JUDGING by the advertisements, dioceses are recruiting constantly, even in a pandemic. Meanwhile, a vicar tells me that his young family has been waiting two years, despite his Archdeacon’s blessing, for diocesan approval of £8000 expenditure (of which he has offered to pay half) to knock together a poky kitchen and poky dining room in his unlisted London parsonage.
Dioceses should not treat parsonages as cash drains, but as parish resources for Christian ministry and mission. Improvements not only preserve property values, but, more importantly, boost the morale of key workers and their families. Effective promulgation of Christianity (“mission”) requires happy, supported parish priests and donors.
The paradox is that, although an incumbent may feel impotent in effecting urgent improvements, ownership of churches and parsonages is vested in the incumbent — as a corporation sole, when he or she is instituted and inducted as Rector or Vicar. (Proposals to transfer ownership to diocesan boards of finance, made in the General Synod in 2006, were voted down.)
Dioceses behave like legal owners, however, using language implying that they bestow parsonage occupation. They even class up to 20 per cent of parish share as “housing cost”, i.e. rent, under opaque diocesan financial arrangements.
DIOCESES can sell parsonages while there is no incumbent only by declaring them surplus to requirements by the creation of benefices. Advance collaboration with parishes is vital, as parishes do not receive the sale proceeds. The intention is to share assets with poorer parishes; but, if the diocese pockets the cash and is unaccountable, it may create lasting anti-church feeling. Villagers in Derbyshire whose vicarage (built by public subscription) was sold 30 years ago still bitterly remember the crassness of being made to pay £2000 to repurchase part of their vicarage garden to be the church car park.
In another five-church benefice, created ten years ago, it still rankles that two villages had their rectories sold. Pocketing the sale proceeds, this rich diocese continued to demand the parish share from churches that had lost assets and had gone from having their own vicar, or half a vicar’s time, to a fifth of a vicar’s time. The vicar’s job, to serve five churches while inhabiting a small ugly house with one bathroom, became less attractive to good applicants.
That benefice is now in interregnum. In a recent benefice Zoom meeting, the churchwarden of the two smallest churches, with elderly congregations, felt “publicly pilloried and humiliated” by her bishop. He demanded funds for their parish shares, saying that they needed to get their finances “back on track” before the diocese would even consider appointing a new incumbent. He reduced one treasurer to tears.
The bishop’s insensitive, mercenary behaviour — implying threats of church closures, after a pandemic year without ministerial, pastoral, or spiritual support — sparked outrage. All five PCCs bitterly noted that the diocese had forcibly grouped them into their benefice. The resulting animosity towards the diocese, and each other, had prevented their ever working together effectively for ministry, mission, or fund-raising.
CLERGY need to live in the heart of the community, to be identifiable, and near to church buildings, so that they can help to maintain them. Yet even replacement modern vicarages, built cheaply in the 1970s and ’80s, but valuable in a prime spot, are now being sold.
Communities can seek help from the organisation Save Our Parsonages. Its director, Richard Jackson, describes dioceses’ treating parsonages as theirs to sell as “terribly arrogant”.
“The Church of England suffers from chronic short-termism,” he says. “It always seems to sell off assets at just the wrong time, or retrench inappropriately. Habits have changed: now that priests have spouses and families working from home, it’s crucial to have comfortable, serviceable parsonages. The C of E always seems to be 40 years behind the curve.”
Agreed: the new report from the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, A Vision for the Church of England in the 2020s (News, 27 November), proposes to cut clergy posts, creating ever bigger, more unmanageable benefices. This seems counter-intuitive. The pandemic has shown that the leadership of local incumbents adds social capital, especially in rural communities. Young families are moving out to the countryside, and valuing green spaces again. Communities can congregate outdoors, even grow vegetables, in old-style parsonage gardens.
Parsonages should not be cashed in to finance running costs; the lessons of history must be learned. The proceeds of the 8000-plus rectories sold since 1945 could, if prudently invested, have generated the income for the C of E’s key costs: clergy stipends and pensions.
Clergy overburdened by unwieldy benefices will struggle. Without value, transparency, and accountability, former stalwarts will stop giving (the C of E normally relies on parish share for about 80 per cent of its income). Dioceses should not asset-strip parishes, then expend the capital raised in recruiting Mission Enablers at £85,000 salaries, while apparently unwilling to find £4000 for valuable vicars to make value-adding home improvements.
Emma Thompson has been a rural parish volunteer, choir leader, and Sunday school leader for the past 25 years. She is also a solicitor, company secretary, and freelance writer.