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BELCHAMP OTTEN 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 ready.
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
opinion.
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 guess why.
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 it.
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 huge?
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 arrange it.
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.
28 June1994
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 scheme.'
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 like blackmail.
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 there.
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 for them.
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 slipped in.
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 concerned.
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.'
11 June1996
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 effort.
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.
19 June1996
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 rigidly.
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 kept.
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 one's side.
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 February.
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 written already.
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 future.
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.