Power, patronage and the green welly

Faith & Reason: Who controls the parishes of the Church of England? Andrew Brown suspects that, as the money runs out, their management will fall more and more into the hands of the laity.
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The Independent Online
A priest I know was recently involved in an extremely sticky meeting. Like many country livings, his is an amalgamation of several villages. Each once had its own priest and still has its own parochial church council and treasurer. There's the rub. For the treasurers were meeting to decide how to share out the burden of his salary, which of course falls more and more on his congregations. In 10 years' time, they will be paying for him entirely, and of course each wants to get as much of his time and effort as possible.

The villages that make up this priest's parish vary greatly. Suburban countryside has its class divisions no less than the city, and they can be harder to bridge. In fashionable west London the people who drove four- wheel-drive vehicles feel that the presence of surrounding poverty makes their own lives more picturesque. The people who drive those cars in the countryside would have no objections if the rural poor were dealt with by myxomatosis.

The green welly villages feel no warmth or duty towards the satellite dish estates their cleaning women come from; and it was one of the green welly villages that proposed that the priest be paid by each parish in direct proportion to the time he spent in each.

There are visible snags to such a plan. If the clergy are simply to become chaplains to whoever can afford to pay them, then a great deal of the point of the Church of England will be lost, not least in its own eyes. But there was also one literally unmentionable objection, which silenced the priest who told me the story. Though the green welly village thought he was spending very little time ministering to their needs, he was in fact counselling one person there quite a lot. This was a confidental arrangement. However, the dynamics of village life mean that it could not be kept only partly secret. If it was known he was helping anyone at all in the village, who, and why, would soon be guessed and known to all.

Such an objection runs counter to the whole trend of modern market-driven life. There is a fundamental and irreversible shift of power taking place, away from professions and towards management. Accountability comes to mean something less personal and more financial. Some Christians welcome this, as Dr Carey appears to do. Others, like the Bishop of London, may regret it. Neither can do much either to hasten or reverse the trend. The best they can hope to do is to manage the Church's accommodation to it.

This is not an unprecedented problem. Difficulties between the Church and the world go back as far as there has been a Church. This fact has been obscured within the Church of England by the delicious cushion of endowments which may yet see the century out. This has meant that the principle of lay accountability has been exercised not by congregations, but by Parliament. In practice this has meant that it has not been exercised at all. The General Synod has tried to exert its influence but, apart from the brief and catastrophic panic over homosexuality in 1987, the laity have seldom had any decisive influence there.

Any attempt by Parliament to reassert its control even over the arguably parlimentary endowments of the Church Commissioners now seems to most of the Synod a sort of blasphemy. I think that this may lead more suddenly than anyone now wants or imagines to complete disestablishment and disendowment. But, if that comes, it will only be reverting to an older pattern. The three village treasurers squabbling over their priest are the heirs of three different patrons: one royal, one episcopal, and one an Oxford college. With the exception of the college, all these organisations now look outmoded and ridiculous.

But they once represented real power, and that is why they had the right to appoint patrons. Admittedly, they found them hard to dismiss once appointed. But the existence of patronage is evidence of a degree of power over the Church by the laity which may well be the historical norm. It certainly is in other Protestant churches. The only alternative would be a Roman Catholic model, where the people get the priests they need and lump it. The bishop there has all the powers of a patron and a bishop. It cannot be said that this model is popular, or successful, in the developed world at the moment. Probably the only answer is for the priests of the Church of England in future to have such imposing and persuasive personalities that they can persuade their parishes to let them get on with the job as they see fit.

This may not be the system they would have chosen, had they had a choice.