My final post in the Church of England was that of an assistant priest at the Church of Saint Francis in High Heaton, Newcastle Upon Tyne. I was there for over eight years and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I certainly had a ministry there. My vicar, Christopher Clinch, had told the congregation from the pulpit shortly after his arrival at the church, that he did not do visiting, certainly he did not visit people in hospitals. I expect his excuse for this strange statement was that he believed visiting was the job of the laity. But, fine as that might sound in principle, it does not go down well with the laity and people in the parish. So, I saw my opportunity to be of use and spent most of my time visiting people in the parish, especially those who were unwell. I even took courses on the care of the dying to equip myself for this ministry. It was something I was quite good at because my personal experience of the hell of mental illness had left me with no fear of the dark places we all find ourselves in at some time during our lives.
Of course, this made me popular, especially among the elderly and infirm.
When I found out in mid 2010 that my vicar was moving on I decided that I would apply for the post of incumbent of St. Francis. I checked this idea out with the two readers and the wardens and everyone seemed fine with it. But shortly before he left, Christopher Clinch told the choir (who he had personally overseen for all the time he was at St. Francis) that I was the last person in the world who should get the job.
Anyway, he left. In the Church of England, when an incumbent leaves a parish, the rural dean is then in charge of much of the administration of the vacant parish and has responsibility for the worship. Our rural dean met with the two readers and myself and agreed that we should take on the responsibility of organising the worship. This being in his gift, as they say.
The vicar who had left was a control freak. I once asked him why he had to be at every meeting of every group in the church (e.g. the Sunday School leaders' meetings). His reply was that he was better at everything than anyone else. This need to be in charge had meant that he had chosen pretty much every hymn for every service during his time at the church. Now, I'm not that sort of person. So, the week after he had left I went to the leader of the choir and organist and said to them that we would meet up once a month and choose the hymns for services together. I told them that I liked words and enjoyed picking hymn lyrics that fitted in with the theme of each service, but that I was not a musician. I said that together we could come up with some great stuff. They agreed.
A week later the organist came to me and told me that "they had decided that they would be picking the hymns."
I replied that this was okay but I had to have the final word and that sometimes I would want specific hymns included. He agreed to that. Bear in mind that the choosing of hymns was the responsibility of myself and the two readers as we had been given this task by the rural dean.
About a month later I noticed that, on the following Sunday, the organist had chosen "Shine, Jesus, Shine" as the last hymn. Now this hymn was always a problematical choice. Some people in the congregation really enjoyed it. Others hated it with a vengeance. It was the ones who hated it that always went up to the priest afterwards and bent his ear.
So, I told the organist that he should either replace the hymn completely or change it for another one earlier in the service so it wasn't the last thing on the minds of the congregation when they went in for their after service coffee. I could tell he was cross but he agreed to my compromise.
When I turned up for the afternoon service I went up to the choir gallery to discover that there was no organist. The choir leader told me that the organist was cross about my decision and had decided not to turn up (he was a paid organist). I stormed down the stairs and loudly told the warden at the bottom of the stairs that I should sack the organist. Then, realising that I had no authority to do any such thing, I said, "Well, at least I should try and persuade the parish council to sack him." Somehow, in the mind of this particular warden this incident in which I complained about the absence of the organist became me shouting at the organist for not being present. I know that sounds ridiculous but so will most of the rest of this story.
The following week the organist did turn up for the morning service. He completely ignored my request and played "Shine, Jesus Shine" at the end of the service anyway.
I told the bishop, Martin Wharton, and he told me to leave the sorting out of the mess up to the two church wardens. I did this. I told the archdeacon, Geoff Miller, and he told me to keep my mouth shut and not mention the matter to anybody, especially to anybody in the congregation. I faithfully followed his instructions although it would turn out to be the biggest mistake of my working life.
The wardens, without any input from myself, told the organist and choir leader that they should abide by my original compromise. In other words if I needed to change a hymn they should agree to my request. They asked me to make sure I gave the organist plenty of warning of any changes I wanted to make.
Everything was fine until the beginning of November when I received their hymn choices for December. The choices for Advent were okay. But, because they were not liturgists they had the wrong hymns for the Midnight Mass service and the Christmas morning service. The ones they had chosen did not fit in with the readings. Also, for some reason, they had ignored the fact that it was Holy Innocents on the first Sunday after Christmas. So I changed the hymns accordingly and returned them to the organist.
Shortly after lunch I received a phone call telling me that if I insisted on changing the hymns the organist would resign. I said I was not going to change the hymns (reminding him of what they had agreed with the wardens). The organist subsequently resigned and by the evening on the same day the choir had "gone on strike."
They remained on strike all through Christmas. They still went up to the choir loft where they stood glaring at me from a great height, refusing to sing.
All that was needed to sort this situation out was for the bishop or archdeacon to have told the organist and choir, before it got out of hand, that it was my job to choose the hymns and that my invitation to collaborate with me, back in September, was a particularly fine piece of pastoral sensitivity on my part. But, no. They did no such thing. They never did. They arranged meetings with the choir to hear their side of the story and basically never backed me up at all, even though I was just an assistant priest who had no incumbency status or authority within the church other than that which they had given me.
I went to one meeting with the readers and church wardens at the archdeacon's house. In that meeting I managed to get the warden who had accused me of shouting at the organist (neither of us ever shouted or even exchanged a cross word with each other) that it couldn't have happened because the organist wasn't there. But this didn't seem to register with the archdeacon as he was still accusing me of shouting at the organist a year after I had left the Church's employ.
The outcome of all this was inevitable. Although I applied for the post of incumbent of St. Francis, I did not even get to the interview stage. Worst of all, and most painful, I was never able to tell the congregation what had happened. All they got to hear was what the striking choir members had to say as the archdeacon hadn't instructed them to remain silent on the matter.
After I had left I told the archdeacon that as far as I could work out, the bishop and himself had either deliberately manipulated the situation to get rid of me or they had been grossly incompetent. He got very upset about that allegation but nobody has ever come up with an explanation as to why those in authority hadn't just told everyone involved what the legal situation was or backed up their employee who had no authority himself. I still lie awake at night trying to work out why they didn't. I still cry about it.
This is the first time I have told this story in public. I am no longer under the authority of Bishop Wharton or Archdeacon Miller so I don't mind that I am breaking my agreement to remain silent. The thing is I do not think it is fair for a bishop to put a gagging order on a priest and then talk secretly with other bishops about the situation. This underhand behaviour results in the gagged priest being assessed by any future bishop on the basis of his or her former bishop's secret assessment. I am sure bishops are far more likely to believe other bishops than a priest who has been constructively dismissed by a fellow bishop. But bishops are as human as anybody and many of them far more manipulative than most (otherwise they wouldn't have climbed the greasy pole to get to be a bishop). At least, in a secular court of law both sides get to tell their story. But, as the church is exempt from the law of the land when it comes to employment, bishops can do what they please when they please without having to make account of their decisions public.
So, who am I. Am I the dangerous, mad, troublemaker that Bishop Wharton thinks I am, or am I the priest who visited the dying, who would lay down his life for his friends (and has lost his livelihood for his friends) and who who writes orthodox, inspiring liturgy because he loves God and he loves the Church? I could be either or I could be a mixture of both. But I think people should decide for themselves after talking with me not after talking with my former adversaries. I never let people tell me about other people who are in my care. I always use my own discernment. Gossip and conversations in private are very much the devil's preferred method of doing things. It's about time the Church told the devil to get behind them and to publicly announce that they have done so for all the world to hear.