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Two and a half cheers for PCCs?

by
10 December 2021

A century after the parochial church council gained legal powers, Christopher Hill reflects on its past, present, and future

Dave Walker

THIS year marks the centenary of the coming into effect of the Parochial Church Councils Measure of 1921, itself enabled by the Church Assembly Powers Act of 1920. After a century of PCCs, what do we think of their suitability for the next 100 years?

First, we should be profoundly grateful for the fact of participation of the laity in the local decision-making processes of the Church of England. True, there are still parishes where strong clerical leadership — whether Catholic, Evangelical, or liberal — ignores both procedure and ecclesiastical law by imposing its will. I have also witnessed a bishop, equally irregularly, assume the chair at a PCC meeting discussing a vacancy (I was then representing the patron).

Of course, there can be domineering lay members on a PCC, too. But, generally, I believe that there has been a good partnership between priest and people. In being thankful for this precious legacy, we should consider two things. First, where this comes from: PCCs did not come out of nothing. Second, what theology undergirds our PCCs, despite obvious problems and occasional abuses?

What came before 1921? There is a clue here in what is usually a preliminary to the annual parochial church meeting, when the churchwardens are elected. Legally observant incumbents will have alerted the meeting that not only those on the church electoral roll can vote for the churchwardens, but also all other parishioners on the secular electoral register.

This is the surviving relic of the older vestry meeting, and it is worth recalling its history, because this tells us how lay people participated in the governance of the church and parish in days gone by, both in vestries and through the churchwardens.

In the proposed but never enacted canon-law reforms of the Church of England immediately after the split with Rome, there is reference to churchwardens. They are equated with treasurers and held responsible for the repair of the church and “other expenses incumbent upon them by law”.

These came to include responsibilities under the Tudor and later Poor Laws, and sometimes the maintenance of highways and bridges. Churchwardens’ duties were elaborated, and negligent wardens were to be punished (this was not new). But we also meet the term “the syndics”, who are called wardens.

By the authoritative 1603(4) canons, these have become sidemen (this is how the 1603 canon spelt it), chosen alongside the churchwardens and described as assistants. Both wardens and sidemen were chosen jointly by the minister and parishioners. If there was disagreement on wardens, the minister chose one and the people the other. For sidemen, the bishop appointed if there was disagreement.

The present canons still technically require the formal appointment of sidesmen by the annual meeting or the PCC. Originally, sidesmen played an important part as testes synodales, or synodal witnesses, in cases of disputes at visitations and diocesan or other synods. The importance of this historical digression is that these lay people, wardens, and sidesmen were chosen by the laity and clergy together: lay officers appointed by consensus, with arrangements where a nomination was disputed.

 

WHAT was the manner of this lay choice? Here, I suspect that the tradition of the pious medieval gilds (historians prefer this spelling) played its part. They also had elected wardens. The gilds were found in almost every parish church; they supported a particular altar or shrine, or the rood.

After the Reformation, their only survivors were those gilds that were associated with particular trades, most famously the City of London Livery Companies. The gilds’ officers were chosen by the members. Similarly, in the parishes, what eventually emerged were the elected vestries, which shared responsibility with the wardens, assisted by the sidesmen, for the maintenance of the church itself as well as some secular functions.

Vestries could and did have women members, although the electorate was ratepayers only. The Episcopal Church in the United States still calls its parochial councils vestries, as does the Scottish Episcopal Church (which speaks of charges rather than parishes). In the 19th century, successive local-government acts hived off the secular functions of both vestry and wardens to create the then new town and parish councils.

So, the precursors of our PCCs were also the bodies out of which local government was formed. For all this, we can be profoundly thankful. The PCC is heir to an emergent pattern of ecclesial partnership between clergy and laity, and the emergence of local democracy in England. Think of this when you are at a long winter’s PCC meeting in a cold church hall waiting to go home: it could be some mitigating consolation!

 

WHAT of theology? Although the term “synod” is never used of PCCs, they are an instantiation of “synodality”. The ARCIC statement Walking Together on the Way looks at Anglican and Roman Catholic synodality at the universal, regional, and local levels. At the parish level, there is a balance between the proper part played by the ordained ministry with its teaching and sacramental charisms and the wider people of God.

Some decisions cannot be made unless there is an agreement between clergy and laity; in theory, after listening, debate, and courteous discussion. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of the tension between Jerusalem and Antioch, of listening, of silence, and eventually decision-making (Acts 15).

Lucan scholars are no doubt right in thinking that the historical debate was sharper than that (read Galatians), but the point about the account is to show how the church ought to behave, walking together along the way, synodically. Compare also the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24). This must be true at all levels of the Church. Early ecumenical councils and later Western general councils enjoined synodality both local and wider.

 

WHAT of the future? The socio-political contours of England go back a long way, at least to Theodore of Tarsus (Archbishop of Canterbury c.668-90), who established the ancient diocesan boundaries of the Church of England, after which our counties emerged. Parish boundaries eventually followed from the seventh to the tenth centuries.

This parochial pattern formed the bedrock of English religious and social structures, although it is worth noting that, even in the Middle Ages, as the larger towns emerged, the “suburbs” outside the wall were often neglected. And so emerged the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans, who were not tied to parishes. The new conurbations of the Industrial Revolution were also neglected, because a private Act of Parliament was then necessary for the establishment of new parishes.

Providentially, the Methodist movement sprang up to fill the vacuum, followed by the Anglo-Catholic “slum parishes”. Today, parish boundaries have less relevance in cities than in the country. Cars and the digital revolution have made boundaries even less relevant.

Nevertheless, the parish is legally enshrined in the warp and woof of the Church of England. Hence the alarm at the rumour of its abandonment for “missional” lay-led cell groups (presumably with tenuous relations to traditional parish churches). The parish system is predicated on at least one priest per parish.

Today, the Church of England has the expectation of a professional priest, with a professional stipend (not the same as a professional income), and a house of a certain standard. Even with the huge contribution made by non-stipendiaries and active retired clergy put together, this means that each stipendiary post requires a stipend, a house, and a future pension.

Financially, the Church will never be able to afford to have a full-time priest in every parish — most certainly not in the rural dioceses. Hence, of course, the advent of the multi-parish benefice. Here (in Gloucestershire), I look at the large number of parishes in benefices in the Cotswolds, or in neighbouring Herefordshire — or, indeed, Monmouthshire, in Wales. Yet each parish legally has its own PCC, and is reluctant to abandon its self-determination. In consequence, an incumbent has too many PCCs to chair. There is also the growing problem of finding parish officers, such as wardens and treasurers.

 

THERE are remedies. Parishes can be amalgamated; joint PCCs can be established; district church councils can be formed. Each successive revision of the Mission and Pastoral Measure has made these things just a little easier to achieve. But, as the basic legal unit locally remains, the parish change can be slow.

As a bishop in Staffordshire and Surrey, I recall encouraging clergy and lay people to look at the range of possible adaptations that were available, but with not a lot of take-up. And sometimes, although the delegation of the chair had long since been possible, some clergy were reluctant to give up chairing every PCC meeting.

From the beginning of this year, however, there are important changes. During Covid time, it was easy to miss the revision of the Church Representation Rules, 2020. Joint councils may now be established benefice-wide, without the existing PCCs’ having to meet at all, all their functions being transferable to a new Joint Council.

Alternatively, some functions may be retained: for example, fabric matters for a particular church, leaving all benefice-wide matters to the joint council. Helpful FAQs have just been published by the legal department, including Charity Commission requirements on declaration of income.

If PCCs are the fruit of earlier developments in the sharing of governance in the Church, the fact that this has developed and changed over the years should encourage us to be open to new developments. There is the attraction of simplicity in a joint council for worship, pastoral care, and mission, with designated trust funds for local fabric questions; or in local PCCs’ dealing only with the fabric of their parish, leaving worship, pastoral care, and mission to the wider body. Our two-and-a-half cheers could become three.


The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford.

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