Churchwardens Anonymous

So yesterday I found myself in the Church hall in Shinfield, with about fifty other people – a variety of ages and backgrounds. One by one we stood up and introduced ourselves – “I’m Richard from St James’, Finchampstead, and I am a Churchwardenâ€?…

It was the annual Churchwarden training day laid on by the Diocese. Led by the Archdeacon, with the main speakers being the Diocesan Registrar and the secretary of the Diocesan Advisory Committee (the DAC are the people who give us permission to do physical work on the Church – and tell us off when we do work we’re not supposed to!) this was a chance to let all the new Churchwardens known what they should and shouldn’t be doing!

The first problem of the day was actually finding somewhere to park. Like many villages parking is a bit limited. Apparently these training days usually only attract about twenty-five people, but with the Churchwardens Measure now in place providing a number of new people, plus the increasing complications of health and safety rules about double the usual number had booked. We managed to all park along the lane through the middle of the village, but I guess the locals must have wondered what was going on at 9am on a Saturday morning!

The first part of the meeting was a talk by John Rees our Diocesan Registrar. This was particularly interesting as alongside being our registrar, he is also a pretty senior lawyer in the Church, so has been heavily involved in the recent cases such as the ongoing case involving Tom Ambrose in Trumpington. Needless to say he couldn’t comment on the case directly, but he did stress the importance of the Churchwardens in making sure that situations don’t get so intrenched that the only way out is by going to the courts. He stressed in particular the dual roles of the Churchwardens as the chief representatives of the laity, and also as the officers of the Bishop in the parish. Other interesting snippets that came up were also that as Churchwardens we needed to be aware of what else our position might land us in. For example he has currently been dealing with situations where a village school had closed and as the Churchwardens of the local parish Church were named as trustees on the original trust deed the local authority had passed responsibility for the buildings back to them.

The talk by the Diocesan Advisory Committee followed, telling us a variety of anecdotes about what she’d seen. She was well aware that to most people in the Church DAC approval is seen as a real hassle, but she was keen to highlight that her remit was more worship focused and that in her opinion if we had to deal with local authorities things would be much worse. She also said at times she was there to save people from themselves. The example she used was a Church where the daughter of the Churchwarden was getting married. Since the Church was looking a bit drab, they went to the local hardware store and bought some paint to tidy things up. Needless to say they just did it, and although the Church looked very nice for the wedding a few years later the walls were being stripped and dried out because the conventional paint that had been used had been totally unsuitable and the building had sucked moisture into the walls, resulting in a much more expensive problem to solve.

After coffee we had about an hour of questions and discussion. Chief topics of discussion were how to handle the clergy – inspired somewhat by the comments of the registrar earlier on no doubt. There was also discussion about the process of picking a new priest for a parish, particularly the tension as a Churchwarden of wanting to get anybody if you’ve had a long vacancy, but at the same time wanting to get the right person. The most important bit of advice at this point was from the Archdeacon saying that you can refuse everybody as the parish representative. He highlighted one parish that hit problems with a new priest where one of the representatives admitted to not being happy with the choice on the day, but to not having said anything at the time because he didn’t want to make a fuss!

Perhaps the most major topic of conversation was health and safety, particularly the smoking signs, and more important the effects of the Fire Safety Order 2005. Although there were one or two Churches like St James who were lucky enough to have specialists in the congregation who could help, many were struggling. Luckily there is a fellow Churchwarden in the Diocese who has said she is happy to help out with the all important report that the order requires to be produced. One interesting comment came from John Rees who said that despite what the actual order might say, the authorities had said – in some cases in writing – that they were continuing to treat Churches differently. The example he gave is one which has caused problems for us – our 1590 door is too narrow to be a fire exit, and opens the wrong way. However it is the only door at that end of the church so has to be the exit. The rules require that it should open outwards, but being grade one listed we wouldn’t be allowed to re-hang it to open outwards, nor would we be allowed to put another fire exit in place. Under the letter of the law we should therefore limit our occupancy to a maximum of sixty people… John Rees commented that it would very much depend on the use of the building, and that our primary aim should be to satisfy our insurers as to the safety and mitigate any risks as best we could. Although obviously it would be better if we could meet the requirements, for those of us with ancient and protected buildings it does seem to imply that we can go on using them.

All in all it was a worthwhile way to spend a morning – gives you a chance to meet the variety of other people doing the job around the area, and also realise that we all have much the same problems wherever we are!

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