The ravens have flown

The wheels of the Church of England turn slowly and events in Kidderminster ground inexorably to their inevitable conclusion at the end of January. The team vicar of St John’s and the congregation lost the battle that they couldn’t really win, with all the odds stacked against them. The ecclesiastical authorities (the Diocese and the Team Rector) apparently decided to rely on the letter of the law. They exploited the provisions of the Church’s electoral procedures by which a Parochial AGM could overturn the wishes of a District Church’s AGM and so St John’s finished up with Churchwardens and a Deanery Synod rep who were not the people nominated by St John’s AGM. In turn, the radically changed DCC was able to co-opt two deputy churchwardens of their own persuasion. All this was apparently perfectly legal.

Since the Team Vicar of St John’s was appointed for a term of years, the absence of a freehold was exploited and when the term expired he was required to leave. However, a majority of his congregation expressed a strong desire for him to stay.

’Ello, ’ello, ’ello.

A month before his licence expired the Team Rector, the Reverend Harold Goddard, sent a letter to the Team Vicar of St John’s, Reverend Charles Raven, to inform him that ‘I have already begun discussions with the local police in an attempt to prevent or minimise any disturbances during public worship at St John’s Church after 31st January 2002. The police may well contact you in due course to ask you what your intentions are,’

A somewhat bemused member of the local Constabulary did indeed summon Mr Raven to discover what breaches of the peace he might intend to perpetrate after his licence as Team Vicar of St John’s expired. Upon learning that Mr Raven intended to officiate at Divine worship according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England in a community centre a quarter of a mile away (and incidentally outside the area covered by St John’s parish and the rest of the Kidderminster West team ministry) he presumably realized he had been the victim of a wind-up.

So the morning of Sunday 3rd February dawned. The Team Rector conducted morning service at St John’s and Charles Raven conducted morning service at the new Christ Church, Kidderminster, meeting in the community hall. Apparently everyone was delighted.

Counting heads

Revd Harold Goddard told me, ‘Peace and quiet has returned to St John’s. On the first Sunday in February we had a congregation of 70 for the 10am Communion Service, which disproves Mr Raven’s claim that 95% of the congregation moved with him. There is an atmosphere of peace and joy in the church after the turmoil which Mr Raven brought in his ten years of ministry there.’

Peter Salmon, who was elected Churchwarden of St John’s last year, said, ‘There is a lovely atmosphere now. On the first Sunday we had 120 for Evensong with the Bishop of Worcester, including people who Charles had persuaded to leave St John’s. Hopefully some of the people who have gone away will, in their wisdom, decide to come back and we will make them welcome.’

The Kidderminster Chronicle reported that 114 people, mainly from the former congregation of St John the Baptist Church, had attended the first service at the newly formed Christ Church. This figure was described as ‘95% of the average morning attendance in St John’s of between 110 and 120 people.’ The Chronicle also quoted Harold Goddard challenging their figures and saying that 70 people remained at St John’s out of the normal 100 attenders. ‘Two thirds of the congregation have remained faithful to St John’s.’

Sudden outbreak of peace

The Kidderminster Shuttle quoted Charles Raven as saying, ‘There was a wonderful sense of God’s goodness and a rejoicing at the birth of a new congregation with no trace of bitterness. I am delighted that Christ Church has got off to such a positive start and so grateful to the many who have stood by us and encouraged us in our stand for the undiluted faith of the gospel.’

Sue Needham, formerly a churchwarden at St John’s but now ‘congregational warden’ at Christ Church said, ‘We have over 100 people with us – traditional Anglicans, many of whom have been going to St John’s for a very long time. These last two Sundays we have been experiencing a new freedom, a new depth in a church service. The atmosphere of tension, misunderstanding and hostility we endured at St John’s has completely gone. We’re really worshipping in spirit and in truth.

So everyone seems to be well pleased. If you take the estimates of congregation size at face value, it would appear that churchgoing in St John’s parish has risen by something like 50% since the end of January. It could be that people from other parts of the team ministry came to support the Team Rector on the first Sunday of the new arrangements, or it could be that the emergence of Christ Church Kidderminster is part of a real revival in the Church of God in Kidderminster.

Cash out of hand

However, I can’t help wondering how hard pressed quota payers in the Diocese of Worcester view the situation. I doubt that the Chairman of the Diocesan Board of Finance is quite as sanguine as the folks up the road in Kidderminster.

In the Kidderminster deanery as a whole in the year 2000, stipend and parsonage costs amounted to £296,991. Parishes contributed only £272,851 out of a quota assessed at £318,367 – a 14% shortfall. It would appear that the Diocese can ill afford to forgo the contributions from a financially healthy Christ Church Kidderminster.

I asked Peter Salmon whether he considered the slimmed down St John’s would be financially viable. ‘Oh, yes,’ he replied, ‘though we’re not the wealthy church we once were.’ ‘Does that mean that you will be able to pay your quota in full in 2002?’ I pressed.

‘I doubt we will pay our quota in full,’ he said, ‘I think we will choose first to put the church in good order, and then pay as much quota as we can.’

Whistle blowing

The post of Team Vicar at St John’s has already been advertised in the Church press. Bearing in mind that the combined congregations in the Kidderminster West team ministry will in future probably be not much more than 125, three stipendiary clergy does seem a rather generous allocation for an ecclesiastical unit that is unlikely to shoulder its share of diocesan quota in the foreseeable future. In any event Charles Raven and Kelvin Shilvock will be offering ministry just a quarter of a mile down the road at no cost to the Diocesan purse.

Parishes in Worcester diocese are being asked to pay increased quota payments this year to try and plug the burgeoning hole in diocesan finances. I would not be surprised if someone at the Worcester Diocesan Synod does not attempt to blow the whistle on the allocation of resources to the Kidderminster area, which surely must be increasingly difficult to justify.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.