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Letters to the Editor

17 December 2021


Not much gap to mind in Brompton

From Mr David Lamming

Sir, — Your editorial (Comment, 10 December) reflecting on the announcement that Canon Archie Coates is to be the next Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), currently “Vicar designate”, after the Revd Nicky Gumbel retires in July 2022, rightly asks questions about the value of long vacancies contrasted with continuity planning.

This is an issue that was addressed by General Synod in the last quinquennium, with the first Legislative Reform Order made under the fast-track procedure set out in the Legislative Reform Measure 2018, amending the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986 to simplify the process for appointing a new incumbent, a process that starts with the bishop’s sending the requisite notice, which the bishop may do as soon as he or she is “aware that the benefice is shortly to become vacant by reason of resignation or cession”.

Although the bishop has a discretion (the words in section 7(2A) are “may give notice”), there is no need to wait until the incumbent leaves before starting the process, and the 1986 Measure includes provisions to ensure that neither the outgoing incumbent nor his or her spouse attends the “section 11” PCC meeting(s) to discuss the vacancy and prepare the parish/benefice profile. It would be interesting to know to what extent bishops do now give early notice rather than wait until the benefice is actually vacant, when it must be given.

Out of interest, one benefice in my deanery may be able to lay claim to the shortest vacancy. The Revd Caroline Hallett retired as Rector of Acton and Great Waldingfield on 1 August 2021. Her successor, the Revd Faith Marsden, who had been the curate in the benefice, was collated and inducted just under six weeks later on 8 September.

Lay chairman of Sudbury deanery synod and former General Synod member
20 Holbrook Barn Road
Boxford, Suffolk CO10 5HU


From the Revd Philip Welsh

Sir, — I don’t wish to argue for extended interregna, but I think that your leader might have recognised that changing incumbents is not simply an organisational matter. It brings to an end a pastoral relationship that has developed over a good number of years, and it is generally thought unwise to jump into new relationships on the rebound.

24 Fawcett Street
London SW10 9EZ


From the Revd Dr John Caperon

Sir, — Your leader comment “No vacancies” draws attention to a seriously questionable aspect of the Church of England’s current management and employment practice, the refusal to consider the future of a parish’s life until its current incumbent or priest-in-charge has left. I spent my professional career as a self-supporting priest in secondary education, and in that context it would be considered plain irresponsible not to plan for succession.

All the posts that I held over forty years were advertised by the school well in advance to ensure that no “vacancy” occurred; one simply applied for a new post in the spring, and took it up in September. Moving into senior posts and then headship, I was able to spend time with departing colleagues and to gain invaluable insights into the schools concerned and their cultures, staff and pupils. This all seemed to work rather well, and helped to ensure smooth transitions, and sensible continuity.

When — after retirement posts in consultancy and chaplaincy support, and time spent in research and writing — I was asked to take on the leadership of a local parish, there was, however, no opportunity to meet my predecessor. I came into post supported by two very good churchwardens, but the assumption was that I would pursue my own course, which I’ve done (thankfully, without too much complaint) over the past five years. But I am now about to retire, and whatever might happen next for the parish is shrouded in mystery, apart from the certainty of “vacancy”.

This strikes me as bizarre, inexplicable even. Succession planning is an essential aspect of most areas of professional life, and that the official Church won’t countenance it — I’ve been advised to leave aside any concern I may have about the future life of the parish — seems simply to fly in the face of successful, secular practice. Holy Trinity, Brompton, may indeed be pointing the way forward.

Sarum, Twyfords,
East Sussex TN6 1YE


From Canon Brian Stevenson

Sir, — Your leader of 10 December commends the quick filling of interregna and cites the swift appointment of Canon Archie Coates to Holy Trinity, Brompton, as good practice, meaning that the vacancy will only last the month of August next year. I have never heard of such a short interregnum, and it underlines the fact that HTB is an exceptional parish.

I agree that we do not want long drifting vacancies, but a year or so is not a calamity. Most parishes have able lay people. Many of them will be retired and so can devote time to maintaining the work of the benefice. A parish should not be a one-man/woman band, and an interregnum provides opportunities for others to show talents that are hidden or not fully used during an incumbency. People will rise to a challenge, and usually the parish runs smoothly, numbers keep up, and the visiting clergy and readers are warmly welcomed and appreciated.

Being retired, I have helped out at four vacancies in our area this year and find it very fulfilling. Indeed, to some extent, vacancies are the lifeblood of the retired clergy and give many of us a sense of continuing usefulness in the gospel. It would be great if the Revd Nicky Gumbel retired to Kent, as vacant parishes would soon have him out on the road most Sundays. They would love him.

Michaelmas Cottage
Stan Lane, West Peckham
Kent ME18 5JT


Deeper questions that Covid measures raise

From the Archdeacon of Hastings

Sir, — Once again, the Covid Recovery Group has issued timely and comprehensive guidance on the measures that churches are now obliged or advised to take to combat the spread of coronavirus. Once again, “recovery” seems primarily to be about translating government directives into our own context, with little reflection on their far-reaching implications. In her introduction to the updated guidance, the chair of the group writes that “the latest measures announced by the Government should offer some extra protection and reassurance for people.” They do not reassure me.

The rise of Omicron indicates that the discovery of new variants of Covid and other diseases will from now on invariably rise to the top of the news agenda. The response to these developments likewise indicates that whenever this happens powerful voices in politics, science and the media will swiftly call for a range of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns, increased use of masks, distancing, and working from home. The evidence is now clear that some at least of these have caused incalculable harm to society, education, the economy, health care, and, indeed, the life of the Church. Do we believe that the continued use of such measures can be justified whenever a new public-health concern is raised?

The introduction of Covid passes for entry into larger venues raises further questions. It indicates that we are likely to become a society in which our health status, and perhaps in time other information about us, will increasingly be captured on our mobile phones, and used to determine whether we may participate in certain forms of activity. Moreover, in contrast with previously held moral standards about the right to bodily autonomy, it seems that individuals will now come under heavy societal pressure, and possibly legal obligation, to receive medical treatments when these are believed to contribute to the wider good. Are we happy to support such developments?

Doubly jabbed myself and having recently recovered from an unpleasant brush with the virus, I am neither “anti-vax” nor a “Covid-denier”. I do believe, however, that the situation that is now upon us — and no longer in some predicted future — raises crucial moral, social, and, indeed, theological questions that the Church cannot indefinitely sidestep, and which we must find a proper way to address if “recovery” is to be an attainable goal.

Beechmount, Beacon Road
Crowborough TN6 1UQ


‘Spiritual wasteland’ at Llandaff Cathedral

From Dr Nicholas Mason and 22 others

Sir, — In the Church Times (News, 26 November), the Dean of Llandaff, the Very Revd Gerwyn Capon, revealed his treatment at the hands of the Bishop of Llandaff, the Rt Revd June Osborne, and the Cathedral Chapter. That experience has been shared by us as members of the cathedral congregation.

In April this year, concerned for the well-being of the Dean and the Christian community in Llandaff, 32 members of the congregation wrote to Chapter seeking clarification of issues relating to the running of the cathedral. It was requested that they be addressed at the forthcoming annual vestry meeting (AVM).

At the AVM, held in the cathedral, one of the signatories of the letter, wrongly assumed by Chapter to be its author, was asked to read the letter to the AVM. He agreed, and was then singled out for specific criticism in Chapter’s response. The concerns of the 32 signatories were contemptuously dismissed with phrases such as “keyboard warriors” and “barrack-room lawyers”. The four ordained members of Chapter who were present made no attempt to intervene.

Because of the failure to address the questions raised at the AVM, a further letter was sent, signed by 39 members of the congregation. This also expressed grave concerns about the behaviour of the vice-chair of Chapter, who had delivered Chapter’s response at the AVM. The signatories felt that the manner and tone of his delivery had no place in a church. Chapter’s written reply offered no clarification of the questions asked, and concerns about the behaviour of the vice-chair received no answer.

Subsequent to this, the individual singled out for criticism at the AVM submitted a formal complaint that the behaviour of Chapter represented a failure to uphold Christian values and breached the Church in Wales Bullying and Harassment Policy. In her response, Bishop Osborne decided that there was no arguable case of misconduct by Chapter or any of its members. She went on to state that Chapter’s response to the original letter was, instead, “robust and powerful and left no doubt as to the hurt and displeasure” (a very revealing choice of word) that had been experienced by Chapter.

Contrary to the view of the 39 signatories of the second letter, Bishop Osborne felt that Chapter’s response “gained in impact” by the manner of the vice-chair’s delivery. She stated that the original letter was ill judged, and that the presumed criticism that it contained “of persons of high reputation within the Church and without” merited an equally robust rebuttal.

We would reply to Bishop Osborne that, in view of all that has come to light in recent weeks about the behaviour of Chapter towards the Dean, and the complete absence of understanding or compassion in any of the correspondence that we have received from them, that not only were the concerns of the signatories of the letters justified, but that the situation in the diocese of Llandaff is far worse than any us of had imagined.

We are at a loss to understand how it has come to this, and grieve that we are left with no alternative but to draw attention publicly to our experience. When the individual who complained to Bishop Osborne was told that he would have no right of appeal, and when Bishop Osborne and Chapter repeatedly attempt to pass off their behaviour as consistent with the gospel, what other choice do we have? We grieve that the sanctuary of the Cathedral has been turned into a spiritual wasteland in which pastoral sensitivity has been replaced by managerial authoritarianism, and where reputation and power matter more than the gospel and truth.

We are writing to the newly elected Archbishop of Wales to ask him to institute a comprehensive, transparent, and fully independent inquiry (i.e. from outside of the Church in Wales) into the senior leadership of Llandaff diocese since the appointment of Bishop Osborne. And we call on the Anglican Church to pray for the healing of the Christian community in Llandaff Cathedral, that it may once again be a place where the love of our crucified and risen Lord is lived out in holiness and peace.

c/o 15 Kyveilog Street
Cardiff CF11 9JA


Take cults seriously and remain vigilant

From the Revd Helen Hancock

Sir, — I would hate the rather sneering tone of Edward Wickham’s review of the investigation of cults carried out by BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 (Radio, 3 December) to distract anyone from taking cults seriously.

Whatever journalistic failings may or may not have been committed in the programme, cults represent a very real danger, and we all (especially church leaders) need to be informed and stay vigilant. Anything that reduces the likelihood of this is regrettable.

20A Kingsdowne Road
Surbiton KT6 6JZ


Equality in the group

From the Revd Anthony Appleby

Sir, — In his interesting article (Features, 10 December), Bishop Christopher Hill mentions the problem of the parish priest’s chairing PCC meetings in the multi-parish benefice.

I commiserated with a friend of mine who was the parish priest of ten parishes, and presumably spent much of his time attending PCC meetings. “Not at all,” he replied. “I treat all the parishes exactly the same, and as I cannot attend all the PCC meetings, I go to none.”

19 Albatross Road
Exeter EX2 7SB


Creatures of habit

From John Puxty

Sir, — In your recent article “Without a faith in common” (Features, 19 November), you quoted someone saying that “going to church was just something she did, like going to the gym.” I go to the gym just like I go to church.

32 Summerfields Way
Derbyshire DE7 9HF

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