Jonathan Redvers Harris reflects on the evils of the ‘day-off’ mentality

A PARISH MAGAZINE which recently fell into my hands contained an announcement of such importance that it needs to be reproduced in full:

“AN IMPORTANT REQUEST. Will everyone please note that the Rector’s Day Off will be Friday of each week. It is important that he is permitted to enjoy a break without interruption and it will be much appreciated if telephone calls or visits to the Rectory on that day could be AVOIDED.”

Grammar apart, the obvious lesson from this is for clerics to ensure that they retain editorial control over their parish rags – unless our anonymous Rector put in the pompous announcement himself. We can only hope that the parishioners of that parish are likewise permitted a Day Off, particularly if there is danger of being interrupted by the Rector.

Now to challenge the sacred cow of the Day Off is to court unpopularity with the entire ecclesiastical heirachy as well as the ever increasing army of diocesan assessors, review and development officers and in service facilitators. Your name is likely to be indelibly inked on the Lambeth Blacklist for daring to question this honourable institution. Interestingly, though, some of them have rather fixed ideas about what is to be done on the Day Off. Recently a senior cleric was unable to bring me to the ‘phone because, my wife explained, I was out mowing grass at the far end of the parsonage grounds. When I returned his call he apologised for calling me on my Day Off – for so he assumed. But since when has maintaining the benefice property formed part of a priest’s recreation?

And there are some obvious shortcomings of the Day Off. Take the scope for manipulation and abuse by parishioners. Continuing with the example of our friendly Rector, someone may ‘phone late on Thursday evening, just when he is unwinding for the Big Day – ‘I’m sorry to call you this late, Father, but I know tomorrow’s your Day Off……. and first thing on Saturday morning there comes the corresponding, ‘Rector, sorry to call so early but I didn’t want to trouble you yesterday knowing it’s your Day Off…..’ Poor Rector, how neatly he can be held in the palm! And what if the priest has children of school age and he helps with dropping them off or collecting them; do the staff and other parents know that the Chairman of Governors (as he often is) has a ‘Do not disturb’ sign over his head? The Rector’s Day Off may just possibly not have remained at the forefront of their minds.

Yet these are superficial remarks. The most disturbing element of the Day Off is that it assumes a mean-minded functionalist model of ministry – just as clergy are now seen as a ‘resource’ to be ‘deployed effectively’. A Day Off can mean only one thing; that there are Days On. It expresses an On Duty/Off Duty approach to the priestly life. Indeed, many clerics have an ‘office’ (out of bounds on the Day Off, naturally), a uniform (a plastic insert vaguely reminiscent of a collar which is cast aside when off duty), and they speak of living on the job’ with a ‘total remuneration package’.

How misguided and impoverished is this approach. At ordination the promise is to devote yourself to studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to uphold the truth of the Gospel against error – not to be well equipped for business dealings and office management. The only office forming part of a priest’s life should be that of daily Matins and Evensong. As for ministerial dress, the requirement of Canon C27 is that cleric’s apparel should be a sign and mark of his holy calling removable only for recreation and other justifiable reasons – nothing there about uniforms, being on duty or not nor, for that matter, plastic inserts. And stipends, as all should know, are just that – a very modest allowance, funded in part by the historic endowments of our parishes and brought up to a certain level by the fees we parishes bring in for the diocese. But – save for tax purposes – nothing is earned; the stipend is not remuneration for meeting your performance targets.

In short, many have abandoned the ontological in favour of the functionalist. To say we need to be ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ can sound like an utopian cliche from an outworn hippy. But to recover the ontological state does not mean idleness. Besides, a few more parsons out collecting butterflies for hours on end, would not necessarily prove anymore disastrous than attending the round of synodical committees, trying to ‘create structures’ in society, or seeing yourself as part of a voluntary agency of care.

The parson, after all, is just that: the person – someone at peace with his Creator, fellow creatures and creation.

Now I am not advocating no recreation – but just an abandonment of the arrogance of the Day Off. We should surely, serve as a foil to the intense pomposity of our age – in which people talk about developing interpersonal skills and having (meaningless) ‘quality time’. Part of the beauty of our calling is that we are not answerable for our day on a time costing sheet. How miserable are those who speak about the ‘maximum effective time’ for a pastoral visit. What is wrong with spending an hour and a half with an elderly widowed parishioner discussing apparent trivia?

Let us leave the ninety-nine papers about strategies and resources in the wastepaper wilderness and go off, instead, in search of the lost soul on whom we may lavish some of God’s extravagance.

Of course there will be workaholics and green-behind-the-ears curates misused by nasty ogres of ‘training’ incumbents (there we go again ‘training’ – what a borrowed notion!) But a Day Off will not put matters right. What takes place Saturday to Thursday is more significant. There will always be workaholics, just as there will always be adulterous clerics. And of course there are times which are hectic and frenetic – times which require us to develop our own particular lines of defence and to adopt ingenuous ways to fend off the occasional manipulative and over-demanding parishioner.

But people, life – and especially death – and even the Church fasts and feast will not all respect our Rector’s Friday.

Jonathan Redvers Harris is the Vicar of Houghton Regis