Dispense with the PCC

Matthew Chinery asks if recent dispensations granted by Bishops are in fact riding roughshod over the representation of the laity in church governance.

“I am very aware of the pressures we all face with developing plans for Christmas, and I am particularly concerned that those of you who wish to are able to meet up with families in the window the Government is allowing, until December 27th. I hope clergy will feel free to take that Sunday off completely. Therefore I am dispensing all incumbents and curates from the canonical obligation to provide in person public worship in the parish or benefice on Sunday December 27th.”

The above quotation, from an ad clerum of a Diocesan Bishop of the Church of England to their clergy, is a model of pastoral concern for those who minister in the Bishop’s name and on the Bishop’s behalf. The clergy of my acquaintance are ‘running on fumes’: physically and emotionally exhausted and (like us all) unable to partake in so many of their usual activities for rest and relaxation. For a cleric, locked down in a tied house, a day (or week) off is in reality no time off at all; the phone will still ring, those in need will still knock at the door, and the goldfish bowl of vicarage life will continue uninterrupted as it has since March.

One might therefore assume that this article will be a piece praising this wise, pastoral Bishop (and their Episcopal colleagues who are indicating likewise). Sadly, it is not. For what the Bishop has done is unlawful, and the laity of the Church of England should be greatly concerned – not so much about the substance of the matter, but about yet another sidelining of the laity’s proper rôle in parochial governance.

Firstly, to the law. Canon B 14 (1) requires the Holy Communion to be celebrated in at least one church in every benefice at least on all Sundays, principal Feast Days, on Ash Wednesday and on Maundy Thursday. Subsection two then says (emphasis added) the celebration of Holy Communion as required by this Canon may only be dispensed with in accordance with the provisions of Canon B 14A.

Canon B 14A permits dispensing with Holy Communion under the following circumstances:

  1. “on an occasional basis, as authorized by the minister who has the cure of souls [i.e. usually the incumbent] and the parochial church council of each parish in the benefice acting jointly” or 
  1. on a regular basis, as authorized by the bishop on the request of the minister who has the cure of souls and the parochial church council of each parish in the benefice acting jointly.

A one-off omission of Holy Communion on a Sunday is clearly an occasional, rather than a regular basis. It may be dispensed with without the consent of the Bishop – indeed it could be against the Bishop’s express wishes. However, it cannot lawfully be dispensed with unless the relevant parochial church council(s) have consented.

This aligns entirely with the statutory duty of a parochial church council. As Section 2(1) of the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956 (the primary legislation from which the PCC draws its duties, powers and authority) notes, “it shall be the duty of the minister and the parochial church council to consult together on matters of general concern and importance to the parish”. For catholic-minded Anglicans in particular, the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will doubtless be right at the top of the list of matters of importance to the parish. And yet – on a matter of importance – we appear to have Bishops content to issue rulings which entirely disenfranchise the parochial church council – and therefore the laity of the parish – in direct contravention to the explicit and clearly worded text of the Canons of the Church of England.

I have many clerical friends who have expressed the view that the substantive suggestion that Masses go uncelebrated in parishes on Sunday 27th December is wrong. I myself do not share that view. If my incumbent explained to our PCC that a cancelled Mass would be the difference between him seeing his family in Christmastide and not, my vote would be unhesitatingly and wholeheartedly in favour of cancellation. The Government restrictions on movement currently in place mean it would be, to my mind, utterly cruel to do anything else. By sidelining the laity on this matter, an impression is given that we cannot be trusted to care sufficiently about the well-being of our clergy. However, perhaps engagement with the lay leadership of the parish on this and related issues might help open a fruitful conversation about how we can support our clergy during these hugely difficult and draining times.

Attempts to circumvent or ignore the voice of the laity, exercised through the democratic processes and structures of the Church and underpinned by the law of the land, appear to be on the increase. Many may have forgotten that the 2012 legislation to enable the Episcopal ordination of women contained a disgracefully clericalist clause – that an incumbent could veto a parish request for alternative Episcopal arrangements even if the lay members of the PCC voted unanimously in favour of such a resolution. Thankfully in that case, the legislative package was rejected (by the House of Laity of the General Synod, of course) and the clericalist clause was removed in the legislation that overwhelmingly passed two years later, to the relief and delight of so many of us.

In December 2017 the Church Times reported of the sudden licensing of eight clergy to a small benefice in central London. (1) The ex-officio membership that came with such status meant that the clergy outnumbered the laity on the PCC, easing the passage of some controversial items of business against the wishes of the lay representatives. Again, the work of laity on the General Synod has resulted in this loophole being closed, by way of amendments to the Church Representation Rules. (2)

I do not feel the Bishop’s purported dispensation is the crime of the century, and let me reiterate my applause for the sentiments behind the gesture. And yet, if the PCC can be bypassed for a single dispensing of Sunday Holy Communion, what will prevent it being bypassed over 12 Sundays, or 26, or even 52? Letting unlawful Episcopal overreach go unremarked when it is exercised generously makes it harder to stand against it when exercised ungenerously. When the last law was down, and the Bishop turned round on you – where would you hide?

This caring, generous, deeply pastoral ad clerum could have read as follows:

“I am very aware of the pressures we all face with developing plans for Christmas, and I am particularly concerned that those of you who wish to are able to meet up with families in the window the Government is allowing, until December 27th. Having taken advice from my Diocesan Registrar, I suggest that you liaise with your PCCs regarding the possibility of dispensing with Holy Communion and any other clergy-led services on Sunday December 27th. Please also let your PCC know that such a proposal has my full support”.

Would that have been so hard?

Matthew Chinery is a Canon Lawyer and a former Diocesan Registrar of two Church of England Dioceses. He is a regular worshipper in the Diocese of Llandaff (Church in Wales) and Diocese of Oxford.

  1. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/8-december/news/uk/st-mary-le-strand-in-row-with-archdeacon-over-plans-to-convert-the-church-into-a-museum
  2.  Church Representation Rules 2020, Rule M27(2)

3 thoughts on “Dispense with the PCC

  1. Thank you for this thought provoking post. I think the Diocese of Winchester found a helpful path through it in their update this week. They used this wording: “Christmas is a particularly busy period for us all, and we realise that adapting to the ongoing restrictions will increase the workload. December 27th is a Sunday, you may decide that there will be little demand for Sunday worship. In which case, you could offer a pre-recorded service or no service at all. Parishioners can be pointed to a church where Communion is being celebrated or to other online worship. Whatever you decide we hope clergy will take a well-earned post-Christmas break.” The choices around that clearly left with parish to work out what is right for them. I should probably add, I’m a parish priest in the diocese. i’ve found it helpful to be prompted to think that we could do something different on that Sunday. Amongst all the pressure and relentless reworking of plans this year as covid season has been unfolding, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of some simple options and choices that we do have in the parish.

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  2. Your ‘alternative’ ad clerum seems (like the original you cite at the outset) all very well in an ideal set of circumstances. But what about the priest who puts this proposal to the PCC, for example in a situation where there are pastoral tensions, manipulative politics at play within the PCC, or even outright bullying of the clergy? In those circumstances, a priest desperate for time off would likely run a mile from seeking the support of a PCC that might, out of sheer bloody mindedness, refuse to approve the proposal. In these circumstances a clear steer from the Bishop is entirely appropriate – a lifeline, even.

    Am I also right in thinking that, in the Church in Wales, where you currently worship, the PCC would never get within sniffing distance of a decision like this as it rest entirely with the bishop?

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