Friday, 18 November 2016

The Parson's Freehold

Today’s piece comes from “The Pilot”, January 1970.  John Dodd was Vicar of Gouray Church in the late 1970s. There is an irony in this article. In 1977, he needed somewhere to live, and the Reverend Terry Hampton pointed out that there were a number of empty vicarages, any one of which would be suitable. The Dean of Jersey, the Reverend Tom Goss, said that there were plans afoot for those houses, although he declined to give further details: the propensity to dissemble by a Dean of Jersey is nothing new!

On February 15, 2005, the General Synod of the Church of England decided to abolish the system of parson's freehold, gradually replacing it with a system entitled common tenure, which would apply to all clerics equally, removing the present distinction between those with freehold and those without. Under common tenure, the present proposal is that parsonages would pass to the diocese.

Furthermore, such clergy would undergo assessment procedures to ensure that they are performing their function adequately, and parishioners would have further rights to those enjoyed under the Clergy Discipline Measure to complain about their parish priests. If found unsatisfactory, it would be possible to remove such priests with greater ease. However, priests will be entitled to some modest compensation for loss of office, and gain the right of appeal to secular employment tribunals.

The Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009 (No. 1), giving effect to these changes, is now in force in the UK. But in Jersey....

As common tenure does not affect the Channel Islands, the original Ecclesiastical Offices (Age Limit) Measure 1975 stands as the point of reference, as adopted in each deanery. Deans and incumbents in the deaneries of Guernsey and Jersey have to retire on reaching the age of 70 years.

Their appointments may be extended for up to two years , and the relevant island dean should be copied into any correspondence. It is not possible to appoint anyone over the age of seventy as an incumbent.

It is also possible to appoint clergy over the age of seventy as priest in charge and as assistant curate and for them to hold the Bishop’s Licence at the Bishop’s pleasure

The Parson's Freehold
by John D. Dodd

The title to this article is peculiar to our Anglican Church and although often quoted is  not always understood. When an Anglican priest is inducted and instituted into a parish as its Vicar or Rector, he is free to hold that office continually for as long as he wishes – for life, if he so desires. Except for some crime, immoral behaviour, non-performance of duties or complete physical breakdown, he cannot be removed from his post against his will. It is his living and only he can decide when he wishes to resign from it.

The clergy, of course are not unique in this respect; other professional men and women such as lawyers, doctors and teachers enjoy a similar position. From time to time however, the parson's security of tenure is questioned and recently in some quarters the opinion has been expressed that this system is open to abuse and should be modified. Cases of unsuitable parsons staying too long in their parishes have been quoted - examples cited of “square pegs in round holes" where a move on the part of the clergyman would improve the situation for all concerned. There is a feeling that this system should be modified in some way or another.

What are the alternatives? Our Roman Catholic and Free Church brethren have quite different methods of appointment. The Bishop has supreme in the Roman Catholic Church in the appointment of the parochial or secular clergy. It is he who decides where priests shall be stationed, when they shall be transferred and it is incumbent on the part of the priest to obey his bishop. Inherent in this system is the practice of celibacy - a priest who has no family ties can he moved about without much domestic upheaval.

On the face of it this would seem to be a most efficient system; and on the Mission Field it is adopted by many branches of the Christian Church. There is much to be said for missionaries to be celibate      for a short time, at any rate and so be available to be sent anywhere there is an emergency.

But in the Anglican Church we have for centuries believed in a married parochial clergy; and to disrupt family life by continual and frequent removals is not a good thing. Moreover, to many the system snacks for dictatorship. Whilst every care is to elect as Bishops, men of understanding, sympathy and integrity, yet they are only human, liable. as we all are to prejudice, preference, complexes and and other failings: and to concentrate such power into the hands of one man seems to be a dangerous thing. It could lay the clergy open to victimisation from above.

Our Free Church brethren have gone to the other extreme, for in their church it is the congregations who select their minister and who dismiss him. In the Methodist Church, the largest of the Free Churches, ministers are appointed to a group of churches called a Circuit and in that circuit have pastoral care of one or more churches. The legal authority of the Circuit is the Quarterly Meeting. Each minister is invited annually, and at each March Quarterly Meeting, ministers are invited for the following year. After three years ministers can only remain if they obtain 75%, majority of the votes, and after a seventh can only stay with a special permission from the Methodist Conference.

At first sight this may seem a completely democratic procedure. But, to many, it has grave defects. For one thing many of those voting, in the meeting have only it very superficial knowledge of' tile ministers concerned: they may have only seen and heard them on the few occasions they have visited their particular church. Yet they decide whether or not they shall stay in the Circuit - this is rather like the parishioners of St. Ouen voting for the Constable of Grouville.

Moreover by what yardstick do you judge a priest's efficiency in his work? By law an Anglican rector or vicar must perform certain duties preaching, once per Sunday, celebrating Holy Communion on certain days. baptizing children from his parish, and so on. I have never met an Anglican priest who only performed the bare legal requirements and I hope my readers never have. But what are the other duties of the clergy? Define them in one view, and. ipso facto, you charge others with neglect. One man sees his duty to visit house by house through his parish as his daily duty, even if it takes him five years to do so. Another sees this as a waste of time and concentrates on attending all local organisations, starting clubs, fellowships, etc.

But an outsider very often only judges from the outside. No parson seeks the limelight but inevitably, some by their work will make headlines and catch the vote to the detriment of others.

Insecurity of tenure can also vitiate a parson's plans for the future. He may feel with his leaders that certain steps should be taken for the wellbeing of the church - steps that will take some time to complete. But if he should he moved the following year what then? His successor may have entirely different ideas. The temptation of laissez-faire is often irresistable.

But the strongest argument in favour of the Parson's Freehold is his duty to speak out fearlessly for what he believes, to follow the dictates of his conscience and to denounce evil wherever and whenever he sees it, without fear or favour. This is a prophetic task which sometimes involves rebuking and even disciplining some of his own people. An awful dilemma can present itself here; he can keep silent because he believes that by God's help he can serve his church and people by staying with them. Or he can follow his conscience and speak out knowing full well that he may be moved the following year. No man ought to be faced with this, if it can be avoided; it leaves him a prey to victimisation from below.

In the united Church of the future, each branch of the Christian Church will bring its own contribution: each branch will have to give up some of its own special practices and sink some of the differences in order to obtain unity. There must be some measure of' "give and take". But many feel that the Parson's Freehold is something we Anglicans can give to the Universal Church. No system is perfect, but with safeguards already provided for, this system seems the least open to abuse and the most conducive to spiritual wellbeing. This conviction is strengthened by the expressed wish of many of our Roman Catholic and Free Church brethren that this system was incorporated into their branch of Christendom. 

No comments: