What’s in a name?

You probably know me as the vicar. I have called this blog “the vicar’s blog”, and it’s how I explain myself to anyone who asks what my job is. But whisper it quietly … for the past twelve years I haven’t actually been a vicar. I’ve been a priest-in-charge, at least legally. There may only be a very subtle difference between the two terms, and it’s too much of a mouthful to go round calling yourself the P-in-C, so I haven’t been exactly economical with the truth. But in a few months time I will be formally licensed as the vicar of St Michael’s and St Barnabas.

So what’s going on, I hear you ask? In the Church of England vicars are appointed to their post by people known as the patrons (in consultation with parish representatives and senior figures in the diocese). The patron could be an individual, like the local squire, or perhaps an Oxbridge College, or a clerical figure, or a charity. There are a whole range of patrons up and down the country.

But sometimes a bishop decides it is time to reorganise the churches in his care. Maybe he wants to have the freedom to join parish A with parish B, or split parish C off from parish D and join in to parish E. He has to have good reasons for this, not simply because he fancies a bit of a change, and those reasons are usually pastoral or missional. He sees that parish A and parish could work well together for the gospel, or maybe their parishes form a natural geographical fit. But parish C and parish D have ended up at loggerheads, and it’s time for parish E to take on the challenge of parish C. And so on…

In order to give the bishop the freedom to do this, he is allowed to “suspend the right of presentation”. That means he takes over entirely the right to appoint someone to a new position so he has the flexibility to merge ministries as when it becomes possible. The person who is appointed is then known as the “priest-in-charge” rather than the “vicar”. I have always struggled with this description of ministry because it sounds like there is one person who has control over the life of the entire church, and I have always preferred to be called the “minister muddling along”. But that is by the by. The point is, until the bishop has sorted out the reorganisation of the churches, the parish is suspended and the patrons have no say in who fills the post.

Technically, the post of minister in a church should only be suspended for five years. There were long and political reasons why my post was suspended for more than twelve years, but in the end everyone recognised that it was untenable that I should remain “priest-in-charge” for so long. So last night the two PCCs voted unanimously for a motion from the diocesan pastoral secretary that the living of St Michael’s and St Barnabas should no longer be suspended and I should become the incumbent of the benefice.

As I say, it is in many ways only a legal change. But it does make my own position here feel rather more secure, and more importantly, the future of the two churches. As it happens, the patrons of St Michael’s and St Barnabas are jointly the Bishop of Exeter and the Trustees of Lord Saint Levan. So the bishop still has some say in appointing the next vicar, whenever that might be. But at least the status of the two churches has been secured, for now.

So having clear that legal hurdle, now seems as good a time as any to move ahead with mission!

I’ll be talking about our four Mission Action Points in my next post…


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