David Easton – Why Did He Have to Go?

One of the busiest postings on the blog of late has been this one which I wrote a while back about An Island Parish which after almost exclusively focusing on Rev Guy Scott, suddenly seemed to discover that there was another church at the bottom of the street – the local Methodist church led by Rev David Easton. The reason the post has been getting so much attention of late has not been particularly because of it’s content, but because of the most recent series of An Island Parish which has just finished a repeat showing on BBC2. This time around the Anglican church is almost absent, aside from a story about a new peal of bells, and instead the fourteen episodes heavily feature Rev David Easton as he moves away from the Isles of Scilly to his next posting.

I have to admit that I didn’t see the series when it first aired last year, having missed it’s return. However this time around I was able to catch up and see what the fuss is about.

The problem is that the commentary is very much framed that David Easton is being pushed out, against the wishes of his congregations, so if you browse through the comments made on my posting there are comments quoting employment law, and a lot of people speculating about a variety of reasons for David being asked to leave. However a large part of the problem is that the programme totally failed to explain the process that was going on.

Each church denomination has different ways of managing their clergy staffing. Historically in the Church of England clergy would be “given the living” of a parish, and were largely set up for life. I can think of several parishes in my part of Berkshire where this has happened, and one priest has remained in post for his entire working life, and in one case where the priest remained in post despite repeated legal attempts by the diocese to remove him. More recently clergy are often appointed as what is called a “Priest in Charge” at which point they are employed on a fixed term contract, and at the end of that period the priest, local bishop and parish consult about whether the contract is renewed – we have just been through this process at St James’.

The Methodist church does things differently. They operate a process called “stationing” – you can find a detailed explanation from a serving Methodist minister online with part one here, and part two here. The basic idea is that minsters are itinerant – i.e. they expect to move from appointment to appointment. The standard appointment is five years, after which a minister can apply for an extension of up to five years. From the commentary on the programme David Easton had been in post for seven years, so had already been granted one extension. Unlike the Church of England where a priest can remain for more than thirty years, the Methodist Church actively encourages circuits to move ministers on, much as their founder John Wesley would move from place to place preaching.

It is also important to highlight that the decision is not a purely local church level decision as it is in the Church of England. All Methodist churches are grouped together and to some extent managed in what are called circuits – for example my Mum, who preaches on her local Methodist circuit contacts a representative of the circuit to establish which of several local Methodist churches she will be taking services in over the next few months. In the case of the Isles of Scilly the circuit is based on the mainland in Cornwall, hence why on several occasions during the series Methodists came across on the ferry to show support. Whilst the location perhaps limits the ability of ministers and preachers to be mobile between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland a bit more than normal, it is still part of the same system that operates across the rest of the country. The decisions on extensions are made at a circuit level by a group of Methodists elected from across the circuit – so the group that ultimately made the decision was drawn from across the circuit in Cornwall, and the decision was based on what was best for the circuit as a whole, not one particular church.

The main point to bear in mind is that whilst obviously the average person in the pew often only views things from the point of view of their particular church, and will be sad to see a popular minister go, and equally the minister involved will be sad to leave, it is a normal and accepted part of the way the Methodist Church operates, much like the way a regular large company will move staff around between offices. Whilst this season of An Island Parish brought the process into sharp focus, every year, all across the country the process is taking place and ministers are moving on – it’s just a pity that An Island Parish didn’t take the time to explain this.

For further reading there is more debate on An Island Parish at this blog, which amongst other things includes an official statement from the Methodist Church on David Easton.

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