RECTORY MAY 1997
25 October 1990
Met Enid (our Rector's wife) in Somerfield, shopping for
Sunday's coffee morning at the Rectory. She was
disgruntled after being asked, by the second person
within a week, when Trevor (the Rector) is retiring, so
the Rectory will go on the market. Lots of people, it
seems, are dying to buy it.
It is particularly tactless of these otherwise friendly
neighbours to ask such a direct question. Enid feels she
is being squeezed out of her home long before she's
We all know that Chelmsford Diocese wants to sell the
Rectory as soon as the Rector retires: it's been on the
'unsuitable' list for years: how can a building that has
been happily inhabited and valued by its community for
generations be unsuitable?
1 January 1991
Went to a New Year's Day lunch party with
friends in a nearby village. Our Rural Dean was there.
We got into conversation about the likely changes to our
parish life when Trevor does retire. An amalgamation of
more parishes (we are already three) is inevitable; the
Vicar of Belchamp St Paul will probably be appointed as
our priest, and will have to run five parishes instead
of two as he does at present. Here followed a little
homily on the lay ministry: we can't expect a priest in
every parish any more; it's up to parishioners to take a
more active part in running things. I feel as though I
have heard this before.
And what of the Rectory? It will certainly be sold:
quite impractical and far too costly to maintain. 'Try
running a house like that on £13,000 a year; it's not
fair on parsons.' I counter that we live in a similar
sized house on rather less than £13,000 a year, and we
are responsible for all the repairs. Anyway, most
clergy, like the rest of the population, have working
spouses, so they are not as badly off as they used to
be. But he doesn't hear. He's following the party line
and doesn't want the alternative view.
12 March 1992
Telephone call from Michael, who lives in the
next village and whose family have been patrons of our
benefice for centuries. The Bishop of Colchester is
coming to lunch and wants to visit another parishioner
for tea. Could he come to us? I am delighted, of course,
at this chance to air grass-roots
Tea in the drawing room, with the best china (do Bishops
ever drink tea from mugs?). In among the pleasantries I
introduce the Rectory question, saying I hoped we'd be
allowed to keep it as our parsonage after our priest
retires. A bigger benefice would be less unacceptable
than the loss of 'our' house. No chance, he affirmed.
(Michael had had the same response, I afterwards heard).
We felt flattened and frustrated.
30 January 1993
Call from Enid: 'You'd better come to church
tomorrow - I think you'll be sorry if you don't.' I can
31 January 1993
I guessed right: Trevor announced his
retirement. Tears broke out in many a pew. He's been
here for 34 years but he is over seventy and bronchitic:
we must wish him a long and happy retirement. He has,
after all, done his best to steer our parishes towards a
future that satisfies everyone, but the Diocese has
played for time and won.
23 March 1993
Meeting of the combined PCCs with the Rural
Dean, to 'discuss' the future of our benefice. The
Rectory brought forth a good deal of feeling. It is
clear that the Rural Dean is not in favour of keeping
28 March 1993
Trevor's last service as Rector, followed by a
parish lunch party in Bulmer village hall, with speeches
and presents. Colette has organised a petition against
selling the Rectory. She knows it may be the last chance
for some time to get everyone together. Now that Trevor
is leaving we're really on our own, and we must do what
we can. Several pages are soon filled with signatures;
perhaps signing the petition provides some solace in the
prevailing sense of rudderlessness.
29 March 1993
PCC Meeting: Trevor told us that there will be
at least six months' interregnum. We already knew this
to be Chelmsford's policy - as a means of saving
stipends. In any case the rearrangement of the benefice
will mean considerable delay in settling our future.
During the interregnum the church wardens will be
responsible for running things and for finding parsons
to take services.
6 April 1993
A group from our three parishes met informally
to talk about the future of the Rectory and to discuss
our course of action. We need to be prepared if we are
not to be caught off guard in the inevitable struggle
ahead. Discussion helps us to marshal our arguments and
we decide to write a letter to the Bishop of Colchester,
with copies to the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Archdeacon
and the Rural Dean. We are asking for 'reliable
assurances' that the Rectory will not be put up for sale
during the interregnum. Such a step would be 'a serious
and irreversible error in stewardship' and we affirm the
importance of the Rectory in generating a sense of
community in a future enlarged benefice. We suggest that
the sale of the 'new' Vicarage at Belchamp St Paul would
provide funds for the improvements needed at Belchamp
Otten Rectory. Our letter ends: 'As matters stand the
PCCs and churchwardens of our three existing parishes
are not prepared to consent to the sale of Belchamp
Otten Rectory as required by the Parsonages Measure
1938.' Sock it to them.
16 April 1993
Trevor and Enid moved out of the Rectory two
weeks ago, but the key of the house is still with a
neighbour, who has suggested a group visit to look round
it. Several of us wanted to see for ourselves what
condition it is in. Can it really be as run down as the
Diocese and those favouring sale suggest? And is it so
It has two good-sized rooms downstairs, plus a study and
a kitchen big enough to eat in, but the ceilings are not
high and the house is square and compact, with a central
hall area. It would not be difficult or expensive to
heat with a modern central heating system. Upstairs
there are five bedrooms, plus a box room that could be a
small child's bedroom or a second bathroom. The attic is
floored in and would provide useful storage space.
The walls, ceilings and woodwork seemed sound. I found
one rotten window sill and two windows with glazing bars
needing replacement - not bad for a house at least 250
years old. Some might want to redecorate here and there,
but that would be a matter of taste rather than
necessity. We know that the house has been reroofed and
rewired during the past 20 years and the fabric itself
has been well maintained. There is an Aga in the kitchen
(which heats the water), and homespun pine kitchen
units, comfortably in keeping with the quarry tiled
floor. It is, without question, a lovely house, and it
is easy to see why the Rector and his family enjoyed
living in it. There is already a queue of people hoping
to buy it.
We decided to have an independent survey of the house.
The treasurer of Belchamp Otten PCC said he would
21 April 1993
PCC meeting. We talked about the planned new
pastoral scheme for our benefice. We all see the
necessity for a larger grouping, and after all we're
used to being three, so two small additional parishes
won't be too difficult. Some voiced reservations about
the incumbent we are expecting to have thrust upon us.
Will he preserve the numbers and nature of our services?
Will he visit the sick in hospital and at home? Is he
prepared to spend time in the two (church) primary
schools in the benefice?
The main objection is one of principle: we are not being
given any choice, and this is a fundamental bone of
contention with the Diocese. We have heard that the
Vicar of Belchamp St Paul was told when he arrived there
that he would have charge of our parishes later. This
was clearly out of order, both as a matter of courtesy
towards our Rector (who had shown no sign of retiring)
and of diplomacy towards us. No parish should have an
incumbent imposed upon it without any say in the matter.
At our meeting we suggest that the quid pro quo of
accepting the neighbouring vicar should be retention of
our Rectory as the parsonage for the enlarged benefice.
Not everyone agrees. Most feel that we have no
bargaining chips at all: the Diocese will do what it
likes regardless of grassroots opinion. We feel we don't
count. In the end we draft a note to be sent to the
Diocese requesting that the Rectory should be kept, and
let for the next few years until we have a permanent
incumbent of our choice.
I feel frustrated by the passive accepting mood of the
meeting: why should the Diocese dictate to us? We should
count, and our opinions about our future parish life
should be heeded. There must be others, perhaps in other
dioceses, who have similar experiences to ours.
12 May 1993
Colette rang: had I heard that the house has
been let to a local doctor and his family, on a six
months lease? This seems a bit swift, particularly as we
know they are among those hoping to buy the house, but
as he and his wife are both popular members of the local
community there is no reason to object. After all, it is
good to have the house lived in and cared for while we
have no rector, and the rent will help to pay for
repairs. We've heard that the surveyor suggests £80,000
is needed (over a period of 5 - 10 years) to put the
house into good condition.
12 June 1993
Church coffee morning at the Rectory. The Ds
(the tenants) are generous in their hospitality towards
the parish. Clearly they understand local concern about
the Rectory and its traditional role as a community
building. We are of course grateful for this, and many
people feel that if the house must be sold they would be
more favourably disposed towards the Ds than any
'outside' buyers. But what of the future? And what if
the Ds grew tired of frequent parish incursions? And
when they move on?
28 September 1993
Ray (secretary to the PCC at Belchamp Otten)
came round and we composed a good letter which we will
send to the Bishop and the Church Commissioners giving a
range of reasons why the Rectory should be kept as our
parsonage. Size, flexibility, location, usage and
historical links are some of them.
24 October 1993
The churchwardens are doing a grand job in
finding clergy to take our services: we're rather
enjoying the variety. We even get our old Rector,
Trevor, now and again; quite like old times. But
services are not the only function of a parson, and our
lack of a parish priest is growing more serious and
obvious, as well as onerous for the two churchwardens.
29 March 1994
PCC Annual General Meeting. Still no permanent
incumbent, and the Rectory question is on hold. I think
the Diocese is following a policy of letting us stew,
perhaps imagining that time will wear down our
resistance to its plans.
Meeting with the Archdeacon. Members of the
PCCs of our three parishes met in Belchamp Walter
Village Hall in a mood of unrest if not open hostility.
We have a growing sense that we are being told what is
to happen rather than being consulted about what we'd
like. It's the old story: we're asked to contibute more
and more - in money and in kind - but we're not given
the power to decide anything or to shape the pattern of
our parish life. The meeting bore this out.
The Archdeacon began in honeyed tones. We had the usual
homily about the cost of stipends, how we could no
longer expect one parish, one priest (which we haven't
had here for more than 200 years anyway). We must
develop the lay ministry.
The meeting grew restive: we've heard all this before
and we know this is just a sugar-sweet preamble to the
bad news. Let's get to the point. As he sensed the mood
of the meeting the Archdeacon grew stern; he hasn't the
patience to remain emollient for long: 'I've suspended
the patronage of this living pending a new pastoral
This actually means that we have no say in what happens
next, either to our pastoral care or our Rectory. He
explained that unless we agreed to the neighbouring
vicar becoming priest in charge we ourselves (in other
words the churchwardens) would continue to be
responsible for finding clergy to take our services.
After two years he would have the right to impose a
priest in charge for up to four years, and he could
renew this at will for another four years. This sounds
His line brought a volley of objections. We'd virtually
have no say in our pastoral care for years to come. And
we know that the intention is to appoint the Vicar of
Belchamp St Paul to be our 'pastoral carer' and later
our permanent Rector; the benefice will eventually
include his two parishes plus our three. We object
strongly in principle to not being given a choice of
priest. Some are implacably and personally opposed to
the neighbouring vicar on the grounds that he is a
bachelor (an ex-monk), can't be heard in church, and is
unused to children. How can he run a gregarious ministry
in a group of five parishes? The meeting grew distinctly
unpleasant: rudeness on both sides. The Archdeacon must
have been well aware that he was alone in the middle of
a hornets' nest.
The Rectory question came up. He first tried to cajole
us into letting 'that old barrack' go without a fuss,
but when he realised that opposition is strong he
started on the familiar theme of financial
responsibility and how we can't expect, these days, for
one small (and, he implied, insignificant) rural
benefice to be greedy in its share of the financial cake
with regard to housing the clergy. We are already
costing more than the average in terms of stipends
because of our low ratio of population to parson. This
is a sting we find particularly offensive.
Someone wanted to know how the Rectory would be sold.
Could we be reassured that it would go on the open
market, without favour to the present tenants? This
seemed to surprise the Archdeacon, which made us wonder
if he had arranged a private deal, but he agreed that,
yes, it would be sold openly.
What about the Rectory as a meeting place? It has always
been a very real focus for the life of the community,
and the more so as there is no longer a school or a post
office in the village, and there never was a village
hall. The Archdeacon responded with another
well-rehearsed get-out: 'The Diocese only provides
housing for the clergy, not parish accommodation.'
Rubbish! Practically all parsons need to meet
parishioners at the parsonage for all kinds of reasons.
The traditional role of the parsonage lives on, with
more or less 'open house' ministries in the majority of
parishes, and even in the smaller 'new' vicarages and
rectories. Some of these are of course ill adapted to
the privacy for the parson's family that the Diocese
also affirms to be a right.
We suggested that Belchamp Otten Rectory offers both
parish accommodation (which could be self-contained if
necessary) and privacy for the parson's family life. We
feel it is our building and resent the highhanded
attitude of the Diocese. The Archdeacon seems to regard
us as a pack of unruly schoolchildren, but he can't keep
us in order, and the meeting ended in a state of
turbulence, with nothing settled and everyone angry,
especially the Archdeacon.
27 October 1994
Saw my friend J from Clare in the auction rooms
and we chatted about the difficulties of antique
dealing: the trade is depressingly quiet. Then she
mentioned her involvement with problems over the the
Vicarage in Clare. Apparently the Diocese (St
Edmundsbury and Ipswich) wants to sell this fine old
vicarage in the face of both opposition and common
sense, and while the battle over it rages, the Vicar is
being housed outside the village, in a house costing
£800 per month.
The Vicarage has already been divided to provide a good
house for the Vicar, a lettable self-contained
maisonette, and two rooms for parish use (which the
Parish Council is prepared to rent from the Diocese). It
could be put into good order within a few weeks and for
a cost of about £40,000, but the Diocese, apparently
aided and abetted by various interested factions, hopes
to make a killing by selling the Vicarage and its garden
in a grand development scheme known as the Clare Plan;
most of the garden will become a car park. Ugh.
Access is a problem, however: the house next door was
bequeathed to the parish some years ago, and the Diocese
hopes to use its garden for access to the area behind
the Vicarage, but so far they have failed to persuade
the owners (the churchwardens, as trustees) to give it
up. The story is convoluted in the extreme, but it
provides another example of diocesan intransigence.
There is anger in Clare about the Vicarage problem,
which has been simmering for years. J and I have decided
to call a joint meeting to see what can be done about
these neighbouring historic parsonages.
10 November 1994 Various people from Clare and from our
group of parishes assembled. Father Aquinas, Rector of
Foxearth, also came. He is full of useful knowledge
about church law and procedures as well as being a
spirited opponent of parsonage privatisation.
We went through our mutual grievances about Clare
Vicarage and Belchamp Otten Rectory and the way we feel
trampled by our respective dioceses. Our feelings must
be replicated all round the country, and we all agreed
that we should form ourselves into a group and try to
get in touch with others in the same boat. There must be
a way of raising the public consciousness about what is
going on. We decided to call ourselves Save Our
Parsonages - the Our with a capital O to emphasise the
grassroots nature of the campaign. We would launch
ourselves with a press release to the major newspapers,
to the Church Times and to magazines like Country Life,
Country Living and Perspectives on Architecture. As
somebody put it, 'Let's put our toe in the water and see
what happens.' We agreed the wording of the press
release, and also decided to undertake a questionnaire
on historic parsonages all over the country, to
establish the present state and feeling about them.
Information is a pressing need.
11 November 1994
Sent the press release to 14 publications. Now
I wonder what will happen. I hate the badgering aspects
of PR, but I suppose I'll have to ring them all to
follow up my press release.
12 November 1994
Our helpful local reporter took up our story
and the first information about Save Our Parsonages
appeared in the East Anglia Daily Times. Rang the Church
Times and found a sympathetic ear. They'll run a piece
next week. No doubt some will respond. Let's hope we
stimulate positive as well as negative comment.
15 November 1994
Spent hours on the telephone, and sent out more
press releases, some with photos of Belchamp Otten
Rectory. Interest seems to be stirring.
30 November 1994
Response from The Times. Would I find a parson
who lived in a large old vicarage and liked it - so they
could publish a story. Spent the morning on the
telephone and eventually came up with a Suffolk vicar
who was given a hard time by the Diocese because he
exercised his freehold and insisted on living in his
1830s vicarage. He has five children and is very happy
5 December 1994
The Times story keeps boiling along: the
reporter wants more and more information, and I spent
most of the day on the telephone.
8 December 1994
Short piece in the Times about the launching of
SOP, with a picture of
Belchamp Otten Rectory. Helpful, but is this all?
21 December 1994
At 8.30am I had a telephone call from a man who
works for an ecclesiastical charity: had I seen this
morning's Times? Our big story (half a page) appeared -
at last - and my telephone number with it: the telephone
rang continually all day. The calls were all from
potential supporters. I took their addresses and
recorded their different experiences and points of view.
'At last somebody is doing something' said one. It's all
rather encouraging, if time consuming.
30 December 1994
£25 arrived in the post from a parson who
wanted to cheer us on and who, quite rightly, guessed
that money is needed as well as enthusiasm to keep
things going. So far I reckon I've spent about £20 on
telephone calls, £8 on stamps, and four or five working
days just to get this far. We'll have to think about a
system of membership of SOP, with subscriptions,
although it is important that we don't exclude anyone
from communicating with us.
26 January 1995
Nerve-racking interview with Radio 4 Sunday
programme reporter. I had prepared a good store of
ammunition on parsonages, and was ready for some
difficult questions, but she threw me completely by
starting off, 'Tell me about yourself.' This was not
what I expected and I was embarrassed. Let's hope she
edits the piece sympathetically: she could make me sound
a complete wally if she chooses. My respect for radio
interviewees has taken a leap upwards.
29 January 1995
Woke up to the sound of my own voice on the
radio: an odd, disembodied feeling. The interview came
out surprisingly well and strengthened our case for
looking at old parsonages more sympathetically. The
opposing view was contradictory and merely proved our
contention that local
communities and their clergy are being steamrollered.
Within half an hour the Telegraph rang. They wanted to
run a story about the campaign. Could we organise a
protest shot outside a threatened parsonage? End of
peaceful Sunday. Clare was the obvious house to choose,
and I spent the morning rallying supporters. At 2
o'clock we assembled, to be joined by others who wanted
to swell the rumble of discontent. The picture only took
5 minutes, and then the reporters were off, no doubt to
capture more 'stories' that other people had prepared
30 January 1995
Our picture appeared, in colour, across the
back page of the Telegraph, with a disagreeable leader
inside - obviously written by a pro-flogger - perhaps an
archdeacon. I spent the morning alternately answering
the telephone (more interviews requested, mainly for
local radio from Suffolk to Yorkshire) and writing a
letter to the Editor of the Telegraph. BBC Newsnight
were interested: would I be prepared to come to London
and appear, live, arguing with the opposition? Yes, but
I couldn't leave home till after 9.30: there was a PCC
meeting and I couldn't miss it. I could be in London by
11 pm. They needed to do more research and would come
back to me. BBC Television News wanted to run a story at
6 o'clock that evening. Could I come to Clare for an
interview? Yes. By this time my adrenaline was flowing,
and with it my arguments: I felt I could tackle anything
and anyone. The news interview went well, and although
they chopped it, they allowed me to make some telling
points. Newsnight did not ring back.
The PCC meeting was the most stressful event of the day.
I sense irritation with my activities on the part of
certain members. Others are supportive. Odd, because
we're almost all united in our feelings about the
Rectory. The Diocese's proposals for our new pastoral
scheme were read out and discussed. We have to respond.
While we accept the enlargement of the benefice 'with
regret', we do not accept Belchamp St Paul's Vicarage as
our parsonage but suggest that Belchamp Otten Rectory is
the more suitable. We have asked for a meeting with the
Diocesan Pastoral Committee about this.
27 March 1995
The Vicar of Belchamp St Paul now officially
has 'pastoral care' of our parishes. This seems to have
9 April 1995
Talked to Aidan (our 'pastoral carer' and
likely future Rector) on the way out of church, and he
surprised me by saying that although he liked his
present vicarage (Belchamp St Paul), he did not mind
where he lived, and would move to Belchamp Otten Rectory
if asked to do so - an utterly reasonable view.
4 May 1995
We were bidden to Belchamp St Paul Primary
School to meet sundry members of the diocesan hierarchy.
There was the Bishop of Colchester, the Archdeacon, the
secretary of the parsonages committee, the vicars of
Shrub End and Stansted, the Bishop's Rural Officer and a
church warden from Lexden. The chairman was another
peaceable parson, who must have been shocked by the
vitriolic exchanges he tried to control later. Members
of the PCCs of the existing three parishes were ranged
opposite - a most infelicitous arrangement.
The meeting began with the usual rehearsal of reasons
why benefices were having to be enlarged: fewer clergy,
higher pension bills... The chairman outlined the
planned new scheme for ours. Irritating this, as we've
heard it so many times before. Pretty soon the mention
of the Vicar sparked off a torrent of feeling: 'We can't
hear a thing he says in church'; 'Our congregation is
down to two or three'; 'He's no good with children'; 'My
wife and I offered to run a Sunday school but were given
the thumbs down'...
The Vicar was present at the meeting, perhaps
inadvisedly, but I felt sorry for him when somebody went
so far as to say 'He's an ineffectual little man, and
soon there won't be anybody in any of our churches.' Our
own parish is more charitable and he gets a warmer
reception in our church. Many of us felt that this
display of unchristian feeling was uncalled for,
especially as it is hardly the Vicar's fault that the
situation has arisen.
Then the Rectory. The committee had been to look at both
houses: they were satisfied that the Vicarage at
Belchamp St Paul was an adequate house for a parson.
Belchamp Otten Rectory needed lots of money spent on it
and the expense of renovation could not be justified. We
could use the village halls at Belchamp St Paul,
Belchamp Walter and Bulmer for parish gatherings. The
fact the Belchamp St Paul was at an extremity of the new
benefice was of minor significance.
There seemed to be some attempt to listen to our views,
but the exchanges between the Archdeacon and some
members of the parishes became so heated that rational
discussion was all but impossible and the chairman soon
lost his grip on order. It didn't help that we were in a
school with the diocesan committee behind the table,
confronting us - hardly conducive to peaceful
discussions with both sides on an equal footing.
The fact is that both sides are not on an equal footing.
The Diocese controls the finances and therefore feels
empowered to decide everything. They are morally bound
to listen to parish opinion but they are not bound to
follow it. Whatever our individual feelings about our
case, we are all enraged by the 'we know what's best for
you' attitude of the Diocese. After all, they are making
decisions which will not affect them one jot, but which
will have consequences in the parish communities for
generations to come. And their decisions are based on
financial rather than pastoral considerations. We feel
this meeting has made things worse rather than better.
3 June 1995
Coffee morning and bazaar at Belchamp Otten
Rectory. I attempted to pass the time of day with the
doctor's wife who is living in the house. But she gave
me a hostile reception to say the least. She seems to
have taken my activities in support of the Rectory as a
personal threat. Apparently a
photographer was seen stalking round the building and
taking photographs, and some other people turned up and
started looking into windows saying they were from the
National Trust. I explained that I had nothing to do
with any of these and I have nothing personal against
her; I just think the Rectory should be kept by the
Church. By this time a friend of hers arrived and
started shouting at me. Somewhat abashed, I felt it best
to retreat. A pity there has to be such unpleasantness.
28 September 1995
Just in case they have not hoisted our case on
board yet, and in order to forestall the diocesan point
of view which will soon arrive in their in-trays, we
sent a strong letter to the Church Commissioners,
setting out the case for keeping Belchamp Otten Rectory.
It was signed by all the churchwardens and sundry other PCC representatives of all three parishes.
19 October 1995
Letter from Church Commissioners to say our
letter is ahead of the draft scheme and they'll keep it
for later. At least we are on their mailing list.
23 October 1995
Collapse of resolve at Clare: one churchwarden
has given in and signed the document releasing the
Vicarage; the other feels there's no point in struggling
on and risking destructive divisions in the PCC. The
plan is now for the Diocese to buy the house next door
to the old vicarage from the Trustees (the
churchwardens) and rebuild it as a new vicarage. The
Vicar is happy at the prospect of being housed in the
centre of the village. The Diocese has now spent nearly
£40,000 on architects' plans, surveys, feasibility
studies and the rest, besides the payments for the
temporary vicarage over the past four or five years.
28th October 1995
Colette rang to tell me that Father Aquinas
died yesterday. I knew he had been in hospital, but did
not realise how seriously ill he was. He was a feisty
and knowledgeable campaigner, always ready with ideas
and encouragement. This is a sad loss.
21 May 1996
Letter from the Church Commissioners with the
amended pastoral scheme. We have three weeks to 'make
representations' about it. Interesting how long they
take to move (months and months) and yet we're given the
briefest possible time to organise our objections. These
can come from anyone, anywhere, not just the parishes
30 May 1996
S came round and we spent the afternoon
addressing envelopes. We have circulated members of SOP
and asked them to write to the Church Commissioners in
support of our bid to retain our Rectory. We sent out a
letter explaining the situation and outlining the
general arguments for its retention. Let's hope some
will take the trouble to write. At least we have the
feeling we are doing something.
5 June 1996
Copies of letters that SOP members have written
to the Church Commissioners keep rolling in. Every one
seems to make a different point, some of them very
tellingly. This is most heartening. I feel sure the
Church Commissioners must be impressed by so many good
arguments, especially from clergy.
9 June l996
A vicar in Suffolk rang to suggest a petition.
I mention that we have already done one two years ago,
but perhaps I'd better try another, at least in Bulmer,
the village of largest population. Off we go again.
10 June 1996
PCC meeting. We discussed the new pastoral
scheme and compose a response to the Church
Commissioners. We reject Belchamp St Paul's Vicarage as
the parsonage for the benefice and 'urge the retention
of Belchamp Otten Rectory... to act as a possible
central parsonage in an expanded group in the future.'
Started round the village with the petition -
house-to-house, and not just the church people. I
realised I would have to explain the situation - and the
arguments - to practically everyone. It would be a
time-consuming chore and I expected people to take the
parochial view - that Belchamp Otten is five miles away
and not much to do with us in Bulmer. The contrary was
the case. I was surprised how many a) knew the state of
affairs and b) felt strongly about this local building:
'It's like losing the post office or the school in a
village,' said one. Too right. One old lady wanted
nothing to do with the campaign, while a church-going
neighbour, daughter of a builder, positively thought the
house should be sold. The rest were keen to give voice -
and signature - to surprisingly strong feelings. I feel
encouraged to press on.
12 June l996
Went down the Street with the petition. J's was
one of the first houses: 'Why don't you give me a couple
of sheets and I'll do the Street for you.' She's always
a support, without any fuss; it's wonderful to share the
14 June 1996
Dismayed by a call from R, churchwarden at
Belchamp Otten. He's heard there is a petition going
round in favour of selling the Rectory specifically to
the present tenants. Much as we approve of them as
tenants, most of us think that if the house must be sold
it would only be fair to put it on the open market.
Anyway, selling to the Ds will only safeguard it while
they are there. What happens if they move on in a few
years' time? This news is certainly dispiriting, but I
just hope most people will take the long-term view and
resist signing this petition.
Last day for 'representations' to the Church
Commissioners. I've posted the petition and heave a sigh
of relief. My emotional energy consumption has been
running far too high for the past few weeks, but the
knowledge that we've done all we can is comforting. Now
we just have to wait - and hope. We've been told not to
expect any developments for months.
21 July 1996
The Bishop of Colchester came to Bulmer and
preached at a joint service with the other parishes. He
greeted the congregation on the way out, and I took the
opportunity to ask him to support us in our bid to keep
Belchamp Otten Rectory. 'Indeed I won't: the cellar
floods; it's not a suitable house.' So that's their
reasoning, and it's founded on a myth. I can hardly
believe my ears.
20 September 1996
Letter from the Church Commissioners announcing
a meeting with their sub-committee on 9 December. This
will be a hearing of local views before their
arbitration of our case. I am bidden to a meeting from
6 - 6.35 along with various 'outside' people such as
members of SOP, and the patron of Ovington (one of the
parishes soon to be joined with ours). Later I hear that
there are two other meetings, one for local people
generally and the other for PCC representatives. Each is
scheduled to last 35 minutes. I wonder how they can
possibly keep to such tight timing. If our meetings with
diocesan representatives are anything to go by there's
no way they'll be able to contain the discussion so
1 October 1996
It might strengthen our case for keeping the
Rectory if we are prepared to help with future
maintenance costs, which the Diocese say are above the
average for newer buildings. Even if this is not so, we
should show willing. I decided to write to certain
people in the three parishes asking them to pledge
support for a future maintenance fund if the Rectory is
15 October 1996
I've already had a couple of pledges and,
better still, encouragement for the idea of a parish
maintenance fund for the Rectory.
28 October 1996
PCC meeting. Representatives to go to the
Church Commissioners' meeting were chosen. Everyone
seems despondent about the outcome: they feel sure that
the Commissioners have already made up their minds and
will automatically support the Diocese over the sale of
the Rectory. The meeting to 'listen to our views' will
be a mere charade. It is true that one by one the
members of the diocesan hierarchy that we have dealt
with, from the Rural Dean to the Bishop, have declared
themselves against the parish interest. The Church
Commissioners' committee is our last hope. I think we
have to believe in their independence, and say so. Time
will prove which opinion is right.
7 November 1996
The SOP Newsletter is going out with a request
that as many members as possible should come to the
Church Commissioners' meeting. We have planned our
annual meeting for the next morning to make it easier,
but I don't suppose many will be able to come.
3 December 1996
Very much heartened by the response to the
maintenance fund letter. I only wrote to about a dozen
people, but pledges of support now amount to over £3,000
- a worthwhile sum.
9 December 1996
Mervyn and Bill - two of SOP's staunchest
clergy stalwarts arrived at tea time; so did Jerome, an
old friend and the editor of the Newsletter. Their
support gave me courage - almost enthusiasm - for the
meeting. I felt like a VIP with a posse of security
guards. I need not have been so nervous. The atmosphere
of the meeting was in sharp contrast- to all our former
meetings with 'the authorities'. Margaret Laird chaired
it. She is an attractive grey-haired Commissioner with a
serene smile and reassuring manner: her charm makes her
firmness and efficiency acceptable to the most
implacable opposition. Instinctively one feels she's on
She began by introducing the sub-committee: another
Church Commissioner, a clergyman, a lay woman and a
secretary. She explained that they had come to listen to
our points of view. Later they would go back and
deliberate and give us their judgement, probably in
Points were made briefly and succinctly. The location of
the Rectory, in the centre of the new benefice, is
important, and so is its use by the community: a room
for parish use could be made self-contained within the
house. The fact that many clergymen favour 'open house
ministry' cannot be overlooked. The meeting was
well-mannered, and the only note of confrontation came
when I pointed out that the dwindling numbers of older
parsonages threatens the diversity in clergy housing
generally; we see the maintenance of a variety of old
and new housing of different sizes as fundamentally
important. 'Why?' fired the Canon bluntly. We were
amazed, but perhaps he was merely playing devil's
advocate and not just showing the crass lack of
imagination that his question suggested.
We told them that we had pledges of both financial
support for future maintenance of the Rectory and
practical help with decorating it if it were to remain
our parsonage. We felt our cases had been made cogently,
and provided a back-up for all the letters that had been
11 December 1996
Call from V: the meeting after ours, where the
Rectory tenants and their cohorts with a declared
interest in the sale of the Rectory were ranged against
local 'savers' was an altogether less polite affair, but
the savers were in a majority, and seemed to put their
arguments more calmly than the sellers.
Later I had a call from R, a local synod member, who
said the third meeting had gone well, he thought, and
those present had been impressed by the willingness of
the Church Commissioners' sub-committee to hear their
points of view.
Now we can only wait in hope. It's rather a relief not
to be able to do anything for the moment.
6 March 1997
A letter came with a Church Commissioners stamp
on the envelope: I broke out in a sweat at the sight of
it; but it was about an entirely different matter. Much
as I want the suspense to end, this was a huge relief. I
am surprised how much time I spend thinking about the
Rectory. Surely the Commissioners can't let it go.
13 March 1997
Still no news about the Rectory from the Church
Commissioners. I feel a little optimistic. No news could
be good news. Or perhaps they will suggest that the
house should continue to be let until our present
incumbent retires in a few years' time - a good old
compromise that we'd accept gracefully, even if it did
mean a re-run of all this aggravation sometime in the
21 March 1997
The letter arrived. It was long and polite,
summarising many of the points made in the meeting.
They'd had an 'independent' survey carried out on the
Rectory, which suggested a figure of £173,000 for
putting it in order, and that such expenditure could not
be justified. They decided that the Vicarage at Belchamp
St Paul is 'better suited to be the parsonage house of
the new benefice...'
So that's it. The letter tells us we can 'apply for
leave to appeal to Her Majesty in Council' but I know
there's no more steam left for such action, and
certainly no money - it would be a costly move. I feel
gutted and let down. Can the Church Commissioners really
be independent of the Diocese with a judgement like
this? I can't believe it.
12 April 1997
I am writing to the Church Commissioners: I
need reassurance that they really are prepared to take
an independent line. And if the house does need £173,000 spending on it, which I doubt, the Diocese must
have been negligent.
25 April 1997
Letter from the Church Commissioners enclosing
the survey report, full of disclaimers and warnings
about possible problems in the future. But its cover
proclaims it to have been commissioned by the Diocesan
Board of Finance, the very body that wants to sell the
Rectory. What sort of independence is this? Our
correspondence will obviously run and run, but in the
meantime the For Sale sign will go up at the Rectory,
the community will lose a precious resource and the
Church will squander yet another slice of its heritage.
POSTSCRIPT October 1997
Belchamp Otten Rectory has been sold for
£325,000 to the former tenants, without any public
notice whatsoever: no marketing was done, and there was
not so much as a For Sale sign at the gate.