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Study reveals personal cost of life in the priesthood

03 May 2013


A STUDY of the lives of Church of England clergy has revealed the high personal cost of life in the parsonage.

In Managing Clergy Lives, carried out by the Bishop of Brechin, Dr Nigel Peyton, and Dr Caroline Gatrell, of Lancaster Management School, clergy were asked about the boundaries between their public and private lives. Rural or area deans were chosen for the study, and 46 were interviewed in depth.

Clergy told stories of being constantly interrupted. Julian, working on his car in the driveway, said that he "struggles for the polite way of saying 'Sod off, then'" when people turned up on his day off. Others resorted to deception: one vicar and his wife pretended to be away from home to get some privacy.

Others told of the tension of living in "tied" housing. Philip told how he opened up the vicarage for "hunger lunches", and found parishioners helping themselves to food from the cupboard. "They don't knock: they just come straight in. They'll rifle through the kitchen cupboards to get the stuff ready for lunch without asking."

Dr Gatrell said that what she found "extraordinary" was the staying power of clergy. From the moment of ordination, they saw themselves as changed. "Priesthood is seen by parish clergy to be lifelong, and clergy do not hang up their cassocks, but reinvent themselves as retired priests until death alone intervenes."

Although the study said that priests considered it a "privilege to be ordained and to serve God", those who did paid "a high and a very personal price", it found. This price was most frequently paid by clergy in their personal lives.

One single woman rural dean told how ordination had cut off the path to marriage and children: "Now I have got to 44, and I've realised that, you know, it is too late for children, and, statistically speaking, my chances of marriage aren't that high; so that's pretty much it. Yes, that is my biggest regret. . . I wouldn't have done anything differently, but it's a high price for me."

The report said that clergy "were possibly the last remaining professional group who are so constrained, and expected to lead exemplary lives within certain boundaries defined by the Church and its teaching". The boundaries affected "innermost thoughts and attitudes".

The restrictions also had an impact on the spouse and family. Some husbands and wives resented the extra duties imposed on them as the priest's spouse, and the fact that their lives were lived in full view of the parish.

But, despite the pressures, the study found just one example of someone whose ministry was at risk, and researchers were surprised at the low turnover of clergy.

Dr Peyton said: "Being a priest is like being a monarch: you can't resign, and your job is your life. You must always be available to people. As the vicar in the very accurate TV sitcom Rev said, there is no such thing as a day off when you are a vicar. You do not have the same opportunities or freedom as other people, and this does entail sacrifices."

Managing Clergy Lives: Obedience, sacrifice, intimacy, by Nigel Peyton and Caroline Gatrell, is published by Bloomsbury at £55 ( Church times Bookshop £49.50).

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