David Wilson describes how St Peter’s, Folkestone, have responded to an unexpected vacancy
Every parish needs a vision. Not a vision just for tomorrow, but a vision of what your parish can be in fifty years’ time. Not a vision created through intellectual endeavour, either – not a tick box Mission Strategy Action Plan. I mean, that you cry to the Lord for a vision. Fast. Pray. Go on Pilgrimage. Go on retreat. Rend your clothing. Dance naked before the tabernacle of the Lord (but try not to get caught). Whatever it takes to wear your preconceptions away, so that the Holy Spirit can actually communicate with you! Then without grandiose claims, quietly and simply present the vision to the parish and see what happens.
I slipped it into the discussion papers for the Annual General Meeting of the parish. It is not really the sort of thing that you can adopt. There are always some who mock. But it changed most people’s thinking. People came up to me saying, ‘I have real faith that our parish has a future again.’ It quietly restored confidence in the parish. Giving went up. Wills were re-written. Suddenly, we had future prospects.
However, let me warn you, if you are not already aware: when you really let the Holy Spirit start working through your Church… God is in control, not you. Just as the parish seemed to be getting back on its feet, just as the churchwardens were in the middle of overseeing a major £600,000 project to renovate the fabric of the church to make it fit for purpose again, the most shocking thing happened. Our Vicar suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack.
Once I had informed our bishops and church authorities I went into the church and I gave Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof a run for his money in God-bothering. I cried, I screamed, I shouted at God for at least ten minutes. I think a bystander would have described me as hysterical. And then I was overwhelmed by the most comforting and most extraordinary sense of calm imaginable. I protested that neither I, nor the church was ready for this, we had expected at least another four years with our Vicar, at least, to prepare for the next stage of progress. The finances were not in place. It was all too early! But the presence was insistent. This was part of God’s plan: just get on with it.
Every churchwarden should realize this. A weak parish is quite likely to become a dead parish during an interregnum. All anyone in the church hierarchy worries about is your statistics: how many people do you have in your church on a Sunday? How many young people? And the bottom line is your financial position. If these do not stack up, your own bishop, your Father in God, will not be able to defend your parish. Parishes today are like penguin chicks. It doesn’t matter how holy you are or how historic, there are only so many vicars to go around. Only the insistent tough A chicks are fed resources. The weaker B chicks are only given the leftovers, until they are so weak that the skuas tear them apart. Churchwardens in an interregnum need to be those tough A chicks to deliver for their parishes. You have got to be strong, positive and work hard. There is no room for self-indulgence.
The first task in any interregnum, therefore, is to look to your finances. Go through everything with your treasurer – and quickly. If your position is weak, fix it. I quickly approached the top donors to the church individually and asked them to combine forces to pay for half a parish share on top of the half we were already paying, so that we could afford a full-time vicar of our own, instead of sharing with a neighbouring parish. That is a big ask. To my relief, they all agreed.
The second task is to ensure that the PCC is fully on side. The PCC was asked if they had faith in the future of the parish. Were they willing to back the churchwardens fully in leading the interregnum and in any fight with church authorities for the future of the parish? Finally, did they still support the Resolution? If the answer to any of those resolutions had been ‘no’, the parish would have been lost. They were overwhelmingly affirmed. Had any individual member not been positive, they would have been asked to resign. An interregnum can only be survived well with a positive and confident PCC. The churchwardens must achieve a positive consensus with them to work forward. We then informed them of the financial backing that we had received, and we all worked out what we wanted to achieve through the interregnum. The support of the PCC has been irreplaceable.
The third task is to look to your vital statistics. I shouldn’t have to tell you what to do with those!
The churchwardens acted fast in these tasks. By the time of the funeral, the churchwardens were in a position to talk to Bishop Norman of Richborough about the vision the parish had for going forward.
Shortly afterwards we had a meeting with our Bishop-in-Law and the Archdeacon to try to share the vision with them also. Our success was mixed. The Bishop was not yet in a place to listen, but it was useful in so far as it introduced us to the new Archdeacon. We then entered a period of some months waiting for the Diocese to be ready to hear us, whilst it went through its bureaucratic processes. There were meetings with the PCC of the other parish in our ‘Joint Benefice’ status, from which we were about to divorce, and the Archdeacon.
Throughout, the congregation was encouraged to pray regularly in support of the Churchwardens, PCC and for an exciting new priest. Their patient support was a marvel, particularly as we were still upside down, enduring building works.
In the meantime, to back up our main donors, we launched a stewardship campaign. St. Peter’s Folkestone is a poor parish, so we did not expect much from it. We raised giving by about 7%, but at least two members from our small congregation walked out because we dared to ask them to contribute.
We also consulted towards the Parish Profile with the congregation, the schoolchildren, the schools, the parish and the neighbouring incumbents, to ask them what they wanted in a new priest for St. Peter’s. Nobody was going to be able to throw the line at us, often thrown at Anglo-Catholic parishes, that we were inward-looking. Consult. Ask. Be interactive! Get your support where you can find it: support for your parish can be found in the most unlikely places.
The other challenge which every churchwarden needs to be aware of is that during an interregnum you become the ‘Lay Vicar’. When asked what that means, I explain that it means all of the work and none of the privileges. Actually, I generally use a rather more vulgar word for ‘work’ – you will be shovelling it. You will have no time for other jobs!
Your main support, apart from the heavenly, is going to come from your fellow churchwardens. Nobody else really seems to understand what we go through. Vicars come and go. But the weight of the church, especially during interregna, is put on ordinary men and women, with little training. Endeavour, therefore, to support and attend your local Forward in Faith group. There you will meet your fellow churchwardens and find support. I do not know what I would have done without the support of Ruth and Nick at Holy Trinity, Ramsgate. Your Father in God, or his Diocesan Representative, will support you, too, of course, but they have many other parishes to worry about as well.
The time came for us to lay our cards before the Diocese. The Churchwardens wrote a letter objecting to the suspension of the living and laying out our vision for the future. We were suspended anyway (as always) but the Archdeacon and Bishop-in-Law accepted our vision. Nevertheless, we have had a constant fight to preserve our position as a Resolution parish. Be ever alert. In all these matters our greatest friend has been the Forward in Faith office and its team of church legal advisers. Ensure that you consult with them every step of the way.
As things stand, we have been granted a full time Mission Priest in Charge for a minimum of five years. It is a sponsored position, as defined by Regulation 29(1)(d) of the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Regulations 2009.
To achieve this, we set up a new Charitable Incorporated Organisation, in order to channel the funding from our main donors. It is quite straightforward, although time consuming, to set up such a structure. The Forward in Folkestone Foundation acts as the sponsor for the position of Priest in Charge and potentially for other church workers. All donations to the Foundation are gratefully received!
The vacancy for St. Peter’s has been ready for advertising for some time; we hope that the vacancy for Holy Trinity, Ramsgate, will be soon. However, we both face ongoing challenge. Please keep an eye on our church websites and the Richborough website.
We ask you to pray that the Angel Gabriel will help us to find holy priests of Christian courage to help us to continue the work of restoring our parish missions, through the Holy Spirit. Amen
Dr David Wilson is the Lay Chairman of the Canterbury Branch of Forward in Faith and a Churchwarden of St Peter’s, Folkestone. He gave this address at the 2018 National Assembly.