STRESS ON THE CLERGY

John Masding thinks that today's clergy need all the support they can get, and time away from it all to recuperate

Holidays are often the Great Escape, and quite rightly so. A change is as good as a rest, too. Heart-rending letters from bishops, archdeacons, rural deans, churchwardens or doctors to our Almoner, supporting the case made on the form of application for a Holiday Grant from the English Clergy Association’s charitable funds, suggest that stress is induced, inter alia, by poverty and by workload or care environment. The Great Escape is valid in itself; but the problems are still there on return to duty.

The clerical culture, if one may call it that, has obviously changed - and in many ways, not least economically - for the worse. Even thirty years ago, there was real confidence in the newly-ordained: more muted now. Pensions are not the only anxiety. The Gay and Lesbian issue may lead to a call for arrangements to be made parallel to those made for the opponents of women priests.

Endowment and Glebe have gone into the Great Maw; but, despite their earned fee income, and sometimes still Easter Offerings, clergy can be made to feel that they are a charge upon diocesan resources to which their parishioners are still failing to contribute adequately. Morale is further lowered when Church Commissioners or dioceses seem less than good stewards of that which they have taken into their charge. Burgeoning central staffs provide really good service, of course, and we are grateful; but parochial ministers are aware of their supplicant status, and usually have little paid support of their own, locally. In Handsworth deanery, no incumbent had any paid secretarial assistance at the last time of asking, not even the Rural Dean. For twenty years I have been the Synod Secretary.

The Bishop of Plymouth, moving within his diocese to be Bishop of Crediton, wrote in the June Diocesan News of the need of clergy to prioritize. “The fact is that the responsibilities carried by the individual parish priest have grown markedly in recent years, and for the sake of retaining sanity (and one’s marriage) as well as working effectively, the ability to say ‘No’ at the right time is an essential part of the discipline we now need......tasks which could be done by others can be delegated.........secretarial/administrative assistance for the clergy....is also [besides the ‘development of lay ministry and responsibility’] now an important resource towards the better use of their professional time. At one time, it might have been seen as a luxury or even a vanity; but now that clergy time is scarce, such help is rapidly becoming essential.”

One might feel theologically that in an incarnational faith the clergy cannot be labelled as professionals tout court. The Ministry is something that one is, not something that one does, a concept which supports perhaps not only the idea of indelible priesthood, persistent in retirement, but also what is represented by the embodiment as a Corporation Sole of what the incumbent bishop, archdeacon, rector or vicar is. But, that caveat apart, the Bishop is clearly right.

Today’s parson is ground between the upper and nether millstones. It is not quite as simple as his steady attenuation in the face of often conflicting demands and expectations from parish and diocese. Rather, he is also torn between the tensions embodied by professionalism, the acquisition of trained skills etc., and the older concept of being. "I am," said Jesus. How refreshing that sounds. Jesus calls us back to the still centre of the turning world, where we are alone with God and His Word by the Holy Ghost.

Faith and confidence are closely allied. But it must be said that in England it is the law that has for long centuries been the friend of confidence. The law defines the boundaries of our freedoms, and compels others to respect them - as we respect theirs. We do not live in a voluntarist Church, where every command of the higher authority must be obeyed. Rather, as Lord Denning observed, quoting the seventeenth-century Thomas Fuller, “Be you never so high, the law is above you”.

That is why after our Oath to the Queen we take an Oath of Obedience “in all things lawful and honest”. The lawful commands of the Ordinary are those which the law empowers him to enjoin.

So the English Clergy Association supports all those legal and inherited advantages which give the clergy confidence in their Ministries to proclaim the Faith with appropriate freedom, and freedom from undue anxiety. At the same time, we are very concerned, as this inherited position breaks down (or is assaulted), at the increasing stress in the lives, and marriages, of our clergy. Stress is created or exacerbated by financial worries - for oneself or for one’s parish. It should be said that the true situation of the clergy is often masked by their private financial resources, whether inherited or accruing to the family purse through a working wife in an outside job.

Our Association continues to appeal for subscribing Members, both individual and corporate, to help in our defence of the parson’s estate of service. And we appeal for donations to our benefit fund, registered as charity no. 258559, so that we may do even more at least to provide stressed or necessitous clergy and their families with the Great Escape of a decent holiday.

John Masding is Vicar of Hamstead, and Chairman of the English Clergy Association.

Donations/ Membership Applications to: The Registrar of the English Clergy Association, Hamstead Vicarage, Walsall Road, Birmingham B42 1ES, from whom copies of our twice-yearly Journal, Parson and Parish, can be obtained, £1.50 but free to Members, including the latest or a recent issue free on joining, stock permitting.

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