Gerry O’Brien, lay Synod member from Rochester Diocese recounts the defeat of the dioceses in their attempt to gain ownership of the parish parsonages at the February Synod

The General Synod struck a blow for subsidiarity during the February Sessions at Church House, Westminster. The juggernaut of centralization sank into the sand and was left to the mercy of the incoming tide.

With hindsight, it was hardly surprising. Separate meetings of the House of Clergy and the House of Laity on the previous day had shown a significant degree of disquiet. Briefing papers had been circulated and the internet had been working overtime. So after the cut and thrust of a mornings debate and the tense moments while over three hundred Synod members clicked the keys on their new voting terminals, there was a palpable sense of awe as the voting results were announced.

The question of the day was the ownership of parsonage houses. Long ago the draft Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure had emerged from some think tank. It originally sought powers for dioceses to acquire title to churches, churchyards and parsonage houses. Freeholds would be extinguished, corporation sole would become a thing of the past, and dioceses would be empowered to manage clergy and deploy them according to the dictates of a five-year plan formulated by the diocesan office. Needless to say, there has been smouldering opposition to a proposal for such sweeping nationalization.

Quite early on in the process, Synod removed churches and churchyards from the scope of the proposals. Undaunted, the juggernaut rolled on, determined to gain control of the portfolio of parsonage houses, which have a book value of £2.3 billion but are probably worth something approaching £4 billion.Some creative arguments were deployed to suggest that little was to be changed. The parsons ownership of his house was described as ‘vestigial’ and ‘not ownership in the sense understood by most of us’. Given that proceeds of any sale end up in diocesan accounts and that the diocese was responsible for maintenance and insurance, it was argued that the diocese was regarded in law as carrying both the benefits and the obligations of ownership.

It was, of course, conveniently forgotten that the money the diocese used to discharge its obligations was raised from the parishes. There was also the question of who had paid for the parsonage in the first place. In many cases local benefactors were responsible, and in some cases local subscription, but generally speaking it was local money. The apparatchiks were quick to point out that once money is given, the donor cannot retain control of it. ‘What sort of a church are we, if we don’t trust one another?’ they asked.

It appeared that in the eyes of the centrists nothing much would change, so why bother, one might ask? Their answer was that we didn’t want to perpetuate the present ‘muddle and unfairness’ and in any case
‘no understanding of ordained ministry can properly be expressed in the language of property rights’. Well, try telling that to an archdeacon.

The interesting bit was the machinery to hold this property portfolio, which would be broadly comparable to the assets of the Church Commissioners. Forty-four diocesan parsonage boards were to be set up. The Archbishops’ Council thought the running costs would be £176,000 per year, but the Bishop of Dover’s briefing note estimated £220,000. All they seemed able to agree on was that the answer ran to at least six figures and that it would all be charged to parish share.

At this point we got into murky legal territory. If a diocese is forced into bankruptcy, all its assets could be vulnerable to seizure by bailiffs, which would include parsonage houses vested in the Diocesan Board of Finance. It was argued that if parsonage houses were held in a separate charity from the Diocesan Board of Finance, they would escape the clutches of creditors, until someone pointed out that such arrangements entered into in order to thwart creditors probably wouldn’t stand up in court; Synod was persuaded that the Church of England ought not to engage in dubious practice to evade its legal responsibilities. Corporation sole had stood the test of time for a thousand years and the voices saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ found a groundswell of support.

And so the legislation began the next stage of its ponderous progress through Synod. Unsuccessful attempts were made to remove freehold office holders from the spectre of common tenure. It was argued that many felt common tenure offered inferior terms and conditions to the freeholder, but that if common tenure worked well in practice, freeholders might choose to opt in. However, Synod was minded that while existing freeholders might retain their present terms and conditions so long as they remained in their current posts, all new livings should be offered on common tenure terms.

When we came to parsonages, it was the Revd Simon Killwick from Manchester who brought matters to a head. He proposed an amendment to remove the two sub-clauses that would have vested parsonage houses in diocesan parsonage boards.
Despite the ‘Stop Killwick’ campaigners calling for a vote by houses, the amendment was passed by the bishops (14-9), the clergy (100-57) and the laity (84-79). The platform had clearly misread the mood of the church and promptly withdrew their proposals to set up diocesan parsonage boards.

When the measure emerges from further revision in July, it will be far slimmer and offer little more than common tenure, an improvement for priests-in-charge and curates, but a downgrading of terms and conditions for future incumbents. What will the future hold?