent, even if formally excluded from the recruitment process. This is a valid concern, but a determined predecessor may still interfere indirectly.

Interregna are grumbled about, but seldom challenged. Perhaps lurking behind this acceptance is the persistence of an outdated and mistaken idea that direction comes essentially from a new cleric instead of, as is proper, from collaboration with the laity. Continuity is generally valued in the secular world. Why is it not valued in churches other than HTB?

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