|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
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?
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 ) (Per Lord Denning MR). In
general, the idea that people dislike living in big house is an odd
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?
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] ...
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.
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.
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.