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Why is my former parish being denied a priest?

05 April 2024

Pastoral reorganisations that lead to the abolition of posts do not support growth, argues Campbell Paget

SINCE retiring a few months ago, I have had the opportunity to reflect on many things. None has caused me more anxiety than the current state of the Church of England and its parishes — especially, but by no means only, its bruised and beleaguered rural ones.

Those for whom I feel most sadness are, without doubt, the hard-pressed but wonderfully committed churchwardens and PCC members who continue to suffer the egregious consequences of the current doctrinaire centralism that is designed to place more and more control in the hands of a bureaucracy whose centralising strategies have so far manifestly failed to deliver.

I and my former churchwardens were most grateful for the forensic work of members of Save the Parish who diligently unearthed and analysed the parlous state of both the financial and strategic management of the C of E’s resources, and showed us, too, that we were not alone as a parish in being treated with indifference and disdain.

Our particular situation caused many observers from outside the parish to scratch their heads in amazement as to why a financially secure and fruitful rural parish church of about 200 members — including more than 30 young families, a church school with a chaplain, a salaried youth worker, and supporting a missionary couple abroad — was suddenly told that there was no longer a post to apply for when I retired, since there was to be “pastoral reorganisation”.

While all available research showed that our numbers justified a full-time priest — and, indeed, the need for additional ministerial help — this was completely disregarded.

SEVEN whole months after receipt of my official Deed of Resignation, the diocese still had not presented its plan, even though it was quite clear that the decision had already been taken. An eminently suitable candidate to succeed was available to take up the post immediately on my departure; however, initially having countenanced our “headhunting” — precedents having been set elsewhere — and the candidate having met and been unanimously approved by my 18-strong PCC, the Bishop had a change of mind.

What incensed my astonished churchwardens and PCC members — several of whom are highly regarded, and, in some cases, have been decorated for their track records in their respective professions — was the determined unwillingness to engage with them in an open and honest way: this was galling in the extreme.

It was clear that the local voice, despite years of presence and expertise, counted for nothing in the face of numbers, targets, and ratios that bore no relation either to the current reality or to strategic need. The lack of confidence and trust which this engendered grew quickly: even the most traditional of Anglicans, raised to bow or genuflect at the very mention of archdeacon or bishop, felt powerless and benighted.

Although told that we could make our case to the Church Commissioners against the episcopal fiat on “pastoral reorganisation”, we discovered that not only could the diocese string out our case over many months by various ploys: it could also prove to be a very expensive exercise for us.

Again, to add insult to injury, after presentation to the living had been suspended, there was still the expectation that the parish continue to pay the entire designated “quota”, including the stipend, National Insurance, and pension element for a priest. The diocesan hierarchy seemed either unable or unwilling to grasp the significant moral credibility raised by this issue.

Obviously, each PCC must make up its own mind about how to proceed when faced with such intransigence. My former one considered, on moral, practical, and professional grounds, whether it was still right to make payments to the diocese. This is not an easy decision to make, but they believe that they have an overriding moral responsibility to use responsibly and wisely the money entrusted to them by their parishioners.

AND so, as I reflect on more than 30 years of parish ministry — not including time spent as a lay PCC member and sometime churchwarden beforehand — I find myself constrained in advocating an appropriate degree of parish financial rebellion with the triple purpose of bringing diocesan hierarchies to their senses, of forcing them to engage in a more humble and mutually beneficial manner, and, above all, of not only saving the parishes, but also funding and manning them for sustainability and growth, not “managed decline”.

These reflections will disturb some — not least those who still trust in the competence, trustworthiness, and offices of bishop and archdeacon. But against this must be set the increasingly likely demise of our parishes, which are still, despite the current challenges, the heart and soul of so many towns and villages, and the most appropriate bearer in word, sacrament, and deed of the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Revd Campbell Paget is a retired priest.

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