Monday, 23 February 2009

'We're watching you'

I had a hoax call while I was on holiday during Half Term. I was just about to take one of the children out when the phone rang and someone asked in a very tentative voice whether he could find out some things about the church. ‘I’m just going out,’ I said (not wanting to be trapped into a long conversation), ‘but of course I’ll let you know anything you want’ (not wanting to brush off a vulnerable caller who might have had to summon up courage to make contact).

Only a considerable way into the conversation did the caller reveal that he wasn’t nervous at all. He was employed by English Heritage to check that I’d say the same things about the church on the phone as I’d said in the annual return of information we send it following a grant for work on St Michael’s roof a few years ago which it made in a joint scheme with the Heritage Lottery Fund.

I posted on 12th January about the way congregations rarely financed our major buildings in the past and the way the role often then played by rich patrons is often now played by this sort of grant making body. I didn’t add that money skewed the power relationship then and does so now.

My inexperience very inexpertly tripped over the tail end of the old relationship a few years ago. One of our other churches is in what was a village which from the Commonwealth onwards was almost wholly owned (alongside other chunks of England) by one family. The family retains an element of the formal patronage of this whole parish today as a result. The family’s Estate is gradually withdrawing from a lot of its local involvement and put in a planning application as part of this process. I objected to the particular application and pointed out that one of the things it said didn’t appear to be true. Since then the donations previously given by the Estate to the church each Christmas stopped arriving; I’ve never been certain whether this was simply part of the same gradual withdrawal process or whether I was being told that greater acquiescence and deference was required from those who receive largess.

Now in turn I’m tripping over the new relationship, and ended up feeling contaminated by this phone call. Just as those in debt sign whatever agreement is placed in front of them, we accepted all the conditions for the major grant which seemed the only way to repair a church roof. Some conditions seemed reasonable - the money should be used for the purpose for which it was given and the building should remain available to the whole community. Some conditions seemed a stretch - direct English Heritage consent would be needed for any future alterations, something which potentially leap frogs the protection the ministry and mission of the church sometimes needs when putting in an application for alterations to the scrutiny body on which both heritage and church representatives make a joint decision. And one condition simply leaves me open to this sort of phone call - it felt as if I was being told ‘we’ve bought you: we can deliberately deceive you as much as we like, but woe to you if we discover you’ve made even a tiny error in what you say to us’.

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