CAREER OR COMMITMENT?
Leslie Chadd believes that there has been an unfortunate change in attitude
Last summer I had a gorgeous holiday in Sutherland, looking after three church centres of the Scottish Episcopal Church, each of them 25 miles from the next. It meant three Masses each Sunday and a round trip of 75 miles. I enjoyed it hugely and it meant that a chum of mine could have a holiday. They cant afford a full-time priest there, so, in addition to his priestly work-load he looks after the local pharmacy from Monday to Saturday, with a half-day off on Wednesday which he often uses for house-bound Communions.
I left there full of admiration for the degree of sacrificial commitment called for by that sort of priestly life all the year round. I also voiced the conviction that for many youngish priests nowadays such a lifestyle, even for a month or two, would put them flat on their backs pleading overwork in no time. Even to have done it for a short locum as I did would have had them demanding six weeks proper holiday to recover from it.
I was reminded of this recently by the Archbishop of York's remarks at a commissioning of Church Army officers, in which he deplored the lack of commitment and sacrifice in some of today's priests. I know that my comments on that will be written off by some as the mere geriatric griping of clergymen long past their best-before date, that things ain't what they used to be, but that doesn't alter the fact that they ain't.
In some ways things are much better than they used to be. Priests no longer have to pay all their working expenses out of a meagre salary. With all the perks they are not at all badly paid and can now expect a decent standard of housing. But in other ways things are much worse, perhaps because the pendulum has swung too far and created an I-must- have mentality which soon flushes the ideals of sacrifice and commitment down the drain. They cant picture a time when they would have had to pay all their own expenses of work and moving, transport, stationery, postage and all the rest. If the parish needed a typewriter even, the priest provided it.
We didn't complain; well, not much apart from the perennial bind about the Parsonages Board. Perhaps because we accepted, more or less, that that was how things were, so possibly on the basis of Natural Selection, the church got priests who were no strangers to the ideals of sacrifice and commitment. If we were married our families shared in it too, brought up to it, you might say. My wife and 1 will never forget how, in two parsonages, we had to position the childrens beds carefully at night so that they wouldn't get showered through a leaky roof. And if father couldn't take them out on his day off because of a funeral, well, that was the way of it. They knew that they came second, but it didn't seem to do them much harm. Why should it ? Second place to God is no bad place to be.
But nowadays its very different. Its all about demands, what's in it for me. I demand Space to be Myself etc. So maximise expenses, grants for this or that, holidays, time, off, and minimise hours of work. Play your cards right and you can skim off a tidy sum in grants when you move jobs. A few years back I came across four priests who were picking up #200 a year just for meeting to study Faith in the City and as a result of some daft decision in General Synod, which, along with all the rest, the long-suffering laity have to pay for. Persuade them to turn a blind eye and hope the Archdeacon is either not looking or up to the same dodges and you can take nine or ten weeks holiday a year. And how on earth in those far off days did we ever manage without Sabbaticals on full pay? Possibly because no one had thought to invent Stress-Related Illness or Breakdown Through Overwork, and even perhaps because we hadn't trashed Prayer, Daily Office and Meditation, the Daily Eucharist and theological study.
Who is to blame? Take your pick. Mine would fall on those shining ones in the Upper Management of the Church who, over the years, have been the natural predators on priesthood, reducing it to the shrink-packed career characterised by systems of appraisal, job-descriptions,
contracts of service and hours of work. Priesthood as a soft option, a cushy career, notable mostly for its sermonising insistence on the need for the laity to do more and pay more so that the clergy can do less and have more time off recovering from the strain of doing it. I met a suffragan bishop to whom I was telling the tale of my experience in Sutherland and my admiration for that priest there, only to get a very sharp episcopal put down. I don't approve of that at all, he chirruped. I always tell my priests that they mustn't work too hard. The Archbishop of York should not be at all surprised that some young priests come to him laying out their demands and desiderata.
Of course there are wonderful exceptions, thank God. Did you know that there are still some young priests around who will give up their day off to take a funeral or do a bereavement visit? There are those still who visit the sick, the hospitals and nursing homes, the housebound, spending and being spent in the Masters service. There are those who are honest enough to take no more holiday time-off than they are entitled to, though they must at times feel a twinge of envy for those who get away with nine or ten weeks off a year, and with no one at management level to question it. But then, such priests know the meaning of priesthood, of sacrificial commitment. Like the rest they all get a penny a day at the end of the day but they don't complain about that, for the work is its own reward, out of this worlds reckoning and on which the career clergymen, the give-me demanders miss out. But such real priests are an endangered species, will bishops please take note? If we lose them the church and the world will be markedly poorer for the loss. Leslie Chadd was vicar of SS. Peter and Paul, Fareham, in the diocese of Portsmouth until retirement in 1992
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