David Waller describes the initial stages of the Guardians Project which seeks to inform churchwardens and other key members of the laity about the practicalities of dealing with an interregnum

A few years ago, I was involved in a serious car crash whilst driving on a motorway. Fortunately, whilst my car was a complete ‘write-off’, I wasn’t; indeed, somewhat miraculously, I was able to walk away from the accident and was back at the altar a few days later. However, things could so easily have been very different and as I stood at the altar on the Sunday following the accident I was aware that this could have been the first Sunday of an interregnum. Something unthinkable a week earlier could suddenly have become a reality that my parish would not have been prepared to deal with.

Need for preparation

Now, I am not suggesting that the laity of my parish do not have the necessary skills to run the place without me, nor do I believe that I am indispensable; but it was most definitely the case that, had there been a sudden and unexpected interregnum, no one in the parish would have known what the procedures were, from whom to seek help and what legal processes had to be followed. I do not think we could be blamed for any great negligence here; we had spent long hours making future plans, addressing our poor finances, developing the parish school, revamping adult catechesis, etc. It is a thriving parish, but with a priest who had been in the post for five years, with no obvious health worries and no desire to move, plans for the next interregnum were not exactly at the top of our list of priorities.

So it was that when, some eighteen months later, I received a letter from Fr Francis Gardom floating the idea of his ‘Guardians Project’, I needed no persuasion as to its importance. The principle is a simple one: that we never know when the next interregnum will occur and that key laity in each parish (guardians) must be prepared and clued up for that eventuality. Readers of New Directions will be only too aware of some of the devious tricks that some diocesan officials will play when a parish is at its most vulnerable. Just a few examples are: archdeacons insisting on chairing PCC meetings; bishops claiming that it will be hard to find a new parish priest unless resolutions are rescinded; and the suggestion that the PEV does not need to be consulted.

Organizing the project

As a result of Fr Gardom’s proposal and after discussion with the Bishop of Richborough, we gathered a group of local clergy and two members of the FiF executive to explore the idea further, with the aim of setting up a pilot event in the East London part of the Diocese of Chelmsford. That initial meeting was full of enthusiasm and we soon began to add flesh to the bare bones of the proposal. We agreed that parishes must be prepared for their next interregnum as a matter of urgency; that the key people to be targeted were the churchwardens, but that other key laity should also be included; that we needed a lawyer to explain the relevant legislation to people; and that the PEV must be seen as the sponsor of the project.

By the end of that initial meeting, we had agreed that we would willingly act as a pilot for the Guardians Project; that we would convene a meeting for key laity who were in a real sense guardians’ of the faith in their parishes and that the clergy would also be invited; that Fr James Patrick (well known to readers of New Directions from his work on the FiF legal team) should be invited to lead the day, which would be held at St Michael’s, Walthamstow

I was given the task of sending out invitations to the meeting, and I have to say it was the easiest thing I have ever done: there was no need to twist arms or send out follow-up reminders – all but one of the invited parishes responded within days and sent a number of people to the meeting, including, in the vast majority of cases, the parish priest.

Increased understanding

The day arrived and the meeting was, by any standards, a resounding success. We began with Mass, offered by Bishop Keith. After a short coffee break, Fr Patrick addressed the assembled group of more than sixty people. Fr Patrick struck that wonderful and necessary balance of addressing some important legal issues whilst making it all fun. By the end of the morning session, we all understood the legal processes and other details more clearly, and we were also encouraged to begin now the task of being proactive in planning for the future. If there will be honest concerns about the viability of a parish, start thinking about it now so that you can have a positive suggestion to make before others impose something negative. Many dioceses have some kind of ongoing ‘vision process’ or ‘Mission Action Plan. Our parishes must engage in those processes, and doing so will mean that our sense of mission and purpose is already established and the parish profile might naturally flow from what already exists.

After lunch we gathered for a short session for further questions and also some words of advice and encouragement from Bishop Keith. We were also reminded that it is very important to get sound’ priests to cover in an interregnum: sometimes there are neighbouring curates or retired clergy, but where there is no spare cover, might it be better to change Mass times so our priests could travel? And of course, priests would need to be willing to travel to serve the faithful.

The Guardians Project is now ready to go far and wide. I would recommend it wherever a group of parishes could be got together. But far more important than any recommendation from me is the appreciation expressed by my churchwardens and others for what the project has done for their understanding and confidence; it has empowered them to go Forward in Faith when I am gone.