Monday, 30 April 2012

Suffrage and the Church

I haven't been a priest for an awfully long time, and I have only been an incumbent for a very short time - but in the years I have existed within parish structures, I have been convinced of the cause of the gentle degradation of that noble body - the parochial church council.

I wrote a while ago about how, here, we will do things a little differently when the next session of the PCC begins. That was not all I believed needed adjustment for the Council to be effective in its work. The other factor, I believe, surrounds the right that the members of the electoral roll possess but rarely ever have a real chance to use - their vote. 

I am not talking of the pack animal arm-in-air type voting. I am referring to a meaningful election where everyone gets a chance to make a difference. The degradation of the valency of the parish council surrounds the following process:

  • The PCC is overworked with the minutiae of parish life
  • It becomes an unattractive proposition 
  • Insufficient people stand for the vacancies at the next session
  • To make up numbers arms are twisted
  • Just enough people stand for election for the vacancies to be filled
  • They get elected en bloc and very much en passant
  • No-one remembered who was on the PCC if you ask them after the fact
  • The PCC becomes detached from parish life
  • ...and a cycle of insufficient nominations for vacancies perpetuates
  • Start at the top

My feeling is that an election where, unfortunately, people may lose and not be elected is vital to the health of a PCC and in many ways to the parish. The reasons for this are simple - the people who have the vote are then caused to use it, and become an active part of the process rather than a passive member of the crowd. They get to exercise their responsibilities under that suffrage too. We had an election yesterday here, and yes, people were not elected. I bet that those who were at the meeting will be able to name the new PCC though - and that is a start in itself. 

When I was young (in my teens), the PCC of which I was a member was routinely formed in a contested election. It was, perhaps not by chance, a time of great growth in that parish. Oddly, growth seemed to diminish as the PCC seemed to stop being elected. This may be chance, but there is also a chance that it wasn't. Perhaps winning in an election was an attractive prize (it certainly felt good as a 17 year old), and maybe that sense of satisfaction was enough to get the parish 'heart' pumping - but whatever it was, it seemed to make a very considerable difference. 


  1. We had our APCM last Thursday evening in the School, not in Church, after a Sunday service in past years.

    Although publicised, attendance was sparse, probably 24 of the 110 or so on the Electoral Roll.

    A Deanery Synod rep stood down as did two PCC Members. We found a new Deanery Synod rep from volunteers, but no one stood for the two places left vacant. The PCC is still large enough to form a quorum, but functionally, it's powers are in to few hands.

    If we had held the APCM in Church, we might have had candidates to stand for both vacancies, but it seems that they are denied the chance.

    I understand that the way around this is to coopt members for the PCC, who might be ready to be coopted, but it seems quite undemocratic.

    Church representation rules seem to cover this contingency, but it's about like PCC meetings being held in private - where is the democracy in that. If there is sensitive business to be discussed, you can do that in committee, but without open meetings, how does the person in the pew, get to know how their PCC is operating and the decisions it makes?

    I would have stood, but unfortunately, with BAP on the horizen, that was out of the question. And I'm already a coopted member of the Benefice Council in any case.

    Our Benefice is due to increase from 5 to 9 churches. The idea is to form 3 district PCC's to cover the churches, or one super PCC with 3 district committees. Not sure of the legality of it all, but it will decrease our representation on deanery synod and ultimately at diocesan synod.

    All this is quite arcane and not fit for purpose. One person, one vote needs to be the rule and even proper polling needs to be introduced, even hustings. If we call it an election, lets have electoral rules that resemble something like democracy.

  2. Oddly perhaps, being on the PCC is a bit like coming to church more generally - at some level, you have to want to do it. It's this desire, this motivation, which seems to me to be often lacking, and this lack which leads to the sort of scenario you describe.

    It's also, in my observation, a matter of a parish's social profile: middle-class, white-collar, professional types are likely to have some experience of and be at ease with committee culture, and, crucially, to know how to make it work. For the more modestly educated and employed (and unemployed), this context can be foreign territory and in some ways a bit intimidating.

  3. In my opinion - the admin structure of the CofE - as represented by PCC and church officers like churchwardens - seems to be something designed in and for the days when each parish had a priest. Nowadays the norm of multi parish benefices means multiple PCC have little real impact on the priest/laity interface. Which is perhaps why people increasingly don't attend APCM or want to be on PCC - put bluntly they have little impact on how the priest does their stuff.

  4. Of course, there are other scenarios, like one of my 11 PCC's where the membership of 4 is about a third of the total population of the village, and where multi-office holding is the only option. There's also the other PCC with 2 members and where there hasn't been any churchwarden now for about 5 years. Viable? Probably not, but the church is not the structure or organisation, it's the people and the faith of the people, and that's how to look beyond the "fit-for-purpose" view and see the real church.



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