You’re hired!: Can the Catholic Church learn about choosing parish clergy from the Church of England?10 November 2016 | by Gerry Lynch | Comments: 0 Ecumenical Catholic leaders have been considering whether they could learn from the Church of England about lay involvement in choosing parish clergy
One of the most distinctive differences between parochial life in the Catholic Church and the Church of England is in the choice of parish leader. The appointment of a Catholic parish priest is made by the diocesan bishop, while an Anglican vicar is often appointed in response to an advert, with the laity helping to choose the most suitable applicant.
Last month in Rome, participants at a major colloquium on ecumenical dialogue, held at the Gregorian University, heard from members of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission that the body is considering whether the Catholic Church could benefit from introducing lay participation into the choice of parish clergy.
Lay Catholics keen to find more of a role in their parishes may well find this idea appealing, but it is not as straightforward as it sounds. In a very Anglican way, there is no single, centrally determined process. Although the standard format is for responsibility for an appointment to be shared between the bishop, representatives of the parish or benefice, and the patrons, in practice the process is often more a product of serendipity and organic evolution than intentional design. Some parts of the Anglican Communion, notably Ireland and the United States, have had significant lay involvement in the appointment of parish clergy since the nineteenth century. In England, however, until around 30 years ago, the consultation was often informal and strongly steered by the bishop.
“I came to the end of my training curacy in the early 1980s,” an experienced parish priest told me. “The bishop sent me to a parish that had just fallen vacant for a chat with the churchwardens around a farmhouse table. They had their reservations, but in those days a parish rarely turned down an episcopal recommendation.”
The process now leans quite heavily on best practice in the secular, human resources world although, one hopes, still primarily on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There can be significant variation in procedures: appointments to single church parishes involve different structures and dynamics from those to rural benefices, which can have over a dozen parishes, sometimes with many different patrons. But whatever the process, the key early steps are the drawing up of a parish profile, and the creation of an appointment panel (which can have different names).
The parish profile is drawn up by the parochial church council (PCC) or PCCs in consultation with the deanery and diocese. This is the first picture a potential priest gets of the role, and, at a time of declining numbers of stipendiary clergy, it is as much a tool for marketing the job as determining who will be appointed. It will usually describe the social context of the parish, nature of the congregation, existing worship tradition and parish activities, state of the buildings and finances, and the qualities of the priest being sought. One of the key issues is to clarify whether continuity or change is being sought.
“During vacancies, we warn people to keep the parsonage and grounds tidy and smile at every stranger who turns up in church,” an archdeacon told me. “The last thing people want to do is lose a potential vicar.”
The appointment panel includes representatives of the diocese, parish or parishes, and the patron. A key role of diocesan representatives is to help parishes resist the temptation to ask for a priest who is a hybrid of St Francis and the Archangel Gabriel. There will be at least two lay representatives, elected by the PCC or Team Council, as applicable. In single-church parishes these are often the churchwardens, although this is not always the case, especially if there are parishioners with significant experience of recruitment in the secular world. In multi-parish benefices, now predominant in rural areas, there could be as many as five lay representatives. In team ministries, the team vicars, who have incumbent status, will usually be part of the panel appointing the senior, team rector, post.
Diocesan representatives will always include a bishop, often a suffragan, and an archdeacon, who is particularly important to the process. The rural dean is also usually on the panel. In about half of parishes, the patron is the diocesan bishop. Elsewhere, they are enormously varied, including cathedral chapters, local gentry, and even the Ministry of Defence in areas where there is a strong military presence.
Patrons often have definite theological leanings, and were instrumental in the emergence of variation in churchmanship from parish to parish in Victorian and Edwardian times. Oxbridge colleges are patrons to many parishes, and often prefer to appoint more liberal clergy. Other major patrons include charities with theological leanings, such as the (Evangelical) Church Pastoral Aid Society and (Anglo-Catholic) Society for the Maintenance of the Faith. With more priests now serving multiple parishes, this means patrons of different traditions might have to work together in appointments. This occasionally creates tension but is often a positive, forcing theological “soundness” to play second fiddle to gifts and calling.
Occasionally, patrons and parish representatives will simply headhunt potential candidates, particularly in single-church parishes with strongly defined churchmanship. The norm, however, is for vacancies to be advertised, both online and in the Church Times, with person specifications, role descriptions, and application forms drawn up as would be the case in secular recruitment.
If a healthy field is attracted, the panel will shortlist candidates and invite perhaps three or four for interview. This involves a day or two in the parish, meeting the whole PCC, visiting church schools, inspecting the vicarage, and for candidates’ spouses, often the main family breadwinners, a chance to explore the local jobs market. The process is as much about priests finding a suitable parish as it is about parishes finding a suitable priest.
Interviews should follow best recruitment practice, with the same questions asked of all candidates. They are usually asked to preach a short sermon, and increasingly to make a presentation on their vision for the parish. There are wonderful horror stories about these sermons, covering everything from bad ventriloquist acts to 30-minute monologues on death, but they can provide an opportunity for an “outsider” candidate to shine.
“That’s how our current vicar, a young evangelical, convinced us to appoint her to a liberal Catholic parish”, a Manchester churchwarden told me. “She preached a thought-provoking sermon in five minutes and convinced us she could inspire our existing Choral Eucharist congregation while reaching out to our young professional population, with whom we had little contact.”
Does the system produce appointments that would never have been made by a bishop acting ex cathedra? An archdeacon in the southern shires recalled an illuminating selection: “It was to a benefice of many small villages in a fox-hunting area full of retired military and landed gentry. We appointed an earring-sporting cockney and unabashed radical, several decades younger than the other candidates. He stood out for his energy, vision and enthusiasm, impressing the conservative parish representatives. “That energy and vision showed over a fairly long stint in the benefice, where he developed an excellent youth ministry and a particular knack for bringing people of different generations together.
“When the system works properly, as it did in this case, it enables parishes to find the priest God needs rather than the one they think they want.”
Gerry Lynch is a writer on Anglican affairs.