Wednesday, March 29, 2017

On being an Assistant Rural Dean

I announced on social media this week that I had been appointed Assistant Rural Dean in the Portishead Deanery. This caused much mirth, mischief and misunderstanding amongst the people I know and love. As well as being a great name for a new firm of solicitors, this suggested to me that a brief piece about how the Church of England actually works would not go amiss.

So, with respect to those who actually know what they are talking about, a rough guide to the C of E school of management. This is populist writing, not academic.

England has a national church. The Church of England's existence is established by Act of Parliament and its laws are the laws of the land. The monarch of England is its head. Senior bishops sit in the House of Lords, contribute to debates, and sit in scrutiny upon every piece of legislation produced by the House of Commons. That is its privilege. Its duty is to ensure the pastoral care of everyone in the land. Every blade of grass and every piece of concrete is someone's responsibility. Where you live affords you the right to be hatched, matched and despatched in a Church of England Church by a Church of England pastor.

The local Christian traditions and styles vary greatly around the country. People are welcome to travel a bit to belong to one that is more 'them'.

The country is divided into two provinces - York and Canterbury - overseen by two archbishops, one of whom, Canterbury, happens also to be the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion (more on that another day). These provinces are further divided into dioceses, each one overseen by a diocesan bishop. Some dioceses have suffragan or assistant bishops and the work is divided up by some according to geography and others according to specialism.

I work in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, geographically equivalent to the County of Somerset. It has two bishops - the diocesan is known as the Bishop of Bath and Wells; the suffragan as the Bishop of Taunton.

Each diocese is further subdivided into archdeaconries headed by a go on take a wild guess.

The Diocese of Bath and Wells has three archdeaconries - Bath, Wells and Taunton. I work in the archdeaconry of Bath, where the archdeacon is retiring in June if any clergy colleagues fancy following in the footsteps of a much-loved genius. Look out for adverts.

Archdeaconries are further sub-divided into deaneries. There are eighteen (or is it nineteen, can't remember?) of these in our diocese here, of which five are in Bath Archdeaconry.

I am in the Deanery of Portishead. Each deanery is overseen by a rural dean although in other parts of the country the title has been changed to area dean due to the absence of anything vaguely rural in the area. The title seems to date back to a time when most of our country was rural not urban. It would surprise quite a lot of people to know that this is still the case, says this city kid.

In some of the larger deaneries a more collaborative style of leadership is called for. Sharing the load is good since rural dean is not a job in its own right; it is an extra responsibility placed on the shoulders of someone who is already a parish priest. It also acknowledges that in diverse deaneries (ours has three major towns of 15,000 plus and another of 8,000 but several smaller communities in between and many farms) it is unlikely that one person will have all the skills needed to lead.

It is in this context that I have been appointed Assistant Rural Dean and it might help locals to know what I said when accepting the responsibility:

I will be the person (of the three of us, you and two assistants) who keeps their head in the future. I will approach deanery life with a 5-25 year head on. I am a visionary not a strategist. How our evolving vision applies to our different parishes (the strategic) will be up to them but they should have a huge buy-in to the vision we settle on.

I will champion mission enabling, and help as far as I can, but be aware that half my job is mission enabling in the Nailsea LMG (Local Ministry Group - a unique arrangement in Bath and Wells - ed) and it would be too much to extend this to the whole deanery. So it will be an encouraging/facilitating approach to the rest of the deanery, available for consultation with clergy/churches as required. Many deaneries are now appointing half-time mission enablers. We may wish to consider this.

I will work with the Mission and Pastoral Group on the deanery MAP (Mission Action Plan - ed) with a view to finishing it before my sabbatical in the autumn. I am happy to be the person who draws up the eventual document.

I will stand in for you (the Rural Dean) as and when required and would be particularly happy to be involved in appointment processes, especially if we are heading for a point where there will be some common wording, about the deanery, on all future vacancies. We should be able, between the three of us (another assistant still to be appointed), to make sure that we are always represented at diocesan rural deans' meetings.

I cannot see myself, easily, having much Sunday morning time to cover elsewhere but my Sunday evening commitments are relatively light.

Ideally, as we said, the Deanery Standing Committee would become separate from the Mission and Pastoral group so that we don't mix the nitty-gritty day-to-day stuff with vision seeking.


So I am excited to have permission to spend more time on something I love doing and am aware that I need to get up to speed on a load of things pretty quickly. I will have a lot of questions.

To answer some specific questions posed in social media feedback:
  • No, I will not be leaving. This commits me to several more years, probably up until retirement (which can happen any time after May 2021).
  • No, there is no extra money.
  • No I don't get a badge. Or a cape. Nor even a phone box to change in.
  • Liz wants to be called Lady Dean. She finds Lady Ass unappealing.
Hope this is useful.

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