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Letters to the Editor

22 March 2024


Volunteers and what deters them

From Dr Ruth H. Grayson

Sir, — One aspect of the current volunteer crisis in our churches that could have been more fully explored in Madeleine Davies’s report (Features, 15 March) is that many would-be volunteers may be deterred from coming forward because of the overly onerous safeguarding vetting and training requirements for entirely non-contact roles such as singing in a church choir, reading a lesson, or leading intercessory prayer.

Ms Davies rightly refers to the safeguarding question in citing the “four-headed beast” reflected in the strategy of this diocese, Sheffield, but I feel this was in regard to the burden that compliance with regulations and guidelines places on individual churches rather than its effect on volunteers themselves.

Within the past year, I have personally encountered this twice in a church: when I was informed that as a choir member at a certain service I was “required” to undergo basic safeguarding training; and when those of us on rotas to lead intercessions or read scripture received a message that “To comply with the safeguarding regulations . . . it is necessary for volunteers to be reviewed annually.”

What sort of image of a church is this meant to project? It certainly might deter many prospective volunteers from offering their services, as it did with flower-arranging volunteers at Gloucester Cathedral in 2010, in a story that made the national headlines. Add to this the fact that, when you browse many church websites, the first menu tab to appear is for safeguarding rather than service times or pastoral assistance. When I was attempting to ascertain the time of a certain service at a parish church in the Peak District last summer, the only phone number given on the website was the safeguarding officer’s.

I would be among the first to agree that the Church as a whole still needs to do its utmost to prevent physical or emotional abuse of any kind, whether on or off its premises. The present safeguarding industry in the Church is like taking the proverbial sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut, however, even though the nut is admittedly more akin in size to a coconut than a peanut. In the mean time, the sledgehammer is hitting those without whose voluntary support the Church is in danger of vanishing off the radar itself.

25 Whitfield Road
Sheffield S10 4GJ

From the Rt Revd David Wilbourne

Sir, — For 18 years as incumbent of two parishes, I solved the ever-present problem of finding churchwardens by seeking candidates from outside the narrow church community. These I had chanced upon in my day-to-day life and ministry, such as our local butcher, fireman, head teacher, and banker, and I simply, if fearfully, put the five-word question to them: “Will you be my churchwarden?”

To my surprise, no one ever turned me down, and they all proved to be brilliant, a breath of fresh air, and massive instruments for change, unfettered by loyalty to often baffling tradition and practice.

Besides spectacularly filling vacant posts, it was an evangelistic exercise, bringing people outside the church to faith. I once asked someone at the heart of the community, after I had buried his sister. He understandably objected, because he was an atheist. “I’m not asking you because of your faith, but because of your massive social and community skills,” I said. Bemused, he agreed, and, in the course of time, ended up preaching, as well as saving the parish from the diocese’s good intentions.

It wasn’t my idea. I took my cue from Jesus, who by-passed synagogue and temple officials and called fishermen, quislings, and terrorists to staff his embryonic Church.

8 Bielby Close, Scarborough
North Yorkshire YO12 6UU

Unexplained formation
of Response Group

From Mr Martin Sewell

Sir, — The Church of England has set up a Response Group to address the Jay report. Both its provenance and the criteria for member selection remain currently unexplained, despite my having specifically raised these concerns on the first day of the recent General Synod meeting. I asked for a full explanation then, but one was never volunteered.

This matters: it appears that the sundry members initially nominated themselves for a pool of names from which unseen hands selected the successful candidates according to unclear and unpublished criteria.

This group is evidently to be trusted to criticise the work of those who have been honoured by the Crown for their high expertise in safeguarding, in both religious and secular contexts, not least developed during seven years of study, listening, and evaluating expert evidence at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The implication of the Jay report is that the only thing “special” about church safeguarding is the institutional persistent inability to do it properly.

The Synod never got to the stage at which it understood, let alone approved, the process for selecting these church responders. This is an unattractive reaction to the Jay call for a new safeguarding culture: it looks remarkably similar to the old one. The new group will, nevertheless, produce a gloss on the Jay and Wilkinson reports. That commentary is likely to become the focus of a future motion instead of the core reports.

I fear that the subtext for this group is for it to go beyond “tinkering”. I encourage concerned readers to write to their bishops and Synod representatives.

General Synod representative for Rochester diocese
8 Appleshaw Close
Kent DA11 7PB

Cornwall’s Save the Parish and the Truro diocese

From Canon Alison Milbank

Sir, — I have returned from a recent three-day visit to those worried about the effect of pastoral reorganisation in Cornwall. My experience of meeting lay people of at least 20 parishes in different areas of the diocese and a number of the clergy is so at odds with what is presented in your report (News) last week that I could weep.

Far from being perpetrators of “harassment”, the people I met were faithful, imaginative, and anxious to craft a positive way forward for their diocese. Promised 82 stipendiary clergy by their Bishop in a BBC radio interview, they had worked out a plan of how manageable clusters of three parishes could thereby be established, which would allow both missional outreach and proper cure of souls, as well as regular celebration of the eucharist. This is key in a traditionally high-church diocese, where in large areas they are now being expected to exist on a regular fare of communion by extension, in which they become passive recipients of the sacrament rather than active liturgical communities.

Far from being mean-spirited, they are praying for the well-being of the clergy now being appointed, in some cases, into such difficult positions. My visit was made complicated by the telling fact that so many would speak to me only in secret; and clergy were scared even to be interviewed in their own homes, because of fear for their jobs, in the knowledge that some priests who questioned diocesan plans had had been threatened with disciplinary action.

I urge those inclined to believe the professional communications of the diocesan bureaucracy over the lived experience of the people to go and meet them. If the Church of England survives in Cornwall, it will be because of the heroic witness of its laity.

Professor of Theology and Literature
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
C32 Humanities Building
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD

From the Acting Archdeacon of Cornwall

Sir, — For the past six months, I have come out of retirement to step in as Acting Archdeacon of Cornwall in the diocese of Truro, after the death of the Ven. Paul Bryer. I read with interest your report last week. It has been my lived experience that sourcing posts that are fruitful and sustainable has been an absolute priority in this diocese.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that the Church of England is good at producing plans, most of which remain just that, plans? What I have found in this diocese, however, is a strategy to see plans become reality, and change implemented. Change is never easy. Sometimes it can be painful, but it is necessary if the gospel is to be presented afresh to this and future generations. I have found believers who are faithful, doggedly determined, and distinctly Cornish (which in my view is a very positive thing).

As I come to the end of my time in the diocese, I can say that it has been a joy to share in licensing services for new ministers, and with an appointment made of a new archdeacon. I give thanks to God for the faithful ministry of the whole people of God — both lay and ordained: those in the parishes and those in diocesan posts. Much as some would like to create an “us and them” scenario, I have been grateful to all those who I have worked alongside for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Long may it continue.

Church House, Woodlands Court
Truro Business Park
Threemilestone, Truro TR4 9NH

Choristers under Labour

From the Revd Robert Tickle

Sir, — Regarding the Labour Party’s plans to charge VAT on school fees, perhaps the Church should be aware of unintended consequences.

Most choir schools subsidise scholarships from the fees of non-choir pupils. As choir schools are sometimes small, the tax might become a threat to the great tradition of cathedral music.

I know a number of other independent schools that subsidise music for young people in their area and award scholarships to local churches.

Perhaps the Church should make representation to the Labour Party to offset the VAT in relation to scholarship and other support for church music. After all, David Lammy was a chorister.

There is time for representation to be made in the event of a Labour government, as this is a serious concern in the church-music community.

5 Bramley Court, Harrold
Bedfordshire MK43 7BG

Priest’s way with wedding photographers

From the Revd John Wates

Sir, — My experience with 200 weddings over 20 years leads me to believe that conflict between clergy and photographers (News, 8 March; Comment, 15 March) can be avoided. My practice was to meet the photographer and explain that we had two firm rules: that the photographer would keep out of my way, and I would keep out of the photographer’s way. We agreed the best positions for the camera/video camera throughout the service. To provide a clear view, I also never stood directly in front of the couple, except for the blessing.

I explained that in many ways the photographer was the most important person there. However good my sermon and leading of the service, the couple would probably have forgotten it by the time they got to the reception. The photos and video would be happy reminders of a calm and spiritual experience for the next 50 years.

Elmore, High Road
Chipstead, Surrey

Bike in the wrong lane

From Sylvia Green

Sir, — The statue of Elgar on his bicycle is outside Hereford Cathedral, not Worcester, as referred to by Dean Ogle (News, 8 March). The statue was sculpted by Jemma Pearson and unveiled in 2005. Elgar lived in Hereford from 1904 to 1911, and he loved his Sunbeam bike, which he affectionately called “Mr Phoebus”. He said that riding it round the countryside of Herefordshire inspired his music.

Address supplied

Militant here in earth?

From Mr John Watson

Sir, — Alexei Navalny described himself at his trial in 2021 (News, 23 February) as a Christian convert from “militant atheism”. I have heard the term “militant” used before in connection with atheism, but never with Christianity. Are there any militant Christians?

42 Granville Street
Sunderland SR4 6BH

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