Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Written Evidence


Evidence submitted by Revd Paul John Benfield

A.  INTRODUCTION

  1.  I am the Revd Paul John Benfield of St Nicholas Vicarage, Fleetwood, Lancashire.

  2.  I am currently incumbent of the parish of St Nicholas, Fleetwood in the diocese of Blackburn. I have served in a parish which was under the patronage of the Lord Chancellor and have been interviewed by the Lord Chancellor's Ecclesiastical Secretary with a view to serving in a parish of which the Lord Chancellor was patron.

B.  SERVING IN A PARISH OF WHICH THE LORD CHANCELLOR WAS PATRON

  1.  From 1993 to 1997 I was team vicar in the Lewes Team Ministry (Lewes All Saints, St Anne, St Michael and St Thomas) in the diocese of Chichester. This was a three parish team with two stipendiary clergy (a team rector and a team vicar). The team vicar was appointed by the bishop and the team rector jointly and the team rector was appointed by the Lord Chancellor for three out of four turns and a special patronage board for the fourth turn.

  2.   During my time in Lewes the parishes were visited by the Lord Chancellor's Assistant Ecclesiastical Secretary. He met the clergy and representatives of the laity and showed a good knowledge of the parishes. At that time pastoral reorganisation was being discussed for the whole town of Lewes and so he was able to hear the concerns about this. He was able to assure those present that the Lord Chancellor would have to be consulted about pastoral re-organisation and the sale of a benefice house and that he was aware of the complex churchmanship issues in the town. This gave considerable comfort to those present who, at that time, felt pastoral reorganisation was being pushed through by an unsympathetic area bishop and archdeacon who were intent on creating a team for the whole town which most people considered unworkable.

  3.  I left Lewes in 1997. Since then the Lewes Team Ministry has been dissolved and a new benefice of Lewes St Michael and St Thomas at Cliffe with All Saints has been created. The Lord Chancellor is patron of this benefice, alternating with the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith and the Bishop, acting jointly.

C.  BEING CONSIDERED FOR APPOINTMENT TO A LORD CHANCELLOR'S LIVING

  1.  My next parish did not work out and it became apparent to me within 18 months that things would never improve. However, my area bishop did not support my desire for me to move and so nothing was going to be forthcoming within that diocese. Accordingly, I consulted the Clergy Appointments Advisor and in 1999 was placed on his list of clergy seeking a move. He automatically sends details of all such clergy to the Ecclesiastical Secretaries.

  2.  I was soon contacted by the Assistant Ecclesiastical Secretary (Mr Nicholas Wheeler) and asked to attend for an interview in Whitehall. I was impressed by Mr Wheeler's gentle but searching questions about me and my ministry. It was quite obvious that he was only interested in finding suitable priests for the livings for which the Lord Chancellor was responsible and that he had no axe to grind about churchmanship or other matters.

  3.  There was no difficulty with me expressing my opposition to women priests and stating a desire to serve in a parish which had passed resolutions A & B under the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993. At that time it was widely felt that many bishops were not interested in appointing those opposed to women priests and so to come to a patron's representative who was acting fairly and willing to embrace all legitimate views within the Church of England was refreshing.

  4.  After discussion it was decided that I might be suitable for either of two northern livings. After Mr Wheeler had consulted the Bishop of Whitby arrangements were made for my wife and I to visit the benefice of Loftus in Cleveland with Carlin How and Skinningrove. The Lord Chancellor's Department paid our travel expenses (and would have paid for hotel accommodation had that been necessary).

  5.  This benefice turned out not to be suitable for me, but I felt that the whole process of trying to find a suitable priest for the parish and a suitable parish for me had been well conducted by a fair and independent patron, not subject to diocesan control.

D.  CONCLUSIONS

  1.  The Lord Chancellor's ecclesiastical patronage is an important part of securing appointments to livings independent of the control of ever-increasing diocesan centrality.

  2.  I would want to endorse the comments by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, Lord Chancellor, in an address to the Ecclesiastical Law Society on 26 March 1994 (published at 3 Ecc LJ 201). Some people view patronage as an anachronism with a questionable place in the modern Church. My experience is that it is a positive role which has its place in the Established Church. It can act as a check and balance for the benefit of bishops, clergy and laity alike. Most importantly it provides a means for movement between dioceses and thus encourages comprehensiveness in the parish system within the Church of England

  3.  It should not be forgotten that the role of the Lord Chancellor as patron is not limited to the appointment of incumbents. He is also involved with pastoral reorganisation and the sale of parsonages of livings of which he is patron. As such he is exercises an element of the Royal Prerogative and he can use this to bring some extra pressure to bear for the good of the parish, or the incumbent or to assist the parish (see Lord Mackay at 3 Ecc LJ at 203).

  4.  I believe, therefore, that if the Lord Chancellor's patronage must be transferred it should revert to the Crown. Since the Ecclesiastical Secretaries already act for both the Crown and the Lord Chancellor this will cause minimal administrative changes.

  5.  To transfer the patronage to the Church (in whatever form) would remove another of the essential checks and balances which exist in the Church of England. It would make it more difficult for independent minded clergy, who may disagree with their bishop or the current diocesan policy, to move into new parishes or dioceses. It would also remove a further check on over zealous bishops and archdeacons in pastoral reorganisation or selling of parsonages.

  6.  There may be good reasons why the Lord Chancellor's legal functions need revising. But to make changes to the operation of ecclesiastical patronage on the back of those changes is wholly unjustified. It is another example of the dismantling of the subtle constitution of England by a government which does not seem to appreciate how it all works together to protect the various different interests. To transfer ecclesiastical patronage to anyone other than the Crown would be a most regrettable act by the Lord Chancellor which would hardly be consistent with his ancient role as keeper of the king's conscience.

Rev Paul J Benfield

7 January 2004





 
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