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. He then answered what he says had been a 10-year calling to the priesthood. From the high pressure world of deadlines to the gentle backwater of rural life. In fact, he says, the experience was almost exactly the opposite. The world he gave up was one of long lunches and four day jollies to Geneva to decide where to put the comma in an advert. The world he discovered was the one with the vicious deadlines.
"I have a gap of just 10 minutes between two of my services," he says. "And they are in different parishes. A contemporary priest is a bit like a petrol-driven executive. You spent a lot of time in the car. Visiting people is a luxury."
Like many vicars, Owen-Jones has developed a sideline to help support himself, his wife and their four children: in his case writing. His first book, Bed of Nails, was about his time at theological college.
"Many vicars dip into and out of their former occupations to support themselves," he says. "Although they tend to keep quiet about it. Being a priest is a wonderful way of life, but you can't eat avocados or afford to have people round to dinner. Socially it is a bit of a killer."
But money isn't what is bugging the modern vicar so much as the loss of status. The parish priest used to enjoy the status of a learned man; back in the Middle Ages, he may have been the only person in the parish capable of reading and writing. The vicar wasn't just your local contact with the next world, he was your contact with the present one.
"There was a spell in the 18th and early 19th centuries when the clergy assumed all manner of professional roles," says Archdeacon Gordon Kuhrt, Chief Secretary of the Board of Ministry. "Often there was no doctor, and so the vicar would perform first aid. He would act as the village schoolteacher, and would often be a de facto magistrate, who called in the riot squad. Nowadays, the status of the profession has fallen away." But even in their own churches, vicars do not feel the authority they used to. Canon Dr Michael West began his career as a parish priest in Wolverhampton in the early Seventies. Now, he trains volunteer priests known as "ordained local ministers" to preach alongside the full time clergy.
"The vicar's status has been reduced by the move towards a ministry of the people," he says. "The basic notion these days is that, not just the vicar, but every baptised person is called by Christ to be a minister. There is a feeling among congregations that 'we are all ministers in this place together'. The morale of th clergy can suffer from very small congregations, too. When you are preaching to four or five people, it no longer becomes appropriate to use the pulpit."
The public perception of what a vicar should and shouldn't be has changed as dramatically as has the job itself. In an age in which only 10 per cent of the population attend church, it is the music hall image which prevails. In advertising, vicars are relentlessly parodied as crumbling figures giving into temptation. We still think of them as monks, even though the monastic orders of the Church in this country were disbanded in 1538. The idea of seeing vicars as professionals, on a par with doctors and lawyers, as they were in Trollope's day, would seem outrageous to church-goers and non church- goers alike.
"It would be a considerable problem for society if clergy were earning pounds 35,000 a year and driving flashy cars," says West. "The logic of a stipend is not that it is a salary, but that it gives you just enough money so that you can support yourself without doing any other work."
But suddenly, the vicars are fighting back. Of the 8,000 parish priests, 1,500 are now represented through a chapter of the Manufacturing Services and Finance Union. One of its campaigns, unsuccessful so far, has been to try to persuade the Government to enable defrocked vicars to resort to industrial tribunals. Recently, the union wrote to the Church Commissioners demanding a rise in stipends to pounds 18,400, which would amount to an inflation- busting 22 per cent increase - something which would be unlikely to impress that famous son of the Manse, Gordon Brown. So does that mean you will face a picket line next time you go up for communion? According to the unfortunately-named union organiser, the Rev Stephen Trott, there will be no industrial action.
"Some people do have a problem with vicars becoming unionised," admits the Reverend Michael Smithson, a union rep who looks after a parish in inner city Portsmouth. "But the truth is that Christians have long been in the forefront of fighting for better working conditions."
Even the rectories of Trollopian times resounded to incumbents grumbling over the size of their livings. Often the son of the gentry who received the money was not the one who did the work: many 19th century vicars were non-resident, leaving poorly paid curates to serve the parish. And, as the sorry tale of Reverend Harding in Trollope's The Warden reminds us, a priest who seems to be living too well has always been a figure of suspicion.…