Priests for the people

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The Independent Online
The almost liturgical response of the Bishop of Norwich to my third marriage and subsequent dismissal is that "the matter is closed", or that "a line can be drawn under this sad episode". He said it when he dismissed me a year ago, he said it to my churchwardens on the only occasion that he agreed to speak to them nine months ago, and his spokesman said it at the conclusion of Monday's industrial tribunal. I may be forgiven for saying that he is wrong. The saga that followed my dismissal as priest- in-charge of the Hilborough group of churches will continue because the church is in need of reform.

It is one thing to conclude - as the tribunal did - that a clergyman is not an employee, and therefore not subject to secular employment laws, but much harder to say what he actually is. As a result of the present climate of change we find ourselves with a two-tier system of parish priests. These are firstly the possessors of freeholds, that is vicars or rectors, and secondly those with no security at all, namely priests-in-charge.

Both categories do the same work for the same money, but their job protection bears no resemblance. Whereas it is extremely difficult to remove vicars or rectos from their jobs, a priest-in-charge is dismissable on the say- so of his bishop. He can become one of the church's many casualties who have either been sacked or, more insidious, "made to resign". I have sought to highlight this anomaly, and the plight of those outcasts for whom there is no safety net. I did not seek reinstatement or financial reward and was not concerned with winning or losing.

With dwindling church commissioners' funds prioritised for clergy pensions, local congregations must pay more towards their parsons. They should have more say in appointing them in the first place instead of, as was the case in Norfolk, having them foisted on them against their wishes.

The present policy of adding more and more parishes to fewer and fewer clergy, while charging ever-increasing sums in the form of the quota or parish share - polite terms for a church tax - is counterproductive. It stifles people's involvement, causing indignation and discouragement.

The way to motivate our small rural parishes is for those in authority to say: "If you can find someone acceptable to act as your priest whom you can afford to support, we'll train him and provide the spiritual back- up needed." This system worked well in the days of the early church and could do so again.

Today there are competent Christians willing to play an active role in their local church affairs. It is time that the church involved its people responsibly. A remote, centralised authority pontificating from afar and not giving proper consideration to those it affects is no longer acceptable.

The writer is former priest-in-charge of the Hilborough group of 10 churches near Swaffham, Norfolk.