Muddying the Waters

John Masding details the reasons for rejecting the new Churchwarden’s measure soon to come before Parliament

When Patrons seek to present a new incumbent to a Bishop for institution, one of the important checks and balances which the Church of England has developed is that that the nomination has to have been approved by each of the Parochial church Council’s two representatives. Most Church Councils seem to appoint the Churchwardens of the parish. They are, however, not the Council’s Churchwardens, but the parishioners’: usually chosen jointly by the ( incumbent and the people. They are not the ‘Bishop’s Officers’, even though he or an inferior ordinary usually admits them to office. The Bishop has no discretion in the matter, save where a choice of warden is clearly void form the start, as is, say, a child were presented to be admitted. He must otherwise admit the person presented, and can be compelled by Mandamus of the High Court which has jurisdiction. If too many persons are colourably presented, the Bishops admits all, and the trial of the issue lies with the High Court. This is most unlikely today, it has to be said, but the principle is important. The Episcopal function is ministerial, not juridical. The proposed new measure muddies the clear waters of established law.

The Churchwardens have access to the Bishop, as, in part the Bishops’ Officers, in making Presentments to him, for example. This duty they acquired, not as Churchwardens, and parish officers, but as heirs of the duties of the sidesmen (synodsmen) and questmen whom the bishop used to summon to meet with him in the exercise of his proper oversight and jurisdiction. They are obliged to follow his directions, would he give any, in seating the parishioners in the parish church, which is one of their spheres of responsibility; but in most respects any actual discretion under the law lies with them. They are guardians of the Church even though it Freehold is with the rector of vicar, and owners of its ‘moveable goods’, which, curiously, it may be thought, includes the organ! Yet in most of their functions as parish officers, they are each totally independent and act together, answerable neither to the bishop who admits them, the incumbent and people who choose them, or the Council upon which as communicants on the Roll, they have seats. In a vacancy, they have duties as Sequestrators of the incumbent’s property. Church and parsonage; but they arrange for the services, the law books say, not as Church wardens but for this purpose officers of the Bishop. We are now in some real danger of this last, real and proper relationship subsuming the basic and inherent position of Churchwardens as the secular officers of the Parish itself.

I suggest that Parliament seriously consider voting down the Church wardens Measure, and that you, readers, lobby MPs accordingly. Those who serve, with peers on the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, which scrutinises proposed Church Measures as provided for in the 11919 Act of Parliament which mad Measures possible, are particularly worth approaching it seems to me that the Measure as it stands would, if enacted, be a source of possible grave embarrassment to the bishops of the Church of England – a piece of legislation too draconian and unjust to use – and would be perceived as a potential demoralising threat by at least some Church wardens, including some anxious to do their duty without fear of favour but less certain of their bishop than they ought to be. There has been much discussion of the suggested new maximum years of service, and even of the proposed unnecessary tinkering with the details of the method of choice; but the real issue of the Measure is the novelty of allowing the bishop effectively to give a Warden the sack.

You know that it would create a wholly new power, very difficult of a bishops to employ in a manner which suggested that justice was done, and seen to be done, a power without appeal or necessarily even reason stated, to suspend by mere notice in writing to him a duly-elected and admitted Churchwarden form the exercise of his office, for any cause which appears to the bishop to be good and reasonable after’ giving that person sufficient opportunity of showing reason to the contrary’, and the power to appoint a person who ‘ for all purposes in law shall be deemed during that period (of suspension) to be a Churchwarden of the parish in question’ after what may be thought a rather ‘nominal’ consultation (such as those which sometimes are alleged to take place under the Pastoral Measure’ with the minister and the parochial church council’. -potentially avoiding, by-passing as if they did not matter at all, the rights and duties of the other churchwarden(s) and the electorate?

Where is the mandate for this legislation? Whose election address contained its germs? Which (unelected) bishops have produced in public any compelling rationale for a new power in their extensive armoury, a power to suspend a Warden – when he may well also be the PCC’s representative in a vacancy in the benefice at he same time?

At the very least there must be a right of appeal, and the giving of the bishop’s reasons in writing as a matter of record would be required; an acting Churchwarden should be chosen by whomsoever chose the suspended Church warden. If there is a case for a power of suspension, let it be placed in the hands of the Chancellor, as an independent judge, normally to dispose of by way of summary jurisdiction, but again with appeal to the Arches Court.

The Churchwardens, like MPs, represent the People – even thought the hustings have gone rather quiet. It is for MPs to act and scrutinise this unnecessary legislation, in the name of the people and Christian democracy.

Would you give the Prime Minster power to suspend your MP, and to appoint someone in his place? Of course not. The churches have not been consulted by the Synod. there is no mandate for this legislation. You should petition your MP to see that the House of Commons throws it out. It is undemocratic. And it will come to Parliament quite soon.

The bishops are likely to be landed with even more embarrassment – over the cathedrals legislation which is likely to backfire on its perpetrators in due course. If I may be allowed a little prophecy, I can tell you that the legislation proposed for the cathedrals will lead eventually but inexorably to their ceasing to be Church properties, although we shall doubtless be allowed to go on using them. The overburdened bishop is to appoint a Council to take over from the Dean and Chapter (the Canons) the ultimate responsibilities which have always been theirs. You will know that tourism is big business and that cathedrals require millions just to keep going. English Heritage makes large grants now. it has increasingly dawned upon people that Cathedral Services lose money. Look at the crowds trying to get out whenever a service is about to begin and you want to get in! So in years to come, I confidently expect the Government to take over form the bishop the appointment of the Cathedral Council, restricting the rights of the Dean and Chapter still further, and making cathedrals part of our National Heritage in a new way, perhaps open to gatherings of many kinds other than Christian worship, let alone the exclusive worship of the Church of England.

Visiting a friend’s Vicarage once, I was forcibly struck by the more individual words engraved in the stone of the study fireplace before which he prepared his sermons: Vox clamantis in deserto. Is there anyone out there? In the wilderness, as John the Baptists knew, voices are clearer, and the air less muddied with crowded clangour. he that has ears to hear, let him hear.

John Masding is the Chairman of the English Clergy Association and has recently retired as Vicar of Hamstead in the diocese of Birmingham

2017-06-16T12:09:05+00:00 November 1998 Articles|