Vicars in need of a shop steward: The clergy are losing out as the Church of England updates employment practices, says Stephen Trott

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The Independent Online
WHY ON earth would a vicar join a union? Ours, after all, is no ordinary job, but a precious vocation. And the idea of a priest refusing to say mass until his stipend was raised, or boycotting patients at the local hospital until a company car was provided by his diocese, is unthinkable. But on 15 September the first clergy section of the MSF white-collar union will be inaugurated. And I have already paid my first month's dues.

The clergy of the Church of England have not needed unions before now. Their freehold as rector or vicar has enabled them to withstand almost any challenge to their position. The clergy are traditionally self-

employed and independent, their pay coming in the past from local endowments such as tithe, glebe and fees for services. Some of the endowments date back to the formation of the parish system in the Middle Ages. Over the past 20 years, in the cause of much- needed reforms such as the provision of a pension, and fairer distribution of income, the church has centralised these endowments. The result is that for many practical purposes, such as pay and tax, the clergy are no different from any other employees.

Other changes, however, are less welcome. The old parsonage houses, with rooms capable of accommodating overflowing bookcases and parish meetings, have been replaced by warmer but much smaller standardised Church Commissioners' suburban houses. Many of the smaller parishes have been amalgamated, so that one priest must now cover several churches in his cure of souls, losing the closeness of identity with his parishioners that his predecessors enjoyed.

The growth of large parishes, in which the clergy are employed as team ministers without security of tenure, on seven- or 10-year contracts, means that roughly a third of the clergy are without the protection of the traditional freehold. And when the term of the contract expires, these clergy have no employment rights at all. In law, a minister of religion is treated as an 'office holder', not an employee: there is therefore no appeal to the local industrial tribunal.

The Church of England authorities are working towards putting all clergy on short contracts. A commission under the new Bishop of Durham is about to consider the abolition of freehold and its substitution by fixed-term contracts. It would ease the financial crisis no end if more parishes could be quickly amalgamated, and the number of posts reduced. It would keep the clergy much more in line if they had constantly to look over their shoulders for the shadow of the bishop, who might decline to offer them another post. (It is difficult enough already for those who want a move: there are more clergy than posts available.) And if the freehold went, the tiny number of rotten apples in the clerical barrel could more easily be ejected from their parsonage houses. There would be two cheers in each parish concerned, although perhaps not for long once the neighbouring parishes were joined together with it.

It is odd how the Church of England has failed for so long to come up with an adequate disciplinary system. Those provisions that are in place are largely unworkable, and therefore ignored. Too many bishops are still willing to appoint clergy with unsatisfactory track records to freehold positions, when they have the power to appoint on a short- term basis, or even decline the appointment. The blame lies with the failure of the Church of England to provide a national professional body for the clergy, capable of upholding good standards, not with the freehold system, which has served the Church of England and its clergy well for centuries. What we need is something akin to the disciplinary tribunal of the medical profession, not consistory (diocesan) courts, with their obsolete criminal jurisdiction over the clergy.

The Church of England has many styles of doing things, from Catholic to outright Protestant. It has had to be a tolerant and broad church, and the freehold has enabled a variety of competing styles to coexist, without one side encroaching too far upon the other. Many parishes have long-established traditions, and it is deeply disturbing not only to lose the priest they know and trust, but to have another, of a very different hue, sent as a replacement. The abolition of freehold will inevitably result in a ministry that is transient and impersonal, the priest never knowing how long he is to remain; it will also reduce parishes eventually to a monochrome churchmanship that lacks colour and prophetic quality.

Nor is it good for vocations for the church to give up one of the few aspects of its ministry that caters for the very human need of stability. The tradition of married clergy is inseparable from Anglicanism, but how many will want to bring up their family while always at risk of being moved, or worse, unemployed in mid-career? There can be few professions that would tolerate such a situation, and most of them are considerably better paid. In those professions, at least there is a prospect of owning one's own home at the end of it all. For Anglican clergy, a first-time mortgage at 65 or 70 is a daunting prospect. Perhaps such considerations ought not to matter at all? But they weigh heavily on a priest with a family - and on many without.

The Church of England, as a Christian body, ought to take the lead in caring for its workers. It already employs a number of lay people, on the same legal terms as any other organisation. If it wants to take away the security that tied housing provides for its 10,000 clergy, it will need to come up with the equivalent job protection - and pay scales - it already offers lay staff. It cannot afford to do so, and the likelihood is a poor second- best for the clergy.

Above all, the Church of England has evolved over many centuries, to provide necessary checks and balances between the rights, obligations and powers of its clergy and parishes, and the diocese and bishop to whom they belong. The removal of freehold would be a drastic step for both priest and people, ensuring constant uncertainties for both and tilting the balance of power firmly in the direction of the bishop and the diocese. There will then be a need for all the fairness and protection that employment legislation gives to everyone else. And the clergy may well have to join a trade union to get it.

The writer is Rector of Pitsford with Boughton and a member of MSF.