hours of the first Police and Crime Commisioners taking office a Chief Constable resigns…
See on www.guardian.co.uk
Catching up with the latest instalment of An Island Parish we got a bit of an insight into what it is like for a priest coming into a new parish.
The commentary on the programme quite often highlights the unique nature of the parish of the Isles of Scilly – but from what we saw this week it may be geographically unique, but in many ways it is has just the same problems as any other multi-congregation benefice, wherever in the country it is located.
The two Churchwardens summed up the kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t dilemma that faces any new vicar or rector. You come in wanting to make your mark, indeed people expect you to be better in areas where perhaps your predecessor wasn’t so good. Equally, you can’t change things massively, otherwise it risks alienating the congregation.
The situation is more difficult when dealing with multiple congregations – Rev Guy has six churches to deal with, and needless to say they are each different. When asked how he was doing, he replied that his honeymoon period had lasted barely a week before he’d upset someone.
Having said that, the big issues were precisely the same sorts of issues that new clergy often come up against. The congregation on one of the off islands were objecting to his choice of services – the implication is that Rev Guy is from the churchmanship where the Eucharist is central, whereas the congregation in this case was wanting non-Eucharistic services (my thought is that they’re probably wanting prayer book matins). When we had a similar situation here at St James, both services were offered, but obviously with six churches to run that’s not really an option here. The second big issue was another one that causes a good deal of problems all over the place, in that Rev Guy had refused to perform a wedding for the divorced daughter of an important parishioner. Although it is now legal for divorcees to remarry in the Church of England, it is left up to the conscience of the particular priest involved. Some I’ve known, like Rev Guy, won’t do them at all, others I’ve known would do a service for people who are members of the Church if they knew the situation, others have no problem at all. It is still somewhat of a hot potato in Church terms, such that on the occasions we’ve had such services at St James, the PCC is usually informed.
Of course the big difference for Rev Guy, comes from the geographical uniqueness of the Isles of Scilly parish. On the mainland, if he has a big issue, he has other clergy around who he can go and talk to – here they are across thirty miles of sea, and whilst they would be able to provide support over the phone, it’s not the same.
Hopefully as the series goes on, Rev Guy will settle in more – certainly it’s a lonely job if it gets any worse…
I’ve commented a number of times about the ongoing difficulties in Trumpington – we now have the results of the tribunal, a recommendation that Tom Ambrose be removed as vicar of the parish.
Not surprisingly this has provoked some discussion. Dave Walker has posted an item about it, including a quote from the comment section of Ruth Gledhill’s posting on the subject, which although it seems to have gone vaguely tabloid in the title, is a good read, especially when you get to a couple of the witness statements.
The more you read about the result though, the more it seems incredibly unfair to Tom Ambrose. The disagreement is with a small group on the PCC, and outside of this, the parish seems to have been getting on pretty well. We will have to wait to see the full ruling, but it is interesting to note the wording of the statement that has been published. The tribunal states that they are:
â€œunited in being satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that serious pastoral breakdown has occurred in Trumpington parishâ€?
â€œWe do not consider that the serious pastoral breakdown in Trumpington parish can be remedied if Dr Ambrose remains as the vicar there.â€?
Note that nowhere does it make any statements about various of the accusations – the tribunal has merely agreed that a pastoral breakdown has occurred. To resolve that, either the PCC members that are causing the trouble have to go, or Dr Ambrose – and the tribunal is rightly or wrongly recommending Tom Ambrose is being sacked, rather than the removal of the PCC members.
When I read the statements on Ruth Gledhill’s posting, there were several things that stood out. Firstly that the previous incumbent had problems from the same group of PCC members. Then there was this statement:
As a result I have stopped going to the PCC meetings since I was always in a minority surrounded by the majority of harridans.
This hostile group controlling the PCC does not reflect in any sense the congregation of Trumpington Church. Many people tell me as a member of the PCC, when they learn of the difficulties being caused for Tom and Gill that the PCC no longer represents them.
Considering this statement, you need to bear in mind that all of the PCC members are elected by the congregation – if they aren’t representative, who has been electing them? I’m reminded of this quote:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
It seems to me that this is largely what has happened. The rest of the congregation, rather than using their voting powers at the APCM to get rid of the group on the PCC, have stuck their heads in the sand and ignored what has been going on, and those that have been elected to the PCC haven’t fought for their vicar – as a result, they’re now facing his removal.
However much he wanted to fight for his position, I do think that Tom Ambrose should have just resigned from the post, as I can’t see how the Church can resolve the pastoral breakdown in any other way than to remove him – it’s a lot easier to remove one priest, who lest we not forget lives in a house that comes with the job, than multiple PCC members who will all still be living in the parish anyway – leaving the remains of the problem still there, even if those involved no longer have any power.
After this, I’d be amazed if anyone in their right mind applies for the vacancy in Trumpington when it comes up now. Effectively that one group on the PCC has now made their parish a no-go zone – the growth that has come in spite of their efforts will most surely die when Ambrose is removed, and with nobody willing to take on the parish, the remains will struggle to survive too. Ultimately it’s a pyrrhic victory, nobody will really come out as the winner, and the biggest losers will be the people of Trumpington themselves.
Thanks to a link to my original posting from a discussion on the topic at Ship of Fools, I came across a posting by Etheldreda on the topic which links to another Cambridge Evening News article that includes a long statement by the Bishop of Ely, Dr Anthony Russell.
Interestingly, it does seem rather like the Bishop of Ely is attempting to combat the implied criticism of the potential waste of diocesan money that the current tribunal process will be by listing all the stages of the process up to this point. However Tom Ambrose, the priest at the centre doesn’t seem overly impressed:
â€œThis has been going on for six years and in that time I have been treated abominably. I have asked the bishop again and again to talk about it, and have always been refused.â€?
He also adds:
â€œThe people who want me out are no longer communicants at the church, they have removed themselves from the congregation, so I have not heard anything from them – nor has anyone else in the parish talked about it.â€?
Looking at the details in the statement from the Diocese however, back as far as 2003 the APCM voted by 58 to 7 against Rev Ambrose – a not insignificant vote. In 2004 the PCC passed a motion with a two-thirds majority to request an inquiry. After several attempts at mediation, in early 2005 the Archdeacon of Ely was asked to make a report to the Bishop as to whether an inquiry would be in the best interests of the incumbent and parishioners of Trumpington – something that he concluded was. Amazingly it has now taken more than two years to get from the decision to hold the tribunal to actually doing it.
To be frank, nobody seems to be coming out of this looking good, whether it’s the incumbent and parishioners of Trumpington, or the Diocese. Ultimately, the only way that a tribunal could be avoided would be for one side to back down. Rev Ambrose could resign – but then based on what he has said, and the increased support the press coverage has given him that would be unlikely. The PCC could back down, indeed four years is enough time for Ambrose supporters to have managed to get onto the committee given enough support at the APCM. The fact that this hasn’t happened does seem to imply that despite what has been said, Ambrose is fighting a loosing battle.
Whatever happens though, the congregation in Trumpington are the losers here. Lets be honest, what priest in their right mind would apply for a vacancy there after this?
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.