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23 June 2023

Why vicars are revolting

Front-line clergy are turning against an increasingly managerial Church of England.

By Fergus Butler-Gallie

“You don’t go into it for the money do you?” People feel they can be personal (read, rude) with clergy, and say this sort of thing all the time. So the news this week that Church of England vicars represented by the union Unite have demanded a 9.5 per cent increase in their pay will have raised some eyebrows.

While it is true that being a vicar is not a way to get on the rich list – we’re a long way from the days of Bishop William Van Mildert of Durham, one of the richest men in England in the early 19th century – clergy don’t have such a bad lot, especially compared to many people in the communities they work with. A stable income (normally between about £25,000 and £29,000 a year) and a roof over your head is a luxury for some people to whom a parish priest ministers. It is not only very difficult for a vicar to look someone in a food-bank queue in the eye and moan about their pay, it’s morally wrong.

So why are vicars joining doctors and teachers in demanding a pay rise? The answer is that this shouldn’t be viewed as just another pay dispute but part of a wider disconnect between an increasingly centralised and managerial Church and its front-line workers.

One side takes the view that the necessary running of the CofE, as well as the mission of God, is hindered by “limiting factors”, aka the clergy, stuck in a version of Christendom long dead. For the other, it is clear that a bloated managerial class is sucking the life out of the ordinary people of God on the ground. There are now two Churches of England, and each is looking at the decline in the number of practising Christians and saying to the other “those census stats ain’t big enough for the both of us”. The skirmish over pay should be seen in the context of mutual mistrust around management.

As ever with the Church, dogmatics and pragmatics are hard to prise apart from one another. Part of this is down to competing theologies of priesthood. There are almost as many ideas about what it means to be ordained as there are ministers in the CofE. Historically, that has been part of its strength. But with money getting tighter, the once expansive room for generous orthodoxy has been resolutely downsized.

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Put another way: traditional ministry – a vicar in a parish – costs money. You can’t escape that, whether your idea of priesthood is a squarson (a landlord-clergyman; a squire and a parson) as a plump and welcoming master of the house, or doe-eyed curates rattling round a great urban rectory, or a minister straight out of the Boden catalogue beaming at the school gates as he collects his five Biblically named children. And despite having its primary asset fund valued at £10.1bn two years ago, the Church is less willing to subsidise parishes.

[See also: When will the Church of England get the picture on same-sex marriage?]

Partly, that’s because it argues the parish system doesn’t work. Decline has been the norm in the CofE for well over half a century: we must try new things, goes the rallying cry. That the places where communities are growing are those with full-time paid clergy rather puts a hole in this argument but it remains the “full steam ahead” policy in many parts of the Church. In the absence of parish vicars, bishops and managers are increasingly asking lay people to do the jobs clergy used to do: running church buildings, taking certain services, being present in communities. There is much theological window dressing around “liberating the whole people of God into ministry”, but everybody knows the real reason: they can be asked to do it for free.

The way clergy are employed – or, as is actually the case not employed – is part of this too. Clergy have stipends but not salaries; they have no set working hours, vague guidelines on leave and sickness, and owe an oath of allegiance to the bishop. In the past this was balanced out by giving them the freehold of a parish and allowing them a share in the tithes and collections thereof. Poorer parishes were subsidised courtesy of central funds. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries a sort of compromise with modernity was reached in the form of “Common Tenure”. This has not proved a success and the excesses of management culture have snuck into the CofE just as they go out of fashion elsewhere.

Bishops can and do weaponise employment status, protecting those they favour with gardening or sick leave on full pay, while ejecting those who don’t toe the line from their homes and livelihoods. As such, parish clergy often find themselves in the worst of both worlds, stuck between the old and the new, suffering from the demands of traditional duties without the attendant privileges, and under the thumb of contemporary managerialism without its safeguards: subservient to whims ancient and modern.

Having worked recently in a secular context with proper employment policies, structures and procedures, the difference is staggering. I don’t think people in other modes of employment would believe how the Church works. So there is an impasse: to grant full modern employment rights would be impractical given the unique nature of the job (“no dying on Thursdays, or the vicar charges overtime”), but to restore ancient rights and assets would involve a massive divestment of power and money from the centre. Not only is the centre unwilling to do that for obvious reasons, but much of the power and money is now gone. Jesus Christ might have taught that “tomorrow will take care of itself”, but in the context of this power, and with ministry increasingly done via temporary appointments, the request for more pay might be best seen as an attempt to find some security for when things go wrong rather than a desire for a cushtier lifestyle here and now. After all, as He also said, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”.

[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]

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