Paul Kent reflects on patronage in a changing Church and changing world

IN THE MATRIX of checks and balances which have given guidance and structure to the Church of England through good times and bad, the contribution of patronage is probably the most misunderstood and least appreciated. To some, the very word has a sinister ring of vested interest or meddlesome interference whereas, properly understood it encompasses another input of support and constructive interest at the grass roots of parish life.
In one form or another, patrons, whether individual or corporate, having legal entitlement to be involved in church appointments outside the regular hierarchical episcopate, have been present from very early times. Though their origins stem from concepts of property now much changed, patronage is still a live and important issue in today’s church. The exercise of patronage rights extends to a wide cross-section of the population including the Crown, Lord Chancellor, collegiate bodies, bishops, deans and chapters, a range of specific charitable trusts and a large number of individuals. It is with individual private patrons in mind that these observations are mainly addressed. Patronage is notably an English feature. In the Church in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, matters are arranged differently, but not necessarily to their advantage.

As a positive contribution, patronage depends on a concept of multiple involvement, lay together with clerical, just as in Parliament or in the Synod. Patronage can play a pivotal role in bringing forward different ideas, in some cases giving material support and in introducing candidates for preferment from a wider field that otherwise might be the case. As the law recognises, when impartially applied, it also acts as a counter to over-concentration by eccentric interests no less that by enthusiastic bishops eager to further their own stance.

But in recent decades, impartiality seems to have been in short supply in what appears to be a push towards monochromatic dioceses. The apparent difficulty of the Church of England in presenting a coherent foundation for public confidence in providing a moral datum line has been further hindered by infirmity of purpose almost to point of self-destruction. The positive has been even more eroded, in the writer’s view, by the fragmentation arising from the Ordination of Women issue.

In a bid for coherence two Integrities are now said to exist, one free wheeling and liberated, the other traditional orthodox Anglican and recognisable as such. Both, it is claimed on authority, are entitled to equal respect.

Patrons, in presenting to livings in their gift, not infrequently have a leaning towards one or other of the Integrities. The parish nowadays, given a voice and almost a veto in the making of appointments, may also seek to align with one of the integrities, but not necessarily that of the patron nor indeed of the bishop. Some observe that newly appointed bishops are inclined more to lean toward the free-wheelers. Impartiality and equality of respect for the traditional integrity should be much more transparently obvious than is often the case. Alas we seldom seem to have leaders of the stature of Gore, Henson, Temple or Michael Ramsay, (and even if such were to be proposed they may well not be appointed under the present arrangements).

The ability of a patron to act conscientiously is further compounded by the grouping of parishes particularly in rural areas. With pressing financial constraints, the upkeep of beautiful ancient buildings becomes ever more problematic as does the maintenance of elaborate diocesan command structures to watch over diminishing congregations. Radical solutions being abhorrent, the commonest scheme for redress is the amalgamation of neighbouring parishes (two or three to eight or nine) often of very different characteristics, with the corresponding number of church buildings to care for. Furthermore, two to eight parishes produce, inevitably, four to sixteen churchwardens and a range of different patrons in which a private individual may find himself as one voice among bishops, deans and chapters. It is most important in these cases for the Private Patron to play the fullest part in the procedure leading up to an appointment.

An individual patron in such circumstances doubtless will want to press his case to make an appointment broadly acceptable but should have in mind that the inherited values are generally the best known and more recognisable. A corporate patronage Trust may well have its own terms of reference enshrined in its foundation deeds and in its loyalty to its benefactors.

Gone are the days when the parish priest was the only learned person in the parish. Now it is more likely that a congregation will include a proportion of the well-informed from a variety of walks of life. Though only of secondary concern to the patron, the role of religious education in the State sector nevertheless is of considerable importance in view of the Church’s major commitment to its schools and the contribution which parish priests make, as well as the high public regard which church schools enjoy. After decades of a dismissive secular attitude, religious-awareness is seen by many as contributing to life skills for the rising generation amidst an otherwise depressing scene of drugs, delinquency and drop-outs. Parental attitudes can be indeed perceptive and instructive.

Time has brought us into the Computer Age in an explosion of information technology and it does not strain the imagination to foresee a time not far distant when books, hand writing and the postal services as we know them are things of the past, when the computer has become the total substitute for pen and paper, the filing system and the library. Whether the rising generation will become computer-bound, unable to communicate without a PC remains to be seen, but it seems possible; strange but not total fantasy. Hard thought needs to be given now to the sort of values which must be sustained and to the spiritual dimension which has to be handed on to the computercrat if depersonalisation is to be avoided. One trusts that the new Millennium will see total peace and prosperity; more predictably it will bring its testing times of distress and conflict. It is for withstanding the unforeseen that the spiritual dimension provides the source of robust inner strength.

The Church has an important window of opportunity to transmit its inheritance and continuity and in this patrons have their contribution to make by thoughtful and conscientious co-operation. The time is ripe to find new ways of making this more effective.

Paul Kent is President, Society for the Maintenance of the Faith