Hearth, Home and Hoare

It seems reasonable, at first sight, to say that the clergy should be brought into line with everyone else, and no longer enjoy a “job for life”. But of course, it is not that simple. They must now retire at 70, and most go at 65, but continue to slave over a hot altar long into retirement. The commitment which they make to the ministry is uniquely life-long.

No other profession is required to live in tied housing, on a sharply reduced income as part of the package. They accept the deal as part of their vocation and few really mind about the lowly stipend. But if they are to lose the precious security of housing, which makes it all possible, for them and for the Church – then they will need to be paid stipends which enable them to buy their own houses. Especially in view of the fact that clergy have no rights in employment law. Without freehold they must learn to trust the bishops….who have not yet put their own freehold on the line.

What we are talking about here is not merely a modest little reform, to make clergy more like laity. Those who are priests-in-charge, and the unbeneficed clergy, are already feeling the cold financial wind blowing through the Church, and their posts are beginning to feel very insecure. It is not that long ago since the Tiller Report envisaged a Church in which few clergy lived in their parishes, and that most would be based in suburbia, or in diocesan offices. The freehold stands in the way of that rather unappealing vision.

It is not unappealing to the church authorities, still besotted with “management” despite the decline in churchgoing, ordinands and money after twenty years or so of playing at being ICI. They have learned how to alienate the assets of our parishes, and centralise more and more of our church life. The stipendiary clergy, who inconveniently require to be paid and housed, represent the last great asset waiting to be stripped. If they can be sharply reduced in number, and deployed at the whim of the diocese, then what remains of the Church’s endowments – the parsonage houses and the Church Commissioners’ assets – can be diverted into other projects more satisfying to the bureaucratic mind than the parish ministry. They say they want greater freedom of deployment: but despoliation is a more accurate term for it. There will be few clergy left in parishes outside middle-class suburban strongholds.

What can we do to resist? There are two things, which can be done right away. The first is to identify suitable candidates for the coming General Synod elections, and to make sure that we vote in the elections only for those who will not contribute to the further unravelling either of doctrine or of our parish system. It is impossible to stress too much the importance of taking a full part in these elections. However tempting it may be, it is essential not to stand back, weary with it all, and allow others to have free rein. We must shape the agenda of the Synod, not allow it to be prescribed for us.

The second is for the clergy to begin to work together in a professional association to ensure that their voice, as clergy, is heard and properly taken account of. There never used to be a need to belong to a trade union, but the urgency for having one is now upon us, like a thief in the night. MSF has very generously and sympathetically made its substantial resources and expertise in all matters affecting employment available, in the new Clergy Section which was set up last August. Already it has begun to represent members in difficulty with their dioceses, and has arranged professional indemnity insurance for members facing potential legal action.

Clergy can not negotiate with the church authorities, nor deal effectively with personal employment problems as private individuals. As members of a modern professional association, with almost half a million members, those who join MSF Clergy Section* can enjoy all the expertise and strength which is available to every other profession. The time for clergy to join is now. Protection for the clergy will mean protection for the parish system itself, which otherwise faces a very uncertain future.

*Inquiries about membership of MSF Clergy Section may be made to: Dr Chris Ball, MSF Clergy Section 50 Southwark St, London SE1 1UN.