Save our Parsonages (SOP) was founded in 1994 as a result of deep concern in the parishes about the number of fine rectories and vicarages that were being sold off against their wishes and without prior discussion. Our aims are a) to make the Church understand the value of its buildings to the community, and b) to promote the parish system and reduce bureaucracy by giving power and responsibility back to the parishes. I was Director of SOP from 2004 to 2020.
The feedback we get from our members in the parishes has always told us that lack of consultation by the dioceses is a major problem, so back in the 1990s we drafted a Code of Practice to try to improve communication. Basically our Code simply says that the dioceses are to consult with the parishes at an early stage whenever they are contemplating selling off a parsonage, so as to give a chance for mutual agreement to be reached. In 2004/5 we redrafted the Code and I sent it out to bishops, archdeacons and diocesan secretaries in December 2005. 21% of those responded, representing 19 dioceses (43% of the total at the time). None accepted any need for it. 75% of them basically said ‘we do things fine’, 25% said the Code was unnecessary or misguided. None accepted any problem with relationships between diocesan offices and parishes, or that parishioners found existing procedures unsatisfactory. We got no input at all on the drafting of the code despite having said we’d welcome it. Three diocesan secretaries made very helpful comments, but the exercise as a whole showed a reluctance to engage in dialogue. We had discussed the draft Code with the Church Commissioners so we mentioned that we’d had some input from them, but they wrote to all diocesan secretaries saying that was misleading.
In 2005, legislation was drafted for the abolition of the clergy freehold, which would endanger parsonages even more by enabling the dioceses to sell them at any time, without waiting for a vacancy, so we distributed a position paper to every member of General Synod pointing this out. The battle in Synod was won and the freehold of property remained unchanged, an eventual outcome to which we like to think we contributed.
In 2007 the Church published an overview of its finances for the years 2000-2004 which admitted that the diocesan finances were only kept in balance by selling off parsonages, and this was picked up and featured in the Daily Telegraph with support and comments from our patron Terry Waite.
When a parsonage is to be sold off by a diocese, a PCC has a right of appeal to the Church Commissioners. We and some of our members were concerned that the Commissioners, being a central Church body, were not sufficiently independent to be able to give a totally unbiased ruling – after all, it was the Commissioners who drafted the policy of standardisation of parsonages in their parsonage design guide – and in practice the huge majority of appeals go in favour of the diocese, not the PCC. So in 2007 we met the Third Church Estates Commissioner to express these concerns but he had no time at all for them and said that the Commissioners were totally impartial.
In 2008 we launched an exercise in trying to get information about what parsonages were currently on the ‘unsuitable’ list at each diocese. We wrote to 41 diocesan secretaries and received replies from twenty (48% of them), but only five (12%) provided any information. Reasons given for this secrecy were that the information was not readily available, or confidential, or commercially or pastorally sensitive. We could make little sense of any of these reasons (for example we knew they had lists), so wrote again for clarification. Ten responded but added nothing helpful, which at least emphasised the aim of the dioceses to keep their parishioners in the dark. One diocesan secretary said it was ‘nothing whatever to do with you’ as an ‘external organisation’, which made us wonder what we have to do to qualify as ‘internal’, since our committee are all Church members, some are clergy and one was a member of General Synod! In 2008 and 2009 we lobbied Synod on this but were told they couldn’t help us.
In 2011 we worked on a new document enumerating the reasons why the Church should retain its traditional parsonage houses, and we sent it out in 2012 to all diocesan secretaries, archdeacons, parsonage committees and diocesan surveyors, asking for comments. We received precisely five responses and only two, from Lincoln and Blackburn, said anything of substance. Lincoln said they broadly agreed with us, and although Blackburn tried to be helpful, their response was worrying, asking whether they should just be providing ‘adequate housing’ or doing more for ‘Church and community benefit’ and that ‘if this question were answered perhaps there would be a clearer way forward.’ It was alarming that they had apparently never even thought this fundamental point through and had no policy on it.
We continued to have meetings with Church Commissioners’ pastoral division in an attempt to improve their appeal procedures. The meetings were always outwardly cordial, but although they had said they would welcome suggestions, not one of ours was ever accepted.
In 2012 the Prince’s Regeneration Trust suggested we could set up a parsonage conservation award for the diocese with the best conserved traditional parsonage, and the winner would get a mention in their Green Guide featuring the best work done during the year. Once again we wrote to all the dioceses, but we only got one reply, from London Diocese, but even they then mysteriously withdrew.
My overriding impression of the dioceses and my attempts to communicate with them over the years that I was Director of SOP is that at worst they treated us as little more than adversaries, and at best as unworthy of any serious attention, even though we always emphasised that we were on their side and trying to help them, as a result of the feedback we were getting from our members in the parishes. The unsatisfactory nature of our relationship seems to stem from the continuing centralisation of powers in the central Church institutions over the years. The Church institutions have become unreceptive to input and impervious to unsolicited ideas. They have no real wish to engage and they feel no need to.
In the dioceses, buildings are generally seen as a problem rather than an asset, and parsonages are not seen as ‘Church buildings’ anyway. They are there to be sold off as ‘old’ and ‘outdated’. Indeed, the whole approach of the Church to its heritage seems curiously out of date. Environmentalism and energy saving, too, are interpreted as ‘old is bad, new is good’, even though the dioceses have had more trouble and expense with badly built 1960s and 1970s houses. This all means no value is placed on the symbolic and practical power of the parsonage in the community, and policy instead favours moving vicars away from the centre of the community and discouraging the social use of the parsonage. New expressions of Church and lack of support for the parish system exacerbate these problems. These policies simply contribute to the decline of congregations, yet there is little sign that the Church institutions are learning this lesson.
Despite this intransigence, I believe the campaigns I have discussed should continue to be pursued in the interests of the parishes.
Anthony Jennings, October 2022