For the congregation at St Nicholas's in Newport, Shropshire, the gentle, balding figure in the pulpit was the epitome of selflessness. A parish priest for 32 years, he was always on hand to conduct a wedding, or even just a blessing for divorcees marrying for the second time around. Unfortunately, as we now know, St Nicholas's was the hub of one of the more unlikely criminal rackets of modern times.
Rector Roy Hibbert, who last week was jailed for nine months, had been stealing from his flock. Marriage and funeral fees were exaggerated, some of the contents of the collection plate found their way into his pocket, bills were submitted for a caretaker and a verger, neither of whom existed.
The damage was less on his congregation's wallets than on their sense of trust. As one of his victims, Louisa Talbot, put it: "If you can't trust the rector, who can you trust?"
But you would have to be hard-hearted not to feel some sympathy for a priest led off in irons. What the case of Hibbert demonstrates is not so much that the Church of England has a few bad apples - every institution has them - but just how much the lot of the parish priest has declined since Anthony Trollope could portray him as the wealthy functionary that he was.
What was once a rewarding career opportunity for second sons of the landed gentry has become, over the course of a century, a huge sacrifice. Gone are the rectories and their manicured lawns, gone are the domestic staff. Gone even is the leisure time to hunt, shoot and fish with the local squire, and all those other niceties of Trollopian England. Far from being an incumbent for life, as used to be the case, the chilly prospect of a homeless retirement now looms in the minds of most vicars. On the average stipend of pounds 15,120, a vicar struggles to bring up a family, let alone save for the future. The pounds 50,000 which Hibbert embezelled over 10 years went towards a retirement home; it would fill a lot of collection plates, but it didn't go far in the housing market.
Perhaps Hibbert, a father of three, was too proud, too embarrassed, to accept charity. In many people's eyes, vicars are supposed to be organising charitable works, not benefitting from them. Yet charity is a course which an increasing number of vicars are being forced to take. Last year, 3,500 vicars resorted to two charities dedicated to their needs, the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy, and the Friends of the Clergy Corporation. Many of the grants were for vicars who had got themselves into debt, others were for school uniforms, and in some cases, holidays.
"Requests for help are increasing," says John Greenie, of the Friends of the Clergy Corporation. "Clergymen aren't poor in absolute terms, but compared with other professional people they are. If they have several children, it is possible for them to become eligible for social security benefits. Half our grants go towards holidays, because it is our view that modern clergymen are under considerable stress. It is important for them to get away, but many cannot afford it."
The age of the wealthy vicar was ended for good in 1972. It was then that the comfortable livings were abolished and the money re- allocated to give vicars a standardised stipend wherever in the country they serve. All now receive between pounds 14,600 and pounds 15,510. Although they live in a rectory rent-free, running costs have to be paid for out of the stipend. Stipends do not increase with age or service. As a result, a vicar retires on the same money as is earned by a vicar in his twenties: a hard fact to swallow in an age in which promotion is seen as the ultimate judge of self-worth.
One priest who knows all about the sacrifices involved in becoming a parish priest is the Reverend Peter Owen-Jones, now incumbent of four parishes outside Cambridge. Until 1992 he was a high-flying advertising executive, producing adverts for, among others, Saatchi and Saatchi. …