Housing a vicar is not as easy as you might think

Reverend Andy Norris
Reverend Andy Norris
Portsmouth Magistrates' Court

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Being a vicar is a busy job – or calling, as clergymen and women prefer to refer to it.

Their work varies from long meetings with parishioners, delivering carefully planned sermons and to conducting marriages.

So it would seem there would be nothing better than returning home to the vicarage to unwind.

But vicars carry out a lot of their work at home, which is provided to them by the church.

Work can vary from receiving parishioners or youth groups, and even to receiving couples to discuss baptisms and weddings.

So how do clergy and manage to keep family life separate when needed?

That answer lies in the construction of a vicarage.

And now, for the first time in 13 years, the Diocese of Portsmouth is set to build a brand new vicarage.

It will replace the one at St Faith’s Church, in Lee-on-the-Solent, which survived wartime bombing but succumbed to damp.

And planners in the Diocese of Portsmouth, which belongs to the Church of England, have turned to its definitive green guide.

The church’s 52-page book spells out requirements and recommendations.

They range from having two doors to create a secure porch, to having two self-contained reception rooms to avoid the intrusion of parish business into family life.

And a vicar’s study, where parishioners can be seen, must be separate and remain distraction-free.

The Rev Andy Norris, formerly the vicar at St Mary’s, Warsash since 1999 until July, was lucky enough to see his then-home built in 2000.

Mr Norris, now Rector of Alverstoke, in Gosport, said: ‘It was a real privilege to be involved in the design.

‘It was principally built using the guidelines in the Green Guide, which meant that there was a door we could close between the part of the house used by the family and the part used for parish work.

‘I had four sons aged between four and 10 when we moved in, so that was important.

‘You didn’t want visitors bumping into your family in their pyjamas.

‘You enter through a large porchway and lobby, which is big enough so you can take a wheelchair into the study.

‘The inner lobby has a door to a disabled toilet, and it also served as a waiting room for anyone waiting to see me.

‘Then there’s a door into the family part of the house.

‘The study is sound-proofed, and there are no rooms above it.

‘That all meant it preserved people’s privacy and dignity if they came to see me as the vicar.’

Not all vicarages are modern – the one in Wymering dates from the late 18th to early 19th century and is a Grade II listed building.

And that gives Barry Fryer, the estates manager at the diocese, the occasional problem.

He is responsible for the vicarages in the area, which stand with the 173 churches.

Barry said: ‘The study is viewed as part of the church.

‘The guide does stress the need for a detached study area where people can have a private conversation without hearing the children on the television killing aliens in the next room.

‘But some of our vicarages, or properties that were bought to be a vicarage, were built in the 1900s.

‘When someone comes with a private issue, the kids are virtually banished.

‘Some families are quite prepared to go into a quiet space when there is a member of the public in the house.

‘But where you’ve got two or three boisterous children, that’s difficult.

‘Where we can’t achieve that level of privacy we do provide a study facility at the church for them.’

On some occasions a vicarage is thrown open to parishioners.

Mr Norris adds: ‘Clergy often host meetings or offer hospitality in the family part of their home as well.

‘I could see couples who came about baptisms or weddings in my study, but I chose to have larger meetings in the lounge or dining room.

‘And when we hosted youth groups, we might have 25 or 30 young people sitting all over the house eating pizzas.’

But being a high-profile figure in the community can also have its drawbacks.

The church’s guide pays particularly close attention to security.

It recommends some simple measures, including having lights to illuminate people approaching the vicarage.

But at the same time, a vicarage has to be welcoming, not have the look of a maximum security prison.

In that way, pea-shingle on the driveway and lines of thorny bushes are recommended as a way to hear people coming towards the door and a way to discourage anyone from taking an alternative route.

More explicitly, the guide also recommends there be two personal attack alarms in the home.

Barry adds: ‘Those are the design parameters we take into account.

‘But we also take into account the postcode areas.

‘Lee-on-the-Solent, the crime rate there isn’t high compared to other postcode areas in the Portsmouth area.

‘We don’t take any chances, if it is an inner city problem, it could be our security measures are higher.

‘People don’t want to climb a wall if they’ve got prickly things to deal with.

‘You sometimes get children who want to gain access to the property.

‘In Portsmouth we’ve got one vicarage where the vicar comes home quite often and finds children playing in the back garden.

‘We’ve had two attempted burglaries this year, where rocks have been thrown through the vicar’s window while he’s been on holiday.’

A vicarage is not built just for the clergy moving in.

It will be used by their successors – albeit perhaps not for a long time, as Canon Peter Sutton lived at the St Faith’s vicarage for 19 years.

Barry adds: ‘We try to make them as flexible as we can.

‘We try not to tailor-make the vicarages to one family, so there are compromises.

‘If we have a vicar or family member who has a disability then we do provide disabled facilities.

‘We do try to have a one-house-fits-all design, usually the biggest complaint is the size of the study.’

And the diocese must build within its budget.

‘We’re not a wealthy diocese so we have to be very careful,’ says Barry.

‘But my colleagues in Oxford have just built one vicarage and it cost them more than a million pounds.’

And unlike a conventional housing arrangement, vicars do not pay rent.

Mr Norris says: ‘It’s one of the few jobs left where a house is provided. We are paid a “stipend” – an allowance – rather than a salary, and we are given a house to live in, but we aren’t tenants.

‘You have a certain role in your community, and having a high-profile house where members of the public visit you is part of that role.

‘But of course it does make it difficult to fill in forms.’

THE GREEN GUIDE

GUIDANCE for building a new vicarage or improving an old one comes from one book.

The Church of England first put together a ‘Parsonage Design Guide’ in 1953.

And it might be hard to believe that within 50 years there have been five guides produced.

The newest guide is put together by the Church Estates Commissioner and a committee.

It pays particularly close attention to security but does note that fireproof letter boxes are not needed in every diocese.

The guide sets out how vicarages can be built with limited funds but still allow clergy to carry out their work.

And importantly, it also points out that such a building is the ‘domestic heart of the parish’.

THE COMMUNITY AND THE VICARAGE

A VICAR’S home does not belong to them.

It belongs to the diocese – but at St Faith’s in Lee-on-the-Solent residents nearby also take a keen interest.

In preparation for the demolition of the vicarage in Victoria Square, the Diocese of Portsmouth chopped down rotten trees in July.

Lee Residents complained, and its chairman Martin Marks told The News: ‘They could have at least discussed it, the people who live round there - they’ve got to live with that now.

‘It’s called neighbourliness, you just don’t do things like that to your neighbours unless you don’t like them.’

But the church argued it had only 24 hours to chop the trees after gaining the correct permission.

New trees are due to be planted when building starts.