Thursday, 4 August 2011

Benefice Suspensions: If you've got a problem with the judgement, complain to the judge!

As readers of this blog may be aware, there is a system in England called parish 'patronage', which means that certain individuals or corporate bodies have the right in law to 'present' clergy to fill the vacancies in particular parishes.

Often the patron is the Diocesan Bishop, but quite often it is not. Historically, therefore, it is one of those 'checks and balances' things, so inherent to the English way, which offsets the power of the bishop with the power of others - frequently the laity.

However, a bishop also has a right, in law, to suspend the right of presentation where he deems this appropriate - usually for the sake of pastoral reorganization. When this happens, he appoints a 'priest in charge', and under the old rules such a priest could be moved on after his or her license expired (though this no longer quite applies under Common Tenure). Hence the established attraction of this proposal for the bishop. But he cannot do this on a whim - the Diocesan Pastoral Committee has to approve the proposal - and he can only do it for a period of five years, after which the suspension has to be renewed.

Nevertheless, many bishops do it, shall we say, quite a lot. In the Diocese of Chelmsford, for example, almost a third of all benefices are currently 'suspended' - and some have been in this situation for a considerable period.

In the light of all this, one of the Chelmsford General Synod reps put down a question on the subject at the last General Synod. The exchange makes interesting reading:
Mrs Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) asked the Church Commissioners: What are the circumstances in which the right of presentation to a benefice may be suspended by a diocesan bishop?

The Third Church Estates Commissioner: Section 67 of the Pastoral Measure 1983, which includes the bishop’s power to suspend the right of presentation to a benefice, makes no specific provision regarding the circumstances in which it should be used. However, the code of practice to the Measure, to which bishops are expected to have regard, recommends that it should in the main be confined to benefices where pastoral reorganisation is under consideration or in progress and, occasionally, where a change of parsonage house is planned.

Mrs Mary Durlacher: Given the rather vague definition of ‘pastoral reorganization under consideration’, you will not be surprised perhaps by my supplementary question, which is this. What recourse is available to PCCs, patrons and others, who consider that the guidance in the code of practice has not been complied with in the case of a proposed suspension?

The Third Church Estates Commissioner: The Commissioners have no jurisdiction under the Pastoral Measure to adjudicate on a proposal to suspend rights of presentation or to intervene, except where there are existing proposals of the changes to benefices and formal objections have been received; but I am sure that you can make representations to your bishop if you are concerned.

So unless I'm mistaken, if you are concerned that your bishop has not acted according to the code of practice you should make representations to ... er, the bishop!

In Chelmsford, incidentally, another requirement of the code of practice, that figures on suspensions be issued in the Annual Report to the Diocesan Synod, hasn't been followed since about 2003.

Which makes me wonder, when we are repeatedly told that a code of practice will nevertheless be 'as good as' legislation when it comes to women bishops.

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