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June 1 2019 – “Patronage and Power Abuse in the Church” – ‘Surviving Church’ – Stephen Parsons


Patronage and Power Abuse in the Church

Patronage and Power Abuse in the Church

While studying the life and times of Joan of Arc for a lecture I was giving, I was reminded of one distinctive feature of Western mediaeval society.  The whole of that society was held together through a complicated system of patronage.  Power was not only possessed by those who commanded the most soldiers, it was also exercised by those who possessed the legal and traditional right to put others in positions of power.  To possess the power of patronage was to control others and to be the focus of influence right across society.  Joan of Arc was only able to make headway in her short meteoric career having persuaded individuals possessing the power of patronage to back her. 
Patronage, the right to raise up or cast down another person, is still a power that we find in our society.  The Church of England is one contemporary institution that still openly exercises the power of patronage in its affairs.  Arguably this manifestation of patronage is less salient than it was in the days of Jane Austen when Mr Collins, in Pride and Prejudice,used all his charm to flatter his patron, Lady De Bourgh for the right to occupy a particular vicarage and the substantial income that went with it.  My old parish in Gloucestershire was under the patronage of a Cambridge college and its endowed income of £800 was sufficient in Victorian times to keep a vicar in style.  Other parishes were worth a quarter of this and the vicars who occupied lesser posts scrambled to survive, like Mr Quiverful in the Trollope novels, in a permanent state of genteel poverty.  It was no fun to live in a falling down vicarage with inadequate resources to heat the building or keep out the rain.
The traditional power of patronage that was exercised by bishops and others over the parishes of England was arguably the greatest source of power that they possessed.  Keeping on the right side of this power was perhaps the only way clergy had to escape out of abject poverty into a position of relative affluence.  A black mark against your name could mark your record for ever and prevent you ever finding a post which would keep you in reasonable comfort.  Clergy were rightly in awe of those who had this power to create or destroy a career and a livelihood.
Anthony Trollope’s novels are also, in many ways, an exploration of the way that the exercise of patronage power was exercised and experienced in Victorian times.  Today things have changed for the better.  In the first place, stipends of the full-time clergy below the level of Archdeacons and Deans are largely the same.  When I was ordained fifty years ago, there were vicars in some parishes earning seven times the level of their curates and living in far superior accommodation.   Inflation has destroyed these differentials of income.  A second change today is that posts are now mostly advertised in the church press and the appointments system is far more open.  A transparent interview process takes place for most posts, even for bishops.  But, as a recent letter in the Church Times points out, the exercise of patronage is an issue that is still a live one as we ask questions about how Bishop Peter Ball was elevated to Gloucester in 1991.  It transpires that two other dioceses, Norwich and Portsmouth, had both refused to consider his candidature on the grounds of Ball’s known predilection for the company of young men.  The CT letter from the retired bishop, Colin Buchanan, hints at political interference in this appointment.  Patronage on the part of the ‘great and the good’ was thus apparently allowed to override normal checks and balances.  To become a diocesan bishop in 1991 did require impeccable references.  One of those who provided such a reference had to be his Diocesan bishop, the then Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp.  Are we to believe that Bishop Kemp had no insight or knowledge of the rumours around Peter Ball?  Kemp’s legacy of having allowed Bishop Ball’s translation to Gloucester and later obstructing the police enquiries into his conduct have left a mark against the bishop’s historical legacy which is unlikely ever to be erased.
The power of patronage in the church may be indeed weakening in the way that democratic processes reach further into the management of the church.  And yet, even as it weakens, we need to have a full awareness of how important a role patronage has played in the church in the very recent past.  In some dioceses all posts are advertised, even for senior clergy such as archdeacons and residentiary canons.   Other dioceses, such as Chichester, appear to advertise relatively few of their posts.  Most appointments seem to be done ‘in-house’.  For one clergyman at least, this near total episcopal control over livings in Chichester has been experienced as an abuse of power.
Among the many documents released by IICSA in the course of its hearings was a witness statement by one Fr. Nicholas Flint, a Chichester incumbent. His testimony strongly criticises the way he felt he had been treated by the diocese.  His complaints directly and indirectly touch on issues of patronage power.  Flint had for a long time felt drawn with others in the diocese to support Peter Ball after he was cautioned in 1992.  The eventual conviction of Ball in 2015 and the revelation of the full extent of his offending left him and other supporters in considerable confusion and dismay.  His self-description was that of being ‘collateral damage’ to the whole sad affair. Eventually he obtained an appointment to see the Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, in October 2015 and he hoped to receive some pastoral care and support.  He needed some understanding for all he had suffered in trying to respond to local perpetrators and victims who were part of the wider abuse scandals in the diocese.  He was also looking for a possible move within the diocese after being in the same post from 21 years. 
The Bishop stated, in Flint’s words, that ‘he did not have anything for me in his diocese’. 
Whatever else was being communicated, this declaration by the Bishop is of interest because it indicates that the Bishop regarded himself at the sole dispenser of patronage in the diocese.  This old-fashioned approach to the filling of appointments also runs counter, according to Fr Flint, to one of the recommendations of the Archbishop’s Visitation to Chichester Diocese a few years earlier.  I have no figures on the dioceses where a bishop could make such a statement about appointments, but I would hope that these dioceses are now firmly in the minority.  Centralised control of the power of patronage may be one of the factors that had helped to create the Chichester ‘scandals’ in the first place.  It is strange as well as regrettable that the current Bishop of the diocese has no apparent insight into the possibility that a secretive structure from which outsiders are excluded is also one where malefactors can most easily hide.   The old-fashioned feudal attitudes which exemplified the ‘reign’ of Bishop Kemp have no place in the 21st century.  The current Bishop of Chichester should be making every effort to transform that culture in every possible way.  The interaction with Fr Flint in 2015 suggests that the old culture of patronage and patriarchal power was then still very much alive in the Chichester Diocese. 
This blog invites the reader to become better sensitised to the existence of a silent power in the Church.  This is present in church patronage.  When used corruptly, patronage power can quickly create situations of abuse, secrecy and rampant bullying.  In the case of the Chichester Diocese, we would claim that any continued exercise of an unlimited patronage by a bishop over a whole diocese is, in 2019, something now totally inappropriate.  The recent IICSA report on the recent history of their diocese, now in the in-tray of the Bishops and senior staff at Chichester, should surely be driving forward a new openness.  Is the Diocese of Chichester to be a place that resists, as the Bishop of Burnley puts it, ‘deep-seated cultural change’? The episode that took place account of the Bishop of Chichester’s study a mere 3 ½ years ago is an example of reactionary attitudes that have no place in a post-IICSA church.  This post-IICSA church is watching and waiting to see evidence of ‘learnt lessons’, transparency and a new penitential atmosphere involving real care by all bishops for their clergy. 

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “Patronage and Power Abuse in the Church”

  1. Thank you for pointing this out in the case of Chichester Diocese. Patronage by those who wish to exclude women priests is still prevailing and controlling appointments in many rural parishes. I wonder if, when our present incumbent leaves, the parish will be granted a fair and open access to candidates from ALL the Church of England, not just those who belong to ‘The Society’? St Hilda should rise up and crown them with her episcopal staff!

  2. There is unofficial patronage, too. Even a humble vicar can put someone forward for training, and what they say will be believed. I witnessed a situation where someone was put forward for basic training as a lay minister with a whole raft of things they were supposed to have done, working with young people here and there signed off by the incumbent. When in fact it was all completely fictional. And of course, reverse patronage. Someone says you are not suitable, and that’s that. Accuse a cleric, and you are a priori not believed. If you are accused by a cleric, they are.

  3. Thank you for sharing my story. In my evidence I also record my repeated concern that as recently as 2016 Martin Warner had not passed on to the Police information I gave him about a suspect.

    Since giving my evidence he has made one other attempt, fortunately bungled, to remove me from my one remaining supra parochial responsibility in the diocese.

    At my age I have another 7- 13 years in full time ministry, but the experiences have been so traumatic that I cannot now face the thought of moving on in ministry. I am blessed to be in a supportive village and to be affirmed by my parishioners and other priestly colleagues.

    1. Nick, I found your statement to IICSA painful to read. I’m so sorry you’ve had such a rough time. I’m glad your parish is supportive, at least that’s one positive.

      I’m from Chichester Diocese; Gordon Rideout was my vicar and Peter Ball my bishop. I don’t want to go into the story here but I too regard myself as collateral damage.

      And yes, what you say about patronage is absolutely true, and still goes on.

  4. I dont know the facts of the Chichester case that you refer to but I am aware of this sort of ‘patronage’ being operated in other dioceses and across a variety of levels of seniority. This aids and abets the clericalism that is rife in the Church of England much to it’s shame. As a state institution in receipt of state and public funds as well as the infamous seats in the House of Lords that it holds, it is high time that this self serving institution was brought to book and excluded from these ‘perks’ until its house, or houses, are in order in the same way that we would expect from any other national or local government body or associated quango. The fact that the state church, or ‘ministry of religion’ is allowed to be exempt from the equality act is laughable, but very scary at the same time.

    1. I’d agree about the exemptions from the equality legislation! But isn’t a government or state organisation, nor does it get government money. Only the tax breaks any charity gets. The seats in the House of Lords are because some church legislation has to go to the House. So the Bishops have to have a say. The Chief Rabbi and various other religious Heads also have seats. It’s all very odd, I grant you.

      1. I think what I mean by state/public funding is the historical financial endowments that make up the basis of the CofE’s financial wealth including things such as Queen Anne’s Bounty, the land that it owns, and schemes like the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme, as well as its large receipt of lottery money.

        It is the established church of the state and is therefore intrinsically linked to state bodies and it is through this that it has 26 Lords Spiritual, this is not offered to any other faith or Christian body although as you say the current chief rabbi is a Lord Temporal.

        I think any other body that received these advantages would be expected to comply with all employment, equality, bullying, pay and other legislation that somehow the CofE manages to navigate around.

        1. Wouldn’t disagree, broadly. Saying that the clergy are self employed also means they end up working ridiculous hours. Exploitation, basically.

  5. Thank you for this. The single best article – by far – that I have encountered on the subject of preferment and its origins is by the extremely distinguished student of the medieval church, A. Hamilton Thompson (1873-1962): https://www.le.ac.uk/lahs/downloads/1941-2/1941-42%20(22)%201-32%20Hamilton%20Thompson.pdf

    Historically, the patronage of the bishops of Chichester was very slender – for example, the 1841 Clergy List indicates that they had the gift of only thirty benefices (though four of these were plural) outside the cathedral dignities in a diocese with approximately 320 (or so) parishes extant at that time. I haven’t done a calculation of the current patronage rights of the bishops – inflated naturally by the foundation of many more recent parishes and the disposal or exchange of advowsons by former lay or corporate patrons – but thirty livings was obviously a relatively slender base on which to start, though not as extreme as the bishops of Peterborough, who had the gift of only four parochial cures in their own diocese, or Llandaff (five) or Oxford (six) (within the legal structures prevailing in Wales prior to 1921 and the expansion of the Oxford diocese beyond the confines of the eponymous county).

    Also, it is worth noting the relative financial distress of the Chichester diocese, occasioned in part by the fact that it still has far too many two or three parish benefices in rural situations, where benefices in excess of ten are now routine in nearby dioceses like Canterbury and Winchester.

    It’s therefore possible that when Dr Warner says “we have nothing for you”, what he might mean is that, given the way in which benefices need to be amalgamated in order to reduce the stipendiary headcount (and thus relieve pressure on the budget), and the pressing economic need to discount certain forms of churchmanship in order to effect any such rationalisation, the preferment cupboard is bare.

    Of course, it is also possible that there is something else going on, and that having certain associations can lead people, however blamelessly and unwittingly, into a sort of purdah. I have read Mr Flint’s witness statement, which speaks for itself. There is no biography in Crockford. However, I note that he is a long-serving incumbent of Rusper, between Crawley and Horsham (which you have pictured), and where I attended a service in 2009 as part of a pilgrimage I have been undertaking. Until recently it was in plurality with Colgate, where I have also attended a service. To my knowledge Rusper might now be the only rural single parish benefice in the diocese, absent Cowden (following the recent closures of Holtye and Hammerwood) where the incumbent has been part time; until 2015 Heyshott was also on its own, but it was led by an SSM. Knowledge of this will, I suppose, create its own pressures.

    Richard W. Symonds [unpublished]

    This disturbing case of the use and abuse of Church power has other implications. For example: If Archbishop Welby [and Bishop Warner] insist there is still a “significant cloud” hanging over the deceased Bishop Bell accused of sexual abuse, even though the accusations have been proved to be unfounded, then that Archbishop and Bishop are falsely accusing the deceased Bishop and thus is an abuse of power on their part – as well as breaking the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness”.