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STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES

There are those who argue that the sale of our former rectories and vicarages has exacerbated the Church's drift from the centre of the community, and deprived parishioners of what was a parish resource.' (Jackson-Stops & Staff UK Market Review 2005/06) 

There are three basic arguments in favour of retaining our traditional parsonages in our rural areas. They are: the 'mission' argument, the 'community' argument, and the 'heritage' argument. 

The 'mission' argument is simply that a spacious house, with great symbolic importance and practical space for parish activities, keeps the Church at the centre of our culture and is an effective tool for advancing the Christian message.

The 'community' argument is that the traditional parsonage gives focus to the life of the community both on a symbolic and on a practical level, with its church and community meetings, garden parties and other activities. All members of the community, including those who are not active churchgoers, understand the importance of the parsonage and its physical and symbolic place close to their church, and the parsonage is often felt to 'belong' to the parish as part of its fabric.

The 'heritage' argument is that traditional rectories and vicarages are as much a part of Church heritage as its churches. If a 'heritage' building owned by the Church is sold to a private owner whose life is not focused on the community, its raison d'etre is lost. 

Why does the Church disagree? 

Combination of benefices

Parishes are being amalgamated. It is common for five or six to be combined into one benefice. Only one parsonage is needed for the benefice. The others are therefore redundant.

This argument is logical. But no-one can predict the future - we were told in 2005 that church attendances had risen slightly (statistics for mission, 2003). So why is it essential to sell? Why not keep the 'redundant' parsonage, in case it is needed in future, and let it out, so that the asset value is retained and valuable income gained? 

Personal

Three major perceptions here. The first is that the clergy do not like living in traditional parsonages, because they are old fashioned and no longer suited to life 'as it is today', and they are costly for the clergy to heat. The next is that the clergy are embarrassed to live in houses that are 'better' than those of their flock. The third is that the parsonage is the vicar's private house, not for public use.
 

On the first point, while some clergy agree, others do not. On the second, based on a misguided class consciousness, few parishioners are envious of their vicar. Most understand the system, that the incumbent does not own the house in any normal sense, and that it is a place of work. In relation to the third, it is settled in law that 'a rectory of the Church of England has for centuries been recognised to have special attributes connected with the Church. It is vested for the time being in the incumbent as a corporation sole. It is a house set apart, not merely as his residence, but so as to be used by him for his spiritual, pastoral and procedural duties' (Phillips v Minister of Housing and Local Government [1965]) (Per Lord Denning MR). In general, the idea that people dislike living in big house is an odd one. 

Pastoral

It is said that, by putting the vicar in a house more like his neighbour's, he is brought nearer to the people. But larger houses are more use in practical terms - they can be used for parish meetings, pastoral care and community activities. They can therefore hardly be unsuited to the mission of the Church. 

The broad mission

It is said that buildings must be sacrificed to 'mission'. But pastoral care in the parish surely supports the overall mission of the Church. Even if the broad mission can be respectably stated to take precedence over the local mission, how does a small parsonage fulfil it any better? 

Financial

The financial argument is at first sight straightforward. The Church must be cost conscious and efficient, as any modern organisation has to be. Sale of old parsonages releases money which can be used either for the financing of Church liabilities, such as clergy pensions, or new smaller houses that are cheaper to run. Old, large parsonages are too expensive to maintain.

But should the Church be indistinguishable from a commercial corporation in its approach to finance?  Even if it should, how successful has it been?  In 1983, for example, 308 'unsuitable' or redundant houses were sold at an average price of 63,930GBP. But 76 new parsonages were built in their place, at an average cost of 76,199GBP, and 105 houses were bought at an average cost of 60,306GBP. In other words, the unit cost of replacement houses, smaller and inferior, was higher than the sale proceeds of the fine houses sold.   

Lack of maintenance is a problem. Since 1972, dioceses have had the responsibility for keeping parsonages in repair and properly maintained, so this is now outside parish control. They should send their surveyors out to each house at least once every five years, but when they do, the recommended maintenance is not always carried out. Eventually, the diocese then uses the poor state of repair of the house as a reason for selling, resulting in a depressed market price. Country Life  remarked: ' ... one wonders whether the Church Commissioners have studied the possible financial advantages of repairing and modernising old parsonage houses before they sell them, as they often do with office buildings. They might then be able to command ... [higher] ... prices ...'.

Dioceses fail to exploit economic alternatives to sale. Letting a house generates income which can be put to maintenance and repair. It keeps the house available to the church for future use, when circumstances change. Capital funds invested in property over the last thirty or forty years have, generally speaking, been funds well invested. So if the main motive for parsonage sales really is the financial one, the Church has been a poor investment manager. 

Heritage phobia  

The Church seems to see its heritage as a problem, a 'burden' that must somehow be cast off.  This attitude is hardly a sign of modernity, but that the Church is badly out of date. Its heritage is our heritage, and its buildings are vital. 

Conclusion

Traditional parsonages are both symbolically and physically central to village life, and help to maintain the profile of the Church in the community. Where they still exist, their use for general parish purposes is widespread and vital, particularly in rural communities. Some clergy may be opposed to larger houses. But the parsonage house must not just serve one type of incumbent, but be flexible enough to adapt to all who make use of it. Small houses are less adaptable. Where traditional parsonages are disused, the influence of the Church has irreparably declined.

February 2006