Thank you to all of those who have responded to the invitation to come to my induction service tomorrow at 4pm. I am very much looking forward to the archdeacon coming along and inducting me, after thirteen years of waiting, as vicar of the benefice.
Of course I expect many people assume I was already the vicar, and in one way tomorrow’s service only highlights the rather strange way in which the Church of England works. However I believe that tomorrow’s service is still important, and I see it as an important milestone in the life of the two churches.
To explain why, let me recap some rather old history which will help understand how we have reached the present situation. In the Church of England the right to appoint a new vicar of a parish ultimately lies with what are called the “patrons” (usually in consultation with parish representatives and diocesan officials.) There is a set and clear procedure for appointments which has to be followed exactly in order for a new appointment to be valid.
The bishop, however, sometimes has the right to suspend “the patron’s right of presentation”. What that means in plain English is that he (or of course nowadays she) may decide that it’s time to join parish A with parish B, or make the vicar of parish A also the vicar of parish B. In order to do this, rather than following all the regular procedures to appoint, he can take over the right to appoint until the futures of parish A and parish B have been sorted. And so the new minister of parish A is appointed as “priest-in-charge” until such time it’s clear what’s going to happen to that parish.
The benefice (a technical word for two or more united parishes) of St Michael and St Barnabas, Devonport was suspended when my predecessor left in 2000 precisely because the then bishop wanted to explore all the options for the future of the two churches. So when I arrived in October 2002 I was appointed as “priest-in-charge” until it was clear whether we were going to join with other churches or stay on our own. Legally, the bishop’s right to “suspend the right of presentation” should only last for five years, but for various reasons, I have remained priest-in-charge until now.
Under present employment legislation it makes no practical difference at all whether I am called priest-in-charge or vicar. It just means my title is going to be shorter in future! But it is an important step forward in the life of both churches. For the time being St Michael and St Barnabas, Devonport are free of any further plans to be reorganised or joined with any other churches. Of course we still want to work with the other churches in the area, and hopefully our informal relationships with them will continue to grow and deepen more fully.
But for now, St Michael and St Barnabas have been recognised as a separate benefice and to me this feels like an important step forward in securing the future of the churches. That is why tomorrow feels like a new chapter opening up in the life of the churches. How can we seize this moment to move forward in mission and discipleship and really build for future generations?
Bishop Nick has made the point that across the diocese attendance in each parish on a Sunday represents typically 3% of the total population of that parish. In Plymouth that figure drops to 1%. For St Michael’s and St Barnabas our average Sunday congregation is about 0.5% of the total parish population (5520 in St Michael’s parish and 3720 in St Barnabas parish.) I make no secret of the fact I would like to see our attendance rise to at least 1%, and that is my goal as long as I am called to serve here as vicar.
So does this induction service matter? For me, not so much. For the two churches, definitely. We have a window of opportunity which I believe the Lord is calling us to use.
So please come along tomorrow – whether you have already replied or not – and let’s together pledge to work for the growth of God’s kingdom in this place, so that the glory goes to Him.