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I'm Just A Layperson 1: Understanding

Updated: May 19, 2023

It is becoming apparent that in the face of current problems in the Church, there is perhaps greater militancy amongst lay people than clergy. That greater militancy has different causes, reasons and potential range of expressions. This is the first blog in a series seeking to investigate that phenomenon and how it might be used to best build up the Body of Christ.

The posts are aimed at what lay people can do to help but are therefore hopefully of interest to clergy, many of whom, presently feel they need all the help they can get.

It hardly needs to be said that it is often very difficult for clergy to leave the Church of England. However serious matters of conscience and deep doctrinal error may be that remains unaffected. This first post seeks to better understand the difficulties faced by clergy that are not usually faced, at least to any great extent, by laity.

The ties of buildings, vicarages and stipends, the needs of families for income, accommodation and education, the needs of churches for secure and useful spaces in which to meet are obvious but are added to by myriad other factors.

Betrayed by the Institution

As well as all the practical and financial issues, there is an all but inevitable sense of betrayal by an institution to which many have devoted, and therefore entrusted, their lives. It isn’t hard to sum-up: in the apposite question, “Why should I leave when I’ve not changed”.

To hear clergy say they love the Church of England is not unique to them, but it is common and true. And surely the grief, the bereavement, the mental torment, the sense of guilt and abandonment of duty involved in clergy even contemplating the prospect of leaving the Canterbury-aligned structures is greater for long-serving clergy, or those with obligations to several dependants, than for even the most die-hard member of the laity.

Infantilised by the Institution

The institutional nature of the Church of England is itself a particular issue - because too often the institution, to a greater or lesser extent, unnecessarily infantilises its clergy. It does this in all manner of ways throughout a lifetime of ministry.

At its most basic, the Church can play a large part at any one juncture, in determining where in the country clergy live and the way they live there.

Dependent for finance

The approach to stipends - too low to secure mortgages but low enough (hitherto) to secure tax credits manifest two forms of this potential lack of independence.

Clergy enjoy the increasingly precious rarity of a defined benefit pension scheme- but not one that delivers the security hoped for, or in fact promised. Options for a sensible retirement at a sensible time become ever fewer and look ever more like working until 70, or the mooted 75, 'house for duty', or a 'retirement job' on a supermarket checkout.

Dependent for housing

Accommodation - long-term housing security compromised via short-term unaffordability helps no one. And repairs, insurance, Council Tax etc paid for in a way that disconnects clergy from most parishioners’ everyday experience does likewise.

Deprived of autonomy

The list of other factors that incrementally but not subtly create an unhealthy dependency and deprive clergy of autonomy is endless.

But here's a start.

Expecting spouses to be (part-time) free church-workers not careerists. Encouraging ordinands to sell houses. The increasing centralisation of clergy funding away from parishes. Funded and quasi-monastic training creating a sense of indebtedness by way of a two-or-three-year separation from the norms of daily life. Suspension of livings, failed episcopacy, the car-crash of the CDM, threats of Pastoral Reorganisations, bypassing Synodical government.

All this, and more, is potentially infantilising not least because many clergy do not want things to be this way. But, fine, grown, proven, competent adults that they are, they find themselves unable to change or even influence it much. That is not how most adults live.

Hyper-specialised by the Institution

Institutionalisation comes in another form too. One of the great strengths of the Church of England is also one of its great weaknesses. Day-to-day things are designed essentially to change as little as possible and, indeed resistance to too much change is almost the norm. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all - evolution, and the “accumulated wisdom of the ages”, might well be preferable to revolution or endless re-invention. It means things are often done very well. Routines are honed over the years, errors learnt from, and successes built upon. The programme to which people are used and the events that they expect are delivered with aplomb. Refined and efficient processes are handed down from one incumbent to the next or drummed into the training curate. It all adds to the quality of a church’s life and activities - most of all, perhaps in the style and conduct of services, occasional offices, civic events, 'set-pieces' etc.

The downside, however, is the danger of individual clergy (and individual churches) becoming extremely good at a limited range of things. For all the benefits of continuity, ministry in the Church of England may well not leave a great deal of space for imagination, experimentation, innovation or risk-taking. Or the types of people who do those things. Put simply, most parishes are much, much more likely to be resistant to change than constantly looking to a different future.

In all this it is not so much that clergy become “de-skilled” but that their skills become hyper-specialised.

This has twin-effects:

Change becomes unimaginable

Many clergy, probably even more than laity, for the ultimate responsibility is the former's, find the whole idea of doing ministry in an entirely different way to that which they have come to excel at over years, or even decades, simply unimaginable. Again, there may be something of, “Why should I?”, in that - they’ve been more than faithful to their calling, should that not be enough? This closes down the options for re-thinking church and ministry outside the Church of England.

Change becomes more difficult

Worse is the combination between being unwillingly infantilised and having a hyper-honed skillset. This can leave clergy trapped in dependency precisely because the church has produced in them excellent skills which it values as highly as the world of secular work absolutely does not.

And, at the potential expense of sounding like a 'wet weekend', there is a third strand of problems.

Personalisation enabled by the Institution

For good reasons clergy, called to Church of England ministry of the sort described here, are rarely drawn from the ranks of the flint-headed warriors, controversialists, entrepreneurs, bohemians, artists and adventurers. Not many clergy are 'change-junkies.' Instead, most are typically fairly conflict averse, agreeable, patient, organised types, happy at their desks and with their books, even solitary, and so well-suited to their calling. And inevitably these traits are often associated with those comfortable in other institutions, not least educational ones. (Meaning few clergy therefore have 'a trade' to fall back on). The work of clergy is highly personalised - it fits around them, and their character traits - and they can shape it accordingly.

A life that is unwillingly infantilised, hyper-specialised and highly personalised is not the ideal starting point for starting over.

To expect clergy to be able to handle all this alone, or largely alone, is clearly too much to ask. For sure, some will have some combination of resolve, resilience, resources and recklessness required, but not many.

Perhaps the first step to being a helpful, if militant, lay person is to understand these things.


Want to know more?

'On The Edge' gatherings offer those considering a future outside the Canterbury-aligned structures (CofE, CinW, SEC etc) 24 hours away to consider the pastoral and practical implications of staying and leaving in a confidential setting.

In the past, most of those attending 'On the Edge' have been clergy but Anglican Futures recognise the vital role laity play (sometimes supporting clergy as they prepare to leave and sometimes forming new congregations, who in time will seek a vicar).

So, to equip laity in that task Anglican Futures is planning a lay-focused

'On The Edge' this summer.

To maintain confidentiality dates and venues are not publicised

If you think this is just what you, or someone you know, might need

Contact us:

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