At St James’ we’re now officially in what used to be called an interregnum, but is now somewhat more boringly, (although accurately if you know your Latin) called a vacancy. Although his final service was at the end of July, Rev’d Richard our Priest-in-Charge for the last six years didn’t officially stand down until now, and was nominally still in charge, but now we’re on our own for at least the next few months, probably a year.
The interregnum is always a bit of a difficult and uncertain time for those left behind, especially when a church has experienced a lot of growth under an incumbent just departed. There is always the concern that people were coming because of a personal connection – a connection that goes with the departure of a popular priest. To some extent we won’t know whether that is the case until we’ve looked at the attendance figures a few months down the line. Certainly there were a couple of people who rushed to get services done before Rev’d Richard left, and I have had conversations with other people who are more on the periphery of the congregation who are less inclined to come without Rev’d Richard there, but at the moment I’m fairly hopeful that as a result of having a large team leading services and our popular NSM Rev’d John still very much on the scene things should continue as before.
There is also a big fear of change amongst many, which often manifests itself as a desire to not change anything for however long the interregnum lasts. Obviously that isn’t going to happen for a number of reasons. Firstly going from having a full time incumbent to running a parish such as ours with no full time staff – the duties of the incumbent get split between our part time NSM and the Churchwardens mainly – it is inevitable that you can’t run things the same. It is also in my opinion unhealthy to try and resist change. Like any organisation a church is in a continual state of change different characters in different roles, even down to the people turning up to services affect how the organisation operates in a wide spectrum of ways. Rev’d John is a different person that Rev’d Richard, and whilst we’ll continue with the service pattern as before, he will obviously do things subtly differently. In actual fact it took all of a week after Rev’d Richard’s last service before I had a “I don’t like the way this place is going” conversation with somebody! The church community doesn’t just wrap itself up in bubble-wrap until the new Rector comes along, obviously you can’t decide to kick out the choir and the organ and bring in a band for all the services when an incumbent leaves, but equally you have to keep moving forward.
On a personal level, my Church workload, along with a number of other peoples workload goes up quite a lot during an interregnum. I have to say I’m really rather glad that I’m not one of the Churchwardens at this point, as they take a lot of the load on their shoulders. Being a Churchwarden and working full time is a lot of work in a normal year, but during a vacancy it would be nigh on impossible. In my current role as lay deputy chair of the PCC the main additional workload is being in the chair for PCC and Standing Committee meetings. It’s a bit dependant on the incumbent, but up to now although I’ve been lay deputy chair of the PCC for a number of years, I’ve only ever actually chaired a meeting twice when Rev’d Richard was ill. Now I chair every single meeting until a new incumbent is in post.
There are also a number of extra meetings on the cards. One of the more complicated aspects of this interregnum is that the Diocese is taking the opportunity to do some pastoral reorganisation. Our neighbouring parish, St Mary and St John California is also in a vacancy following the retirement of their priest in charge in June. Their electoral roll is now such that in the current climate they would not get a full time incumbent, and ours is such that we are allowed to have two. Effectively what they are proposing to do is to merge the two parishes into one, and appoint two clergy to the parish. It is worth highlighting at this point that many years ago St Mary and St John started life as a daughter church of St James’ set up amongst the new housing that was being built to the north of the village. As that congregation grew ultimately it was separated and became a parish in it’s own right – not without some drama that I will not rake up here – and the church has been charting it’s own path for a number of years. However of late it has been between a resurgent St James’ and of late the brand new Finchampstead Baptist Church next door – the Baptists having seen increases of 40% in their congregations since opening the new building – St Mary and St John are facing some real challenges.
What is really important is that this mustn’t be some sort of ecclesiastical assimilation – some sort of take over. St Mary and St John are a very different congregation, and with very different goals and focus. For example St Mary and St John took the decision not to have a church building, and hold their services in the local school, whilst we at St James’ have just spent in excess of £0.5 million keeping our grade one listed building a safe and usable environment for our congregations.
Somehow the two PCC’s have to meld our very different vision and goals into a job spec and profile for whoever will come and be our new Rector and associate priest. There are big decisions about how closely the two congregations work together. It all begins with a joint PCC away day, but I’m sure it will be a long road ahead.
So here we stand at the beginning of the next stage of the journey. Various people keep hoping for a quick interregnum, but being realistic we’re looking at probably this time next year before we’ll be getting a new person in post. With working around school schedules for any priest with children, much as happened with Rev’d Richard, whilst we may appoint in the early part of 2011, if they are based outside the local area, they won’t be able to move before the summer. Hopefully then we will still be the vibrant and growing church we are now, ready to move on into the next era at St James’.