FROM time immemorial the Patron has been the pivot around which the parish system has worked. Nowadays you sometimes hear people talking about “private patrons” in a pejorative or slighting way. What is often implied is that “private patrons” are an anachronism; that somehow they usurp a role properly belonging to others. Bishops seem particularly disposed to this view. This is unsurprising in a Church that is seeking to centralize power and authority which, it is maintained, will lead to greater efficiency and further the kingdom of God.
However, the Patron, or rather his predecessors, probably built the parish church and the patron's interests and responsibilities embrace most aspects of the parish system. This system is the rock upon which the Christian Church in this country has flourished for centuries. It is this system that is now under threat.
The origins of ecclesiastical patronage are firmly rooted in property. Some would argue that its origins are pre-Christian. There is some evidence that in the area we now know as Germany, it was pagan practice for the local lord to provide and pay for a priest and a place of worship to the gods which he considered as his property. When Christianity arrived, so the theory goes, the same arrangement remained in place with a Christian rather than a pagan priest.
In England, the parochial system grew up in a spontaneous and haphazard fashion: it was not all neatly planned by St Theodore. It seems fairly clear that as far back as Saxon times, the lord of the each manor built a church on his land, appointed and paid a priest, and regarded the benefice as his personal property.
The modern role of the patron took shape as a result of the reforms of a series of Councils culminating in the Lateran Council of 1215 which made provision for every parish to have its resident incumbent. This was essentially the creation of the parish system as we know it today. Under this system, the parish priest is able to fulfil his pastoral and liturgical responsibilities as a leading member of the community in which he lives, a source of great comfort, inspiration and security to all his parishioners. Christian worship and service is not only a very personal matter but is very much a community activity.
The most important benefit acquired by the patron who built the original church and who often paid for the parish priest, was the right to choose the incumbent for appointment by the bishop. Arriving at this point had not been entirely straight-forward.
In English Law, the church fabric was regarded as the property of the landlord until the fifteenth century. The priest existed on a grant of land from the lord of the manor and patron, the glebe. This was normally two yard-lands, twice as many strips of land in the common fields as were held by other members of the village community. He had a double share of the other rights of the community such as grazing, gathering wood and the like. There were also dues and offerings from the parishioners, originally shared with the lord of the manor. Later there were tithes.
The Norman Conquest complicated things. The Normans liked religious communities. They seemed to think that parishes would be well looked after by monastic houses, so they gave advowsons (the right of presentation of a priest to a Living or Benefice) to monasteries and monastic orders. Initially, such parishes were served by members of the religious communities. During the course of time, this was not always seen to be desirable and vicars (deputies) were appointed and paid to take care of the parishes on behalf of the monastery. Later, the monasteries often succumbed to the temptation to take most of the income from the parishes and to pay only a fraction of it to the vicars, keeping the, often substantial, profits for the monastery.
During the passage of time bishops and ecclesiastical bodies felt a need to acquire the right to present priests as incumbents in parishes. For example, the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral acquired many Livings in the City of London. Did it staff them with keen, young Minor Canons? No: it rented the rights of presentation to priests and laymen who took the responsibility to provide pastoral care and the conduct of Divine worship. Bishops did the same. Abbot Samson of St Edmunds Bury invested the abbey's surplus funds in the purchase of advowsons.
The Investiture Controversy which continued from the late eleventh century into the twelfth century is relevant to the development of the present position of lay patrons. The Holy Roman Emperor and other lay princes and magnates claimed the right to invest abbots and bishops within their lands with the episcopal and abbatial ring and staff or crozier. Although this custom was closely allied to the exercise of lay patronage, it was condemned by Pope Nicholas II in 1059. All such lay investiture of the spiritualities of office was specifically forbidden by Pope Gregory VII in 1075. The dispute continued unresolved for several decades. A formal settlement was reached in 1122 and re-asserted at the Second Lateran Council the following year. The Emperor gave up his right to invest the spiritualities but continued to bestow the temporalities of the see of the monastic house, and he continued to receive homage. This was further endorsed by Pope Alexander III at the Third Lateran Council in 1179.
The dispute spread from the continent to England and took a similar course when St Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury refused to do homage to King Henry I or to consecrate any bishop who had acquiesced in lay investiture. A compromise was reached where the King was permitted to receive homage and grant investiture of the temporalities of an office in return for a promise of freedom of clerical election. In this way it came about that private clerical or lay patrons present a candidate to a Living or Benefice and the incumbent is instituted by the bishop.
The Reformation made little or no difference to the exercise of patronage in England. The patronage of the dissolved monastic institutions was simply re-distributed. For example, the patronage of Bolton Abbey and its former parishes are now in the gift of Christ Church, Oxford given by the King to his college. Compare this with the continent. Napoleon's later destruction of the great institutions of Europe included the dismantling of most ecclesiastical patronage.
The incumbent priest, presented and instituted, was never a serf. Unlike others who held land from the lord of the manor, he was not bound to work on the lord's land. He owed his allegiance elsewhere, to his ecclesiastical superiors. In this way the idea of freehold developed. Vicars were granted that freehold in 1215 by the Lateran Council. The priest was secure in his freehold against dictation or oppression from lord, bishop or the patron. It is clear that the security that the freehold gave saved both the Evangelical and Oxford Movements from episcopal suppression.
The Church of England has long been a disputed church and never more so than in the nineteenth century. Various parties, interest groups, office holders fought to promote their views, sought to extend their influence. One way to do this was by acquiring patronage, enabling a committed individual or patronage trust to promote those who shared their theological views and ecclesiastical outlook: this was fairly easy to do. Were you to have read the Morning Chronicle of 2 June 1824, you would have learned that Mr and Mrs P. L. Wellesley were offering for sale a number of advowsons in Essex. (The family had fallen into debt through gambling). The right to present the next Rector of Wanstead was one of those for sale. The newspaper informed prospective purchasers that the annual income of the Living was £653, the age of the present incumbent was sixty-two and the cost was £2400. If that was too expensive, you might have bought the advowson to Roydon for £580. It was not, however, such a good deal: the annual income was £200 and the sitting incumbent a healthy forty-six year old.
When Samuel Wilberforce became Bishop of Oxford, he was dismayed to find that he had so little patronage and set about acquiring key parishes. He learned that the advowson of St Aldate's, Oxford was to be auctioned in the city. He set off to bid for it, but his horse threw a shoe and he arrived too late. The Simeon Trustees bought it and own it today, and St Aldate's is an Evangelical stronghold in the city. Other Evangelical patronage trusts similarly acquired advowsons.
In the wake of the Oxford Movement, or the Catholic Revival, in the Church of England, the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith was founded by two brothers, Canon Edward Wood, Vicar of St Clement's, Cambridge, and James Wood, a lawyer. Its object then, and now, is “to promote and maintain Catholic teaching and practice.” From its inception, the principal means of doing this was through the acquisition and exercise of patronage. None of it was purchased, unlike the practice of other patronage trusts. The founders would have nothing to do with a trade in advowsons, believing this to be uncanonical. Advowsons came to the Society by gift or bequest.
It is easy enough to point to past abuses in the Church and to misunderstand practices that were once commonplace but which we now find odd or would consider quite wrong. Protestant propagandists and Whig historians have always delighted in pointing to the failings of the late medieval church. But they neglect to understand that one of the great achievements of the Church in this country has been the provision and support of priests in parishes, interrupted for a short time only by the so-called Interregnum. However, we have come more and more to appreciate, through the work of such scholars as Eamon Duffy, just how much lay involvement and leadership there was in the pre-Reformation Church. In that, patronage played an important part.
In the modern parish, lay involvement is represented, in part, by the Parochial Church Council consisting of the elected leaders of each church and parish community who, together with the incumbent and the churchwardens, form the executive committee of the parish church.
Independent of this parochial structure stands the patron who, especially a resident one, can act as a source of appeal and disinterested advice in time of trouble. Patrons have been approached for advice by incumbents, churchwardens, members of the PCC and parishioners. Patrons can often be useful sources of unbiased wisdom and safety-valves for pent-up parish feelings.
Against this historical background the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith wishes to keep faith with the past and to assert the importance of the parish in the Church's mission of pastoral care and service to God's children; to maintain the integrity and value of the freehold for incumbents as a guarantee of security for the parish. Despite occasional highly-publicised abuses, the incumbent's freehold of the church, vicarage or rectory, is held in trust by each incumbent and represents in brick and stone the relationship of a priest to his people. The continued existence of private patronage through history into the contemporary Church provides a necessary element of independence and a system of checks and balances against the exercise of overbearing episcopal power.
Proposals expected to come before General Synod during the course of its present session would, in the view of the Society, some other patronage trusts and other private patrons, pose an unwarranted threat to these arrangements. The proposal to introduce common tenure for parish priests would abolish the freehold. It would also fundamentally alter the nature of the patronage operated by private patrons and would be an interference with their property rights. Similarly, the proposal to transfer the ownership of parsonage houses to a diocesan board would impinge upon the property to which a patron presents an incumbent and although appeal procedures are envisaged, it would render the sale of parsonage houses easier. While this may appeal to diocesan bureaucracies, it must be a matter of concern to patrons and incumbents. It will increasingly become an issue to be faced if the amalgamation of parishes continues. It forms part of an increasing centralisation of diocesan and church structures invariably achieved at a cost to and at the expense of parishes. If this trend continues unchecked, it will lead to the effective obliteration of the parochial system.
A study of proposals in the Peterborough diocese in the recent past provides a salutary warning. In 2004 the diocese proposed in a document entitled Setting God's People Free a radical re-organisation of the parish structure. From a document with such a liberating title it may have been expected that it might contain proposals such as a reduction in the cost of a top-heavy, self-augmenting hierarchy (in which Peterborough is far from unique), thereby releasing funds to re-invest in sufficient parish clergy to fill benefices of manageable size. A reduction in the amount required in parish share (“the Quota”) and re-allocation of parish income to provide direct support to more parish clergy. A return to parishes in kind, or more likely in cash which is left over after being squandered, of the glebe which was confiscated by the Endowments and Glebe Measure. A release to the parishes by the bishop of all patronages which he has acquired, since it is clear that he cannot possibly do justice to more than a fraction of them. Proposals to revitalise the parish system by seeking to provide every parish with a priest, not necessarily stipendiary, but someone ordained to celebrate Holy Communion with and for the local church: which although not ideal might have been an acceptable compromise. Setting God's People Free suggested none of these. Rather, its proposals were quite the opposite leading to further central, bureaucratic control. It was spin worthy of Mr Alistair Campbell. More seriously, it represented a dreadful indictment of the Church hierarchy for their administrative misdemeanours over a century and their failure to meet the real needs of the people. It was a set of proposals which saw the wholesale abandonment of the parish system and its replacement by the enticingly and romantically entitled “Sustainable Units of Ministry and Mission” (SUMMs).
The Report did not understand, or even ask, what were the motivations of parishioners to give active support to their parish church. Its proposal for the further centralisation of worship would provide no greater freedom of worship for parishioners, rather, it would result in the precise opposite. The proposed closure of churches would be matched by a loss of income, rather than the reverse. There was unlikely to be money enough available to sustain the Sustainable Units of Ministry and Mission, never mind anything in excess for diocesan requirements. A series of redundant churches, possibly derelict churches would provide the worst of images of a church in decline and failure. A well-kept church is usually the focal point of every parish and a sign that the Church of England is alive and well. A redundant or derelict church will demonstrate that the Church has abandoned that parish. Experience tells us that generally people will not travel to neighbouring parishes on a regular basis. It is a cared for and active parish church that keeps the Church alive. Without that the result will be a rapid decline in church attendance and a consequent decline in income. The strong allegiance to a parish church is not readily transferable. Cut off the roots of a tree and the tree will eventually wither and die.
Inextricably bound up with these proposed changes and others like them, is the position and fate of the parish clergy. In many cases, clergy feel that their vocation and its self-sacrifice, is being abused and there is little sense of appropriate pastoral care from bishops for their clergy. It is a sad reflection on the times and the state of the Church that many parish priests feel undervalued by a system which seems to have embraced the ethics of business rather than those of service and pastoral care. The language of Sustainable Units of Ministry and Mission, Rural Deans as line managers, and bishops as the chairman of a diocesan plc is depressing.
There are also many clergy, not least among those beginning their ministry, who are unsettled and apprehensive about the erosion of freehold and its effective abolition through the introduction of common tenure. There is also uncertainty and anxiety about both the decline in the standard of parsonage houses fit to meet the demands of parish responsibilities and the transfer of ownership from patron and parish to a central diocesan board. Having held this property in trust as the incumbent, the parish priest becomes a tenant of a diocesan board.
The changes proposed in the Peterborough scheme would have meant the wholesale suspension of the rights of presentation. At least Peterborough had the honesty to admit what has been common practice in other dioceses for several years, much to the frustration of patronage trusts and other private patrons.
In opposing the Peterborough proposals one private patron obtained a legal opinion from an eminent ecclesiastical lawyer, the Worshipful Mark Hill. The patron had been concerned that the proposals not only effectively abrogated a patron's rights but seemed to be entering unawares in a minefield of Ecclesiastical Law, the Law of Real Property and Employment Law most of it enshrined in Statutes, Government Regulations, Pastoral Measures and European Law.
Chancellor Mark Hill was of the opinion “that suspension of presentation to every parish or benefice as they become vacant is not permissible under the terms of the present Pastoral Measure.” The preponderance of authority points the other way. He was also of the opinion that the Peterborough report “embraces and requires the dismemberment of parish structures, most of which are governed by statute or measure [and the] failure to engage with the legalities devalues the force and sustainabililty of its conclusions.”
The Peterborough proposals showed in microcosm the threat to the parish structure. Whereas it is clear enough that in a period of declining church attendance and disregard of the Christian religion, dioceses are hard pressed financially, it cannot be right that their solution is cutting or amalgamating parishes, the principal tool of mission and community service, and cutting the number of parish priests, those who engage most completely and daily with those among whom they live, minister and witness. Rather than dig up the roots, might it not be more prudent severely to prune the top branches, feed and water the roots well and the tree will revive and it will flourish.