Paul Benfield introduces Forward in Faith’s new advice booklet


Forward in Faith’s new booklet Vacancies in Society Parishes: Advice from Forward in Faith has been read and commented on by a range of people including three barristers (male and female), three archdeacons (male and female), the Council of Forward in Faith and the Council of Bishops of The Society. Improvements were made as a result of their comments. Although prepared principally for Society parishes, it may be useful to other parishes.

Do read the booklet now, even before you are expecting a vacancy in your parish. Though you may think your priest is new and settled, things can happen unexpectedly. He may suddenly be asked to take on some new position. He may become ill and have to retire. He may even die. So we never know when a vacancy might arise.

The first chapter deals with matters before a vacancy arises. Forward in Faith has always encouraged its parishes people and clergy to play as full a part as possible in deanery and diocesan matters. But since the coming into force of new legislation this year this has become even more important. If your diocese requires deaneries to produce deanery plans (and not all dioceses do), you must engage with the process of producing that deanery plan. You must argue strongly and courteously for proper provision for your parish in accordance with the Five Guiding Principles and the House of Bishops’ Declaration. This is because where there is a deanery plan there is a presumption in favour of that plan when formal proposals for pastoral re-organization come to be considered by the Church Commissioners and others. In other words, it may be very difficult argue against the proposals in the plan if it was voted on unanimously by the members of the Deanery Synod because no-one from your parish bothered to attend the meetings when it was discussed.

This raises the question as to whether your deanery synod representatives are the right people to attend and explain our position. Sometimes clergy have told people that they need not bother to go to Deanery Synod – they are only members so that they can vote in General Synod elections. Nowadays, that will simply not do. So who are your deanery synod representatives? Are all your places filled.? Will they be good advocates for your parish?

Just as your deanery synod representatives must be the right people, so must the other parish officers who will be particularly involved with the vacancy process. Is your lay chairman a person with the appropriate attributes, skills and confidence to chair complex meetings at which the patron and the bishop or their representatives may be present?

The booklet goes on to guide the reader through the vacancy process and answer the questions that are likely to arise. Who is responsible for arranging ministry during the vacancy? Who can officiate? Chapter 2 answers those questions.

Does the resolution under the House of Bishops’ Declaration have to be voted on again during a vacancy? No: it ought to be reviewed from time to time but that does not need a full vote. Chapter 3 explains what needs to happen concerning the resolution and what to do if an area dean, archdeacon, bishop or other person starts trying to put pressure on the parish to rescind the resolution.

The following chapters take the reader through the process for appointing an incumbent. They deal with the important Section 11 meeting under the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986, which is the legislation which governs the appointment of a new incumbent. At that Section 11 meeting important things must happen such as the choice of representatives to represent the parish in the process. The churchwardens may not necessarily be the right people for this role. They may be excellent at doing all the practical things necessary to keep the parish running during the vacancy, but they may not the best people to interview prospective priests.

The PCC will have to prepare the parish profile giving a picture of the life of the parish and the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead. Work on that can start as soon as you know a vacancy will arise. Of course, if you have some sort of vision or mission action plan that may well be a useful starting point.

It is sometimes said that the appointment process for an incumbent is rather like a three-legged stool, with the three legs being the patron, the bishop and the parish representatives. All must agree to an appointment (if the bishop is also the patron then there are only two legs, as it were). But it is important that all parties remember what role they occupy in the process. Quite often there will be an interview panel consisting of the patron, the bishop, the area dean, the archdeacon, the parish representatives and others. If that happens, it is not just a case of adding up the votes for each candidate and the one with the most votes being offered the position. Each of the three legs of the stool remain, with their roles and responsibilities. So the patron must be happy to present the candidate, the bishop must be happy to accept the candidate, and – most important – each of the parish representatives individually must be happy to accept the candidate. Just one parish representative may veto a candidate, even if everyone else on the interview panel is happy to appoint him.

In chapter 8 there is guidance and advice about what should happen if there is the possibility of pastoral re-organization and so the bishop suspends the right to present an incumbent and intends to appoint a priest in charge.

It will not always be appropriate to resist suspension. There may be a need for pastoral re-organization. There may be a need to replace the parsonage house. Parishes must engage with the discussions constructively and realistically. But while it may be accepted that there needs to be pastoral re-organization, that does not necessarily mean that the solution proposed is the best one for the parish, and the PCC may wish to suggest a different way of addressing the problems that the bishop has identified.

If a priest in charge is to be appointed, then the legal processes for appointing a rector or vicar do not apply. In some dioceses the procedure for the appointment of an incumbent is mirrored in the appointment of the priest in charge, with patron and parish representatives involved.  But legally the bishop can appoint as priest in charge who he likes, and he only has to consult the churchwardens. They do not have a veto. So you need to ask yourself if your churchwardens are the right people to engage with this process. Will they be strong enough to express reservations about an unsuitable priest and explain why they do not think him to be appropriate?

The booklet concludes with a useful Questions and Answers section dealing with the sort of questions which may well arise. Then there is a glossary of technical terms which those unfamiliar with ecclesiastical law may find helpful. What is a plurality? Who is the Ordinary? Who are the Sequestrators and what do they do? These and many more terms are defined clearly.

At the very end of the booklet are set out the Five Guiding Principles from the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests, where we are reminded that those who, on the grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, and the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures. This is something that may need to be emphasised very strongly in the vacancy process.


Fr Paul Benfield is the Registrar of the Diocese of Blackburn. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod and a member of the Executive Committee of Forward in Faith. He gave this address at the 2018 National Assembly. The text of the vacancies booklet is available at