A sniper’s charter: George Austin on vulnerable vicars

So the Synod has decided to shoot itself in the foot by abolishing the parson’s freehold and replacing it with a new system of common tenure. According to press reports, all clergy will instead be granted ‘security of tenure’ giving bishops power to sack ‘lazy or incompetent clergy.’ Professor David McClean, who chaired the group producing the Report, claimed that ‘justice requires that all clergy should have the same basis of tenure. It would apply to archbishops and assistant curates and everyone in between.’

Parishioners will be able to complain about clergy they believe to be failing in their duties and if the complaint is found to be justified clergy will undergo a ‘capability procedure.’ Moreover there will at last be rights under the employment laws.

It all sounds well and good on the surface, but the nasty suspicion is that this is more about episcopal power than it is about justice, so that clergy who do not quite fit into what bishops believe should be the norm can be removed from office. Even a cursory knowledge of what is happening in Canada and the United States is sufficient warning.

Witch hunts

It is all too easy for disaffected parishioners to trump up complaints about their clergy, and however much Professor McClean dismisses the possibility of witch-hunts it is likely that these will proliferate. Many clergy will already have bitter stories to tell of which those now following are no more than a sample, going back long before the present troubles.

One vicar, trying desperately to free his village church from the dominance of a small group of people whom God had called, through many incumbencies, to be a thorn in the vicar’s flesh, suffered a persistent plethora of personal complaints. Then one year at a Remembrance Day service he spoke of the exceptionally large number of young men from the village who had perished in the carnage of the trenches, commenting that all of them would have longed for nothing more than to return home safely to their families.

He was greeted in the vestry afterwards by an irate churchwarden, a retired Army captain. The soldiers had been happy to die and the vicar was ‘now finished in this village and had better leave.’ Had the proposed system been in force, an unsympathetic bishop would have seized the opportunity to be rid of him.

Then there was a priest in a large suburban parish who heard that the bishop was coming (without informing him) to baptise a child whom he had supposedly rejected because the mother was unmarried. The bishop’s information came from someone who had eavesdropped on a pub conversation between two unmarried mothers chatting to each other, in which one simply pointed out that baptisms were not done at a private service in the afternoon but at the main mass on a Sunday morning. In fact the vicar had already agreed a date for the baptism of both babies, together with that for the child of another couple whose baby had been conceived out of wedlock. Imagine the trauma of the priest if, given the lack of consultation, he had been summoned to appear before an episcopal kangaroo court.


An archdeacon complained to churchwardens that their vicar was never available on the telephone when undertakers wished to arrange a funeral. The priest immediately called the local funeral director who commented that because the priest had an answer-phone (in the days before these were common) he was more accessible than any of the other clergy in the deanery, adding that if he had wanted to complain he would have done so to the priest and ‘not to the b***** archdeacon.’

The wardens too were loyal and when the archdeacon returned for a further visit, the senior churchwarden set the record straight, adding that the archdeacon seemed to have a vendetta against their vicar and that he should take it up with him face to face and not behind his back.

And what of another archdeacon who attempted to undermine an incumbent’s ministry by repeating a complaint that the vicar was never to be seen in the high road of the parish (in fact he lived on the High Road and wandered daily up to the post office and shops)? The churchwarden told the archdeacon that he knew that if he was in need the vicar would be at his house before the end of the day, and that was what ministry was about.

But the proposed system would mean that a priest, especially if the bishop or archdeacon were bent on getting him out, would risk having to answer such complaints in a formal system, with no guarantee that, with the odds stacked against him, he would get a fair hearing.

Fall guy

Minor niggles maybe, but an indication of a trend. A much worse experience was suffered by a senior priest who was a member of the General Synod and of the Bishop’s Council of his diocese. A meeting of the diocesan synod was approaching and, when the Council discussed the agenda, one of the archdeacons expressed the fear that a particular working party report might not attract sufficient debate, and that ‘someone’ was needed who could ‘stir it up’.

The eyes of the members of the bishop’s staff immediately focussed on the priest but he refused to be the one to do the stirring, saying that he was ready to do so when he felt strongly about an issue, but not when, as in this case, he had no feelings either way. Then other members of the bishop’s staff piled on the pressure and in the end he agreed that if – and only if – the debate flagged then he would speak.

When the day came, the debate did flag, he did intervene, and there was a satisfactory discussion. A bishop had introduced the motion and so made the speech summing up the debate and responding to speaker’s comments. As he drew to a close, he declared that he had deliberately left remarks about the senior priest’s speech until the end. In reality because the priest had only spoken in response to the pressure heaped upon him, there should have been no need for the bishop to say anything.

Instead, he smiled at his audience and with one (defamatory) sentence was rewarded with gales of laughter from the diocesan sycophants: ‘There are priests who spend so much time at Synod that they neglect their parishes.’

Can these stories really be true? I know they are because they all happened to me as a freehold incumbent and it was only the freehold that preserved my livelihood and my sanity.

George Austin is a writer, broadcaster and journalist