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Stressed-out Anglican priests turn to trade unions for support

People hug after the Hereford Cathedral Deacons Ordination in July 2017, in a scene from the show “A Vicar’s Life.” Photo by Richard Weaver

LONDON (RNS) — The archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, was an oil executive who helped run a major corporation before he became a parish priest.

The latter job was unquestionably the most stressful he ever had, Justin Welby has said.

“It was isolated, insatiably demanding, and I was, on the whole, working without close colleagues.” The role is, “for many, quite overwhelming and exhausting,” he said.

This kind of pressure may well explain why increasing numbers of his priests in the Church of England are seeking help outside the church for their problems. Faced with demanding congregations, rarely being off duty, piles of paperwork and disciplinary procedures they often feel are unfair, priests are turning instead to trade unions for support.

According to one of Britain’s largest unions, Unite, there has been a rapid increase in the past year in the number of Anglican parish priests, or vicars, joining its specialist faith worker branch. Almost 1,500 priests plus a few rabbis and imams joined the union last year — an increase of 16 percent in 12 months.

The Anglican vicars are joining despite not having the usual British employment rights, because they are termed “officeholders” and cannot take their complaints to an employment tribunal. And while they cannot pursue rights they don’t have as members of Unite, they can seek counsel and support there from others familiar with their travails.

According to the Rev. Peter Hobson, who is head of the priests’ Unite branch, Church of England Clergy Advocates, vicars are turning to the union because they are under pressure from all sides — from the people in the pews and from their bishops.

“Although it is a vocation, it is also a very difficult role,” Hobson said.

“The workload is enormous. In a consumeristic world, people expect you to deal with their needs instantly, and the bishop, while he is a pastoral figure, is also managerial. And the managerial approach is coming more and more to the fore,” he said.

Hobson said this more managerial approach makes relationships between clergy and bishops more difficult, and clergy consequently need more advice and someone “on their side,” as it were, from outside the church when there are tensions over the way priests are fulfilling their role. This is where a trade union such as Unite steps in.

While the pressures of being a priest in city centers are considerable, with churches coping with transient populations, it is the rural vicars who are facing the toughest times, according to Hobson.

“We’re in a post-Christendom world and in rural areas, more and more benefices are being run by one priest,” he said.

His words are borne out by a major six-part television documentary series starting this week on British television. Called “A Vicar’s Life,” it focuses on the work of four priests in the Diocese of Herefordshire — the most rural part of England, next to the Welsh border — and reveals vicars, despite working in a seemingly peaceful, idyllic rural Britain, struggling to cope with the pressures of their roles.

Many are responsible for six parishes each and travel great distances to minister to their congregations. The documentary also highlights the problems of homelessness, unemployment and loneliness in the English countryside, with many people turning to the church for help after considerable cuts to government services.

The Rev. Matthew Cashmore in “A Vicar’s Life.” Photo by Richard Weaver

One of the curates featured in the documentary, the Rev. Matthew Cashmore, who was until recently a publishing executive, has found the role of priest to be highly demanding.

“The church is rediscovering its role and is offering unconditional love to people in a practical way,” he said, acknowledging that this is vital but puts considerable pressure on the clergy.

Another priest in Hereford Diocese but not featured in the TV series is Rector Sarah Jones, who also came into the church after a career in industry and who is now in charge of three benefices in the picturesque town of Ross-on-Wye.

“I can honestly say that this is the toughest role I have ever had,” she said. While vicars work a six-day week, she said that they are “always on call.”

“People nowadays expect and demand a quick response if they contact you. And there are some people who seem to feel free to express their anger to clergy in a way they would never do to someone else. They think we should turn the other cheek.”

Jones agrees that rural priests in particular have a very stressful life.

“Most of us find that we do our best pastoral work when we are in tune with a particular community. But if you have five or six communities to look after, it becomes very hard.”

She is one of the Anglican clergy who has joined the Unite union, finding it reassuring to have extra support in the background.

While she believes that bishops step in effectively when one of their clergy has a clear crisis, she fears that “the system is such that people are too busy to give pastoral care on an ongoing basis.”

But as rector, Jones finds one thing above all helps. “The rhythm of prayer and the Scriptures is the greatest help there is in handling stress.”

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Catherine Pepinster

8 Comments

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  • “The Anglican vicars are joining despite not having the usual British employment rights, because they are termed “officeholders” and cannot take their complaints to an employment tribunal.”

    It annoyed my late father intensely that he had to pay his National Insurance as though he were self-employed despite being a minor part of a controlling hierarchical structure and living (without security) in a “tied house”.

    How much of this is just another bit of hand-wringing by those who imagine the minor reductions in their traditionally privileged lives to be akin to persecution? Many people have stressful jobs – the advice is always talk about it and, if necessary, move on. I suppose the difference is that people in non-religious sales/local government/project management/medicine/armed forces/blue-light services etc etc. etc. don’t have the added problem of believing that a vengeful deity is expecting them to persist with their “calling”.

  • The CE needs to create Pastoral Teams, made up of dedicated priests, deacons and lay people, all with equality. Members would need formal training and certification. The church could set up a Volunteer Corps where teams of 2 to 4 will be sent to live with a rural priest and help him/her out in specific ways. Trained people could volunteer for 1-3 years. Volunteers would get housing, a stipend, a card that would give them discounts at local and national retailers, and a musteriing out bonus based on length of service. Priests are not meant to be alone.

  • I wonder where these stipends and bonuses would come from. How would retailers be persuaded to give away the discounts your propose? Who would pay for their housing? Would people be willing to volunteer? I think this is a nice idea but I question how realistic it is.

  • I get that you’re angry, but I think it’s more the expectations of the members of the multiple flocks being pastored that are the issue rather than a hypothetical clerical fear of a vengeful deity — along with how financially stretched the church is. Back in the day every one of those churches would have its own clergy. It’s due to a lack of funding and the small size of the pool of people being considered to have an acceptable call to orders which is requiring clergy to serve multiple parishes simultaneously.

  • Right after Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Clergy in the US formed the Federation of Catholic Clergy in an attempt to address the issues the clergy at that time ! It is still in effect ! The Federation is also meant to be a a forum for dialogue with the American bishops on the issues concerning the clergy!

  • I’m not sure that i’m angry.

    As to the CofE’s situation, it’s a classic end of brand life story. Many retailers have had the same experience.

    – the product sells and the profits finance further shop openings until there is a branch in just about every High Street. The profits continue to grow and the shareholders start to get greedy. New management is appointed that will change the owner/worker and owner/customer balances in favour of the owners while being handsomely rewarded for their short-termism. The prices go higher and higher, the investment in staff and premises is reduced, the product is vulnerable to new thinking in the market place and other businesses which spot the trends and react rapidly. Customer base reduces and ages – products which appeal to the remaining base don’t attract enough new customers but attempts to change are clumsy, halfhearted and divisive driving away more existing customers than the number of new supporters gained.

    Financial meltdown – store closures – staff and local management layoffs – customer service extinguished. A few loyal employees desperately trying to reverse the trend whilst knowing that the brand’s credibility is terminally damaged yet unable to accept that their devotion is insufficient to stave off the inevitable.

  • From memory – the CofE made something over £300m from it’s annual return on investments in the last published data. They get my financial support through the tax system and government grants to maintain buildings they claim to be unable to support and there is nothing I, or you, can do about it. The church in our village is reduced to sending begging letters to residents in the monthly community magazine (to which they pay roughly what a normal business is charged for a one page advertisement and get 5, 6 or 7 pages of space) and relying on outsiders to fill a pew/ a Direct Debit.

    ABC has a background in business management – I suspect he knows what has to be done – presumably he is religiously unwilling and/or politically unable to do what is required.

  • The Catholic Church and other religious groups in the USA operate volunteer corps along these lines. In some cases the stipends and mustering out bonuses have come form AneriCorps. The CE already has some similar corps. The UK could use a volunteer corps similar to AmeriCorps (not confined to church organizations).

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