Today’s Times has run another article about the continuing problems at the church my Grandparents attended in Dawlish. Under the headline â€œChurch choir walks out in revolt over vicars ‘bullying’â€? it reports that the Director of Music who has been in post for twenty years has resigned over the vicar, Rev Jerry Bird, insistence on introducing a restricted contract, ultimately centralising all control with him. As a result the choir have unanimously decided to resign in protest. Another member of the congregation has described the vicar’s attitude as â€œI’m the vicar, do as I say; no opposition or even mild criticism, will be tolerated.â€? Having said that, the situation has given the leader writer on the paper a chance to rewrite some hymns…
The Church Times this week carries a more detailed report, which gives a bit more insight into what is going on. Tom Ambrose, the vicar at the centre of the arguments is quoted as saying the following:
â€œIn general, we pursue things without involving the PCC and live a normal parish life. People who have come to the parish recently have no inkling of what’s going on because it doesn’t affect the parish.â€?
â€œWe operate just like a normal church, except that if I want to do something, I tell people what we’re about, we have a general meeting of ourselves, and then tell the PCC we’ve done it. Since they’ve chosen not to be involved, they get bypassed. It’s just so sad.â€?
He again complains that he has encountered opposition from â€œthe old guardâ€? to a number of innovations he sought to make in the interests of inclusivity.
However, looking at what he has said, he’s left himself in a difficult position, whether he likes it or not, the PCC is the legal body in the Church that represents the laity. The basis on which the minister and PCC is to work is clearly set out in the opening points of the Parochial Church Council (Powers) Measure:
(1) It shall be the duty of the [minister] and the parochial church council to consult together on matters of general concern and importance to the parish.
(2) The functions of parochial church councils shall include –
(a) co-operation with the [minister] in promoting in the parish the whole mission of the Church, pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical;
I’d be interested to find out how his wife was elected Churchwarden, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he used the Churchwardens measure which gives the incumbent the ability to appoint a Churchwarden of his or her own choosing. However, ultimately even with one warden appointed, it can’t get over problems with the PCC. Both PCC and incumbent are vested with some powers, but ultimately one cannot operate without the co-operation of the other.
However, St Mary and St Michael in Trumpington is not alone in having publicised problems. The article then goes on to report on efforts of the Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish to calm problems at St Gregory the Great in Dawlish, a church well known to me as it was where my grandparents attended for many years, and in which they both sang in the choir. This story again made the national press.
The disagreements between the current priest-in-charge Rev Jerry Bird and the church focus on styles and times of worship and ministry style, and culminated in a walkout of the choir and organist before the sung Eucharist two weeks ago, and then a formal complaint. Unlike the situation in Trumpington though, things haven’t reached the point of highly expensive legal action, and it does seem that the bishop is encouraging both the incumbent and PCC to move forward.
In both cases the problems seem to centre on the incumbent wanting to grow the Church, and welcome new people by changing the main services. Giles Fraser also picks up on this theme in his column â€œBeware BNP Mentality in the Pewsâ€?. He highlights that all to often newcomers are â€œvery subtly and nicely â€”put in a box and told to mind their place or keep their kids quietâ€?, and are expected to conform to the way things have always been done. He also highlights that most clergy are afraid of â€œthe old guardâ€? as Tom Ambrose described them, and more often than not do not have the stomach for a fight with them. Certainly if the current situations in Trumpington and Dawlish are anything to go by, you can well understand clergy who go for the status quo.
The classic problem is that in general most of the money and time committed to the church comes from long term members, newcomers quite obviously will take many years to become involved as deeply in the Church community. The long term members then feel that because they are giving the most money, and the most time, that it should be the kind of services that they like that should be most important, and that things should be run the way they want. The tension with this is that the way things are done currently, and the kind of services they like are often precisely the things that are putting off new members.
It would be fair to say that we have much the same kinds of people at St James, however as a community we’ve been through precisely these sorts of changes without ending up with the PCC and the incumbent at loggerheads. Over the last year our numbers have gone up by about 15% – primarily at the family services, but there is growth also at our traditional prayer book services too.
I think the key things that have happened at St James is that things have been a process of evolution rather than revolution. So initially the service pattern changed from entirely traditional language services to including contemporary language services once or twice a month. Over time the pattern has evolved again so we currently have a weekly contemporary language Eucharist, whilst maintaining a traditional language alternative on every week. There have been times where the incumbent at the time has wanted to move quicker, but through negotiation with the PCC has changed. A notable example of this is the second Matins during the month when our incumbent at the time wanted it reduced to one. There have also been concessions made to the requests of the traditional congregations, so for example Matins and Evensong have now reverted to using the King James bible for those services after a period when they used the same version as the contemporary services. There are frustrations of course, the big one being that the junior choir are often unwilling to attend both Matins and the Eucharist, but in general things are a lot better than the two Churches that are in the headlines.
It is also important to acknowledge that the so-called â€œold guardâ€? have clearly shown that they understand that whilst they enjoy the traditional services, if the church is to grow we have to provide other services, and as part of that have shown a good deal of flexibility in having their services held at different times than what they had been used to. Indeed many will now say how proud they are of the diversity of services that we put on.
Ultimately it goes back to part of the Parochial Church Council (Powers) Measure, and the key work co-operation. If either the incumbent or the PCC tries to railroad or bully the other, you hit problems. Clergy need to realise that at times the parishioners will move a lot slower than they might like, and to understand their â€œBNP Mentalityâ€? as Giles Fraser puts it, but equally the laity need to realise that in order for their Church to survive, they need to change and grow. To move forward everybody needs to be part of, and support what is happening, otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster.