IT TOOK 18 months, but, finally, just before lockdown, our parish appointed a very fine new vicar. But while delighted with the outcome, most people remain baffled and suspicious at the secret-society-style politics of the process.
When the PCC reps met the Bishop and Archdeacon to look at the applicants, they quickly came up with three names out of nine to interview. These recommendations were sent to the patron’s representative on earth, who had, anyway, first received all the applications.
The patron, in their corporate remote wisdom — just the one recorded parish visit in 20 years — considered the judgement of parishioners and dismissed it. They would not interview any of the three, and the church would need to run the advert in the Church Times again. No problem for the patron. The patron wasn’t paying, which is consistent, as the patron doesn’t pay for anything. Or, apparently, do anything.
Until it was announced, one Sunday, that the appointment process has been delayed, barely anyone knew that we had a patron.
The last time that the patron played a part in the life of this parish, a mile north of King’s Cross, in London, was the last time there was a vacancy. On that occasion, when the patron learned that the choice of Bishop and PCC for the vacancy was what we now call “progressive” on matters of sexuality — what else? — they insisted on a regressive candidate or no candidate. The then Bishop’s cunning plan was to bill this dubious “progressive” a curate, who would serve in our parish “under” the priest of a neighbouring parish, who, the patron didn’t seem to realise, was more “progressive” than the candidate.
Some years on, and the next priest was appointed priest-in-charge — no need to ask the patron — and, after a few years, the patron seemed to have struck a behind-closed-doors deal with the Bishop, satisfied that bestowing the freehold wouldn’t endanger the parish’s souls.
THIS time around, in the spring of 2019, midway through the interregnum, the church advertised a second time. The PCC reps, Bishop, and Archdeacon came up with a shortlist of four, but the patron — surprise! — didn’t like the list. The patron would like to meet only two candidates, including one whom the PCC reps didn’t feel was right for the post.
The reps suggested a compromise: how about interviewing all five? No, said the patron: their candidates or no candidates. No explanation, no transparency. Decisions made in remote meetings and passed down like holy tablets to the baffled lay people and the infuriated candidates — baffled and infuriated by an archaic, frustrating, and condescending system.
But no candidates it was, until, a year on, when the patronage lapsed and reverted to the Bishop, the patron got the old heave-ho. The parish again put out the word. Nine applicants, five interviewed, one appointment. No patron.
“Patronising”: “to treat in a way that is apparently kind or helpful but that betrays a feeling of superiority.”
In the half the churches where the Bishop does not have the right of patronage, patrons vary from the Queen or an Oxford or Cambridge college to an entitled individual or a patronage society.
The patronage society, as in the case of our parish’s patron, is dedicated to preserving its own tradition. This is tradition in the worst sense of the word: tradition, as someone has put it, as “peer pressure from the dead”; tradition as competitive churchmanship — always a “manship” — in which the prayers and practice of a 21st-century local community are irrelevant compared with the great minds of a group of 19th-century ecclesiastical church-planters.
As Teresa Sutton put it in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, “The Patronage trusts and societies are the most challenging group of patrons to address because many are still very purposeful in fulfilling their original role. They represent party patronage, supporting and promoting the work of either the Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic wings of the Church of England.”
WHEN the post-Covid shakedown of the Church shakes down, it will be no surprise if parishioners are asked to dig deeper. But why would you dig deeper when the ghosts of history, dressed up like the 19th century, with views to match, still have the casting vote in your appointment process?
Why don’t we trust people from the present as much as people from the past?
We, like them, are just passing through, handing on the flickering candle of faith from one generation to the next: doing what we can, digging deeper.
“For 160 years,” as our church website puts it, “local people have gathered here. We’re just the current crop.”
Addressing the Government in an article for The Daily Telegraph last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London wrote; “The new normal of living with Covid-19 will only be sustainable — or even endurable — if we challenge our addiction to centralisation and go back to an age-old principle: only do centrally what must be done centrally” (News, 18 September 2020).
We had “our own hierarchies in the Church”, they wrote, but now was the time “to place our trust in the local, and make sure it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered”.
Perhaps this is time to disempower some of those hidden hierarchies and place a little more trust in the local.
The Revd Martin Wroe is a freelance writer and volunteers as Associate Vicar of St Luke’s, West Holloway, in the diocese of London.
Read more about this story in this week’s Church Times.