HAVING spent more time over the years observing our elders and betters than’s decently good for a chap, I’ve started to develop a general theory of the principles of public life. As in when things go wrong, obviously.
In the case of these islands, it’s provisionally entitled ‘Who Thought That was a Good Idea?’ Depending on the audience, time of day and venue, an optional Hedley Le Maistre ‘eh?’ can be added.
Since, however, we’re in polite circles here, I shall gentrify the hypothesis and instead term it The Arrogance of Authority.
For the theory to work, certain conditions have to be met. Someone or something has to be in a position of power and decisions must be taken or utterances made by them that cause the recipients, collectively, to pause and ask, ‘you what?’
Your Bailiffs have been good at that over the period. So too has the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Kidnapping an island’s only all-weather rescue boat’s never a good look, irrespective of presumed provocation.
There’s an optional third element to the Who Thought That was a Good Idea? theorem: each pronouncement has to be jaw-droppingly stupid. All right, that’s possibly too strong a word. Let’s just say those receiving the words of wisdom from on high must instantly perceive it to be stupid.
And, yes, you’re right. I am thinking particularly about Churchgate, the Rector of St Ouen’s plan to rip the heart out of his historic place of worship and get non-churchgoers to pay for what many of them viewed as desecration.
When I first read about the proposals I laughed out loud, I’m afraid, because they were at-a-glance doomed and reputationally ruining for the vicar, decent enough fellow though he undoubtedly is.
Now, I don’t want to heap more misery on the poor chap, so I’ll come to the central point: what this says about the reluctance of our lawmakers to separate Church from state.
Over the (many) years we’ve moved away from the Royal Court running the island to government being in the hands of an elected States Assembly, albeit with the Bailiff holding the dual role of head of both.
Yet we still persist with the concept of an Established (and therefore privileged) Church and force ratepayers in the individual parishes to provide and maintain grace and favour accommodation for its vicars.
In my own parish last week, for example, there was mild revolt when the churchwardens proposed spending ratepayer funds on the rectory – even though the parish no longer owns it or has any responsibility for it.
Yes, it was a try-on pure and simple, and based on a sense of obligation and entitlement that has no place in today’s secular times. More especially, there was no justification for third parties dipping into the public purse when these laws were enacted in times long past and there’s none now.
Guernsey tried to reform its own Church/state relationship a few years ago. It didn’t end well, with the C of E threatening to unleash hell and all sorts of constitutional difficulties by petitioning the Queen, but it did show how they’re willing to fight to hang on to the indefensible.
In addition, the obligation to house the rector and ensure their property is wind and watertight remains. Since the changes clarified that the parishes do indeed own their own church, the financial burden for the upkeep of these historic monuments rests with parishioners and not, as with other ancient monuments like Elizabeth Castle, the taxpayer.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-Church, of whatever denomination. But the retention of special rights based on history is simply wrong. Which is why I’m baffled as to why the Dean of Jersey (actually a Guernsey refugee) still retains his seat in the States Assembly.
Forget the Bailiff’s dual role for a moment, dumping the Dean would send out a clear message that the Jersey Way is on the way out. So, too, would scrapping the £27,000 the taxpayer is forced to provide towards his office each year.
If someone can explain to me how that expenditure’s a good idea – or, indeed, why the Dean thinks it acceptable to trouser the money – I’d be delighted to hear from them.
In the meantime – and perhaps contrary to appearances here – I had some sympathy for the Rector of St Ouen’s modernisation attempts.
While the parish churches are beautiful, historic and to be cherished, they’re an expensive liability unless folk actually go there. So making them more user-friendly – for religious or secular purposes – is pretty sensible.
Unfortunately, a big-bang approach involving substantial amounts of non-believers’ money is always a hard sell and it rather looks like the Arrogance of Authority (or those who should have been counselling caution) didn’t sufficiently factor in the ‘you what?’ reaction.
Longer term, of course, that issue of use will become more critical as churchgoers increasingly become an endangered species. If the parish church becomes unsuitable for its congregation, there’s nothing to stop them moving elsewhere. And then what? Who else is likely to help with the upkeep?
So the Rev Ian Pallent was on the right lines and he might just have pulled it off – if only he’d left the pews alone. That was the fatal flaw in his master strategy.
We might not go there very often, but we all know churches have to have pews. It’s what makes them, well, churches.