The origin of patronage is in all likelihood pre-Christian. The local feudal Lord, who owned the land and property on it, also therefore had the right to decide which pagan priests could operate on his estate. With the Christianization of Europe it was most often the local landowner who was responsible both for the building of a church and the upkeep of ministers. With time such rights, and sometimes land, often passed into the hands of Bishops and religious foundations (including such places as Oxford and Cambridge colleges). The right of appointment is properly called an advowson and the person or body who holds this right is the patron. Patronage is therefore a form of property which can be transferred, most often as an inheritance, though historically it was possible to buy and sell patronage rights. Today there are still many hereditary patrons. Whilst Patrons no longer have to support the clergy or churches financially, it should be remembered that often there was endowment and glebe land associated with a living. This property was given for the maintenance of ministry and buildings but scandalously has been plundered and squandered in the last half century.
Where the patron is not also the Bishop (and ignoring some of the other peculiarities that exist) they cannot admit a person into the spiritual rights and duties of an office. Therefore the role of the patron is to present a man to be instituted and inducted by the Bishop into the office. The Bishop can, with good reason, refuse to oblige.
In the 17th Century some Puritans encouraged landowners to buy rights of patronage and in some Puritan dominated towns, such as Ipswich, it was the local corporation which bought up the advowsons. By the early 19th Century around two thirds of patronage was still in the hands of private individuals and in 1817 Charles Simeon set up a Trust to acquire the advowsons of livings occupied by evangelical clergy. This was followed by other groups and today the larger evangelical bodies (Church Society Trust being medium sized) are involved in appointments to over 1,000 churches.
The first half of the 19th Century also saw a vast migration of people into towns and cities leading to the establishment of many new churches. Often the Rector of an ancient parish became the patron of perhaps as many as 30 newly created parishes. In other instances our evangelical forebears, appalled by the tractarian influence in their local church, established new churches (they were less squeamish about putting the gospel before church niceties). These churches were established with their own trusts which provided for patronage by a group of private individuals. Several larger evangelical churches today have such a background.
In the 1970s and particularly the 1980s several significant pieces of legislation were passed altering the system of patronage. Aside from the complexities of Teams and Groups the two most important Measures were the Pastoral Measure (1983) and the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986. The most significant development was the position given in the Pastoral Measure to the lay representatives of the parish. Formerly, unless the patrons were local people, the parish itself might have almost no say in who their next minister would be. This was a change for the good, although it is a system which does not work as well as it ought. The chief problems arise from the fact that, in the nature of things, parish representatives are not likely to be involved in more than one appointment.
In the last few decades there has been a vast re-organization of parishes in rural and inner-urban areas where dwindling congregations meant that several churches have, in effect, to share a full-time minister. In market towns and suburbia the number of clergy and other paid workers has also often reduced but not to the extent of requiring mergers. Whilst the various measures have enabled different patterns of ministry they have invariably just become the mechanism for managing decline. In our experience the plans for retrenchment are usually dictated from central Diocesan bodies and this serves only to alienate congregations who feel helpless in the face of ‘the system’.
The decline in numbers of clergy and the generally poor state of the finances of the Church means that on the face of it the only way forward is to combine churches under a single stipendiary ministry. However, this is not the only way. In many instances it may be much better to have a non-stipendiary, part time or non-ordained minister as the pastor or leader of a congregation. Sadly in some Dioceses there appears to be the assumption that every parish must have a full time priest who is, at least in principle, always available to do priestly stuff should it be required. This forces mergers when they are undesirable and unnecessary. It is also true that the motive for many parish mergers is to free up parsonages which can be sold or let to relieve Diocesan finances.
The consequence of all this is that full-time clergy are spread more thinly and feel more and more stretched. There are no doubt some extremely gifted people who can and do manage to prosper in such circumstances but in general the whole system of re-organization is a spiral of decline. Sadly it is a spiral that few Diocesan and national church officials seem willing to break free from. In the midst of this the Patron’s role is very difficult. We are often called upon to advise and help parishes faced with the inevitable consequences of Diocesan policy. We as Patrons are virtually powerless to intervene and we find so often that after an initial valiant struggle parishes just give up the fight and accept the imposed solution, disillusioned and dispirited.