As the reader of my blog posts will know, my concern for the problem of power in churches in Britain extends far beyond my own Anglican set-up. Many of the worst cases of clergy or ministerial abuse in fact take place in independent churches. These abuses, like those of Trinity, Brentwood, typically take place because of a complete lack of proper oversight. Such oversight would hopefully spot and call into question financial or emotional manipulation of members of congregations. The Anglican church does, however, have a particular issue connected with power of a somewhat different kind. The institution of bishops provides needed oversight but this management structure is counterbalanced by the extraordinarily power, rights and privileges invested in each clergyman who is appointed as an Incumbent. In the past every Incumbent possessed what is known as the freehold. This made him or her virtually unsackable. If the Church is determined to rid themselves of a particular clergyman for whatever reason, a legal process of immense complication and expense has to be followed. The institution of freehold has been weakened over recent years in favour of a system called Common Tenure. This sets out in details of what is expected of the clergy, their rights and privileges, including their access to support. It also importantly provides for a weakening of the freehold principle. The big draw-back to Common Tenure for the church as a whole is that it cannot be applied retrospectively to those who already possessed the freehold. As before they remain powerfully unsackable to all intents and purposes.
The anomaly of the continuing of the freehold for many thousands of Anglican clergy has emerged with a powerful topicality in recent weeks. I wrote about the trial of a priest in South London who was accused of conducting sham marriages over a long period of time. He and his co-accused were acquitted after the prosecution blundered in their presentation of the evidence. Technically the priest came out of the process innocent of the charges. There does not seem, however, to have been any argument that 400 weddings had taken place. As any priest knows, there is a proper process to be followed in accounting for the fees for these weddings. These all belong to the Diocese. In the case of the accused priest some £50,000 to £70,000 had gone missing. The trial which collapsed had focused on the illegal weddings so the issue of apparent theft was seemingly forgotten. The priest, now acquitted, was allowed to return to his Vicarage and the whole incident of missing money apparently ignored.
The question that occurs to me is this. Is there any institution in the world that would be unable to have a process for disciplining a member of its staff who had apparently failed to account for £50,000 + of the organisation’s money? It seems on the face of it that the freehold of the clergy is a more powerful legal force than the matter of large sums of missing money. Is the church going to have to take out a private prosecution to recover the money as, presumably, the police will no longer be interested in pursuing this man? The situation is full of anomalies and must be giving the legal advisers of the Diocese of Southwark a complete nightmare.
The power of the freehold is also emerging as an issue in my own Diocese of Carlisle. I speak in general terms as I don’t want to identify individuals. Briefly the situation is this. In the face of decline in both congregations and money, the Diocesan authorities have produced, with the leaders of both the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, a scheme for dividing up the diocese into 40 Mission areas. This was voted through at the last Diocesan Synod at the beginning of October 2014. The idea is that eventually each of these areas will have a paid ordained leader from one of the denominations, who will oversee a cluster of churches served by non-stipendiary local people. Some of these latter will be ordained and some not. The idea seems good in theory but in practice, it may never work, at least not for decades to come. The reason for this is simple. Several Anglican clergy with the freehold have been heard to say that they want no truck with the new system. Their legal quasi ‘ownership’ of the parochial areas under their charge is, as far they are concerned, not going to change for anyone. They also have no experience of working with other denominations and don’t want to start now. They know that no directive from the bishop or archdeacon will be able to force any change in the way they choose to do things, at least as long as they are around. Some freehold clergy are still in their 30s and thus it could be a very long time before future clergy, who do in fact buy into the Mission Areas idea, take over in every area of this diocese. The fact also that many of the clergy in this diocese are deeply conservative theologically, means that the practical difficulties of successful ecumenical co-operation are compounded still further. Supporters of groups like GAFCON are not good at conceding that people who are different from them theologically, or who come from another denomination, might have something important to say.
In these two cases it would appear that the clergy freehold is able to strangle both the proper administration of the institution and the ability to adapt and change to fit new circumstances. The task of the Bishops and other members of the hierarchy seems more and more problematic as they deal, first, with a laity who have increasingly the power of the purse-strings and, secondly, a clergy who can, when they wish, block change and the smooth running of the institution. The situation in South London is an organisational nightmare and the problems of unveiling and putting into practice an imaginative plan in Cumbria will become increasingly apparent over the coming months and years. Although I have set out the problem, I can see no obvious solutions. All that I would ask for is that someone in the institution would wake up and admit that there is a serious problem about both authority and power in the Church of England.