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I'm Just a Layperson 5: "My vicar wants to leave but I don't."

In the face of the increasing heterodoxy of bishops and senior clergy, it is not uncommon for lay people and clergy to question their future in the Church of England (or other

Canterbury-aligned Anglican churches) and sometimes they come to different decisions. The first of this series of blogs looked at how clergy can find themselves institutionalised, the second considered how the sense of calling may affect them.

This rest explore the different situations lay people may find themselves in, suggesting ways they may continue to serve God faithfully, whatever their circumstance.

One of the hardest decisions an incumbent can make is to leave a post to which they felt called. In the current situation, some feel they cannot remain in the Canterbury-aligned structures and their resignation has a particular poignancy and consequences for lay people left behind.

Some clergy will leave both their post and their 'ministry' - some with no clear plan as to what happens next, others will move to a new post, perhaps in another jurisdiction. Some need separation from heterodox bishops but remain committed to the people and place they are called to serve, so along with lay people from the congregation, will have plans to start a new church.

Hearing that the vicar is leaving is always unsettling, and it can be even harder when some congregation members plan to move with them.

A previous post advanced two propositions for those in this situation.

The first was that, “… clergy must be given permission to do as they feel called. Ministers with permanently tortured consciences are no use to anyone and will do themselves harm. Kindness requires them not to have to minister against what they understand God to be saying. Clergy do move on for all manner of reasons, including retirement, preferment and a new call, and they can’t ever really know what will happen to their former church. It is simply the case that even the “best” of appointments can go rapidly pear-shaped. Clergy can be helped to embrace that calling is not a cage and a clear conscience toward both God and man is something to allow a minster to “take pains” in having. Anything laity can do practically to help make that a reality is a way to honour those who God has set over them”.

The second suggestion was that, “…experience from the rest of the world teaches that the true test of godliness for both clergy and laity alike in this generation is not making the “right” decision to remain or depart, but how each treat those who come to the opposite decision. That, very simply, is the loving thing to do- especially for those who feel trapped against their will - like the faithful but impecunious vicar housing four generations in the vicarage. Moreover, it is also the practical thing to do - if the Canterbury-aligned structures carry on headlong into ever greater error, then ever more people will join the ranks of those who have already departed and they need to know that they will be unequivocally welcomed. By the same token, if the Coe/CiW/SEC returns to its Biblical moorings then departees may well wish to return to an equally unequivocal reception. Burning bridges or even harbouring resentments is not a sensible strategy.”

Leaving Well

These points indicate that clergy should be helped to 'leave well'. That is to say, with the minimum pain to the vicar, their family and the church. Neither throwing the vicar out nor making them stay is likely, in the long run, to help anyone. A church that does not see that is, in reality, in a somewhat disturbing spiritual place and may, as such, not be that attractive to a potential incoming minister.

'Leaving well' will, amongst many other things, be a matter a negotiating the timing and circumstances of the vicar’s departure. Clergy have to give three months’ notice to their diocese but when they do that, or when they state the notice is effective from, is a matter for them. Accordingly, even though the incumbent may be determined to leave a 'window' of a mutually agreed duration can be created to assist with planning. Any lay person who has been involved in managing a church through an interregnum knows that it is, even at the best of times, a far from easy task and that 'window' can at least be used to mitigate the difficulties.

Staying Well

Whether or not the incumbent's decision to leave has caused others to make the same decision, it is easy to feel abandoned and 'left behind' when someone's conscience leads them to make a decision that is different to that which you would choose. It is hard, but the more that laity can look forward to what God may do in the future - rather than look back to what has been lost - the better it is likely to be.

If it is true that those leaving should 'bless' those they leave by not trying to strip the PCC of finance or other resources, it might also be considered that in some situations, 'staying well' may involve the PCC blessing those who cannot remain with a gift that encourages mission in the local area, recognising that the historic endowments of the PCC may have been given by those who would have sympathy with those who feel compelled to leave.

Looking Ahead

Ideally, those remaining and those leaving can use this 'window' well - working together to secure the best possible future for the parish.

A parish can work with its incumbent to use the time to consult with the patrons (if they are considered helpful), to draft the parish profile they would want [see previous blog] and perhaps most of all to begin the search for a new presbyter. The CoE/CiW/SEC won’t not advertise the post, but contacts and networks can be used to try and find the right person. One of the people best placed to assist with that, if the PCC agree, may be the present clergyperson.

In an ideal world the transition would be all but seamless - the parish would have a clear idea of the type of person they want, have identified them and proposed them to the diocese to be appointed with the shortest possible interregnum.

Sadly, it is not an ideal world, but parishes who do not seize the initiative are more vulnerable than they need to be to: (the now all but inevitable) suspension of the living, pastoral reorganisation, pressure to accept a candidate they don’t want, the insertion of a temporary clergyman or woman, or provision of a series of the same who may undermine the church’s faithfulness and certainly lead to an overlong interregnum, with all its difficulties. The longer the interregnum, the greater the opportunity for the diocese to do what it wants with the parish, regardless of what the parish wants.

The Church Times has a really helpful guide (complete with cartoons) setting out the main things that need to be done in an interregnum. Dioceses also offer advice on their websites and the Archdeacon should be the first port of call. Contact Anglican Futures if we can be of assistance

Sticking Together

Holding a congregation together is not easy at the best of times but a sudden increase in responsibilities and insecurity about the future can create serious tensions. The lay people faced with leading through the interregnum need to come to it rested, with pastoral care in place, having pre-planned as much as possible and secured as much assistance from helpful clergy as possible.

Some churches do grow, even thrive in interregnum but it is not common and usually only happens in churches with quite extraordinary resources and privileges. Limitation of damage is much more often the key principle.

Anglican Futures is willing to support those in this situation. Please contact us.


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Thank you Michal Mahon from Unsplash for the image above

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