I have been a freeholder for 12 years. This means I am incumbent of a parish and have ‘freehold’ rights to the church and vicarage of my benefice, whilst I hold the office as vicar there.
But as Jacob, one of the General Synod representatives from our diocese keeps reminding me, it is not ‘Freehold’ as is generally understood in our society. For example, if I stick up a ‘For Sale’ sign up outside either my church, or even vicarage, the ‘authorities’ will be down on me like a ton of Victorian bricks.
More of an issue, for some more than 40% of my church colleagues though, is that they do not have freehold, nor indeed any other formal security of tenure in their positions. European legislation, chasing the Government, says clergy need to have proper employment rights now. So something needs to change. A whole raft of legislation and regulations are therefore coming in to re-apply a new sort of freehold for the 21st Century. Clergy Terms of Service, Ministerial Development, Clergy Discipline, Guidelines for Professional Conduct of the clergy, Capability Procedures, and Common Tenure have variously been coming through Synod over recent years.
Holding offices is something that clergy hold in common. So the term Common Tenure has been chosen to represent this new-style of office. However, as Jacob once again reminds me, from his experience in the real world or real estate, Common Tenure is another word that the church has chosen, like Freehold, with one meaning in the church, and a slightly different one outside. Perhaps we should have chosen different terminology. But actually it does, succinctly, say what we generally want it to mean.
There is a significant issue about parsonages, which caused much heat in the debate. There were many concerns over who would ‘own’ the vicarages and rectories of the Church of England under Common Tenure, and whether or not they become an asset of the diocese, the incumbent, the parish. Up to now they have been part of what is known as property of Corporation Sole. Don’t understand that, well nor did many Synod members before the debate - ask a friendly lawyer. However, if parsonages are moved in some way to the diocese, this might mean, if a diocese gets in to financial difficulties, some parsonage properties could be sold. How best to protect against this? There is quite a lot of worry here about whether we can trust those with the appropriate authority, to do with parsonages what is best for the church as a whole. In the end Synod opted for taking out the item on parsonages completely.
I’m for Common Tenure. I think a level playing field of employment and security is vital for all clergy, and there should not be a minority of folks without proper employment protection. This means that some, like me, will eventually be invited to relinquish our Freehold for what some probably mistakenly consider the lesser protection of Common Tenure. I don’t think it is just through altruism and ostentatious self-sacrifice, that I support Common Tenure, and will hand in my Freehold. I am not sure that Freehold as is really offers those of us who old it quite the sort of security it purports to do; and indeed there are a number of things that we would be ineligible for, unless we come under Common Tenure. So, bring it on.