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Synod: Group to be set up to draft well-being Act of Synod

14 July 2017

Sam Atkins

Bishops suffer too: the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin (centre) in conversation with the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman

Bishops suffer too: the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin (centre) in conversation with the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardm...

A COVENANT for clergy well-being could be established after a vote by the General Synod on Sunday evening. The move follows work by the House of Clergy, and was introduced by the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler (Southwark).

He explained that he had been “taken aback” by the number of people who had told him: “It’s about time we started looking at this,” and “You don’t realise how important this is to the Church.”

The proposal for the Covenant was not “special pleading” for the clergy, he said, “but a recognition that everyone in the Church wants the Church to thrive, and that, as long as God calls women and men to be bishops, priests, and deacons in the Church of England, those called are helped to help themselves, properly supported by the people around them.”

He said that the report from the House of Clergy on well-being (GS 2072) “doesn’t duck the tough love that every ordained minister needs to face up to, along with all of the baptised: that we have responsibility for our own well-being.

SAM ATKINSA “healthy Church”: left: Canon Simon Butler said that clergy were not looking for an indulgent mother but for the chance to live well

“The House of Clergy does not believe we should infantilise the clergy in a culture of dependency, with Mother Church as a rather over-indulgent parent who never lets their child grow up and can easily be blamed for all our woes.

“Instead, we invite the whole Church to begin a process of imagining what a healthy Church looks like for the well-being of its ministers, and the role each of us plays in that, be we an ordained minister, a member of a local church or PCC, a diocesan officer, an archdeacon, a bishop, a member of the Archbishops’ Council.”

Canon Butler said that he wanted to hear from bishops in the debate, as they had “a particular duty to model care to others”, he said. “But the question might be fairly asked as to how bishops are seen to receive care from the Church. How might you be seen to live well?”

He was also, “most of all”, looking to hear from the laity, “who bring a vast range of professional, human, lived experience from a whole range of backgrounds”, he said. “Some of the laity have professional experience of working in the field of well-being, medical, psychological, and otherwise. Other members of the House [of Laity] will have listened to, cared for, and supported many clergy in times of joy and struggle, faith and doubt.”

The House of Clergy envisaged the Covenant in its final form as being an Act of Synod, “the strongest statement of commitment we have to a course of action which does not require Measure or Canon”. An Act of Synod had to be transmitted to diocesan synods, he said, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York “have the power to give directions to diocesan synods, which could include a requirement to debate and consider matters of clergy well-being at regular intervals”.

Dr Yvonne Warren (Coventry) said one of the main issues was the decreasing number of clergy, which meant that priests in rural areas were often looking after seven or even ten churches. Renewal and Reform and all its encouraging changes would mean nothing if there was not also deep care for the Church’s workforce. “In my work as a therapist, I’m finding many clergy are burnt out, many suffer from mental-health issues, and families who are the end of their tether,” she said. It was important to include the laity in any further work on clergy well-being.

Canon Thomas Woodhouse (Salisbury) told the Synod of the experience of his former parish in Royal Wootton Bassett, which threw itself into caring for the Forces and their families while soldiers killed in Afghanistan were being repatriated between 2007 and 2011 through the town.

“People were made to think more deeply about their relationship with the armed forces. A story was lived out, of support and encouragement.” The Military Covenant became a “focus of good practice” and a shared responsibility for the whole town; the Church needed to do something similar with a clergy covenant.

Canon Rebecca Swyer (Chichester) spoke of her diocese’s efforts to foster clergy well-being, through a dynamic pastoral-care policy online and a full-time pastoral-care adviser. Clergy could refer themselves confidentially to the adviser and meet in a neutral non-diocesan building, which was vital. “The Ordinal says you cannot bear the weight of this calling on your own strength,” Canon Swyer said. “Ordained ministry brings the greatest joy, but also sacrifice, guilt, and stress.”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, spoke candidly about the burden of being a bishop, which often felt like carrying a “heavy weight” on your own in quite a “lonely” ministry. As a bishop, he aspired to be a “vicar for the vicars”, but this was not always possible. The report freed bishops from feeling guilty for not being able to care for their clergy as much as they would like to, he said.

Prebendary Simon Cawdell (Hereford) said that in his consultations clergy had told him that they were keen for the national Church to encourage dioceses to take steps towards better practice. They also told him that the clergy covenant, while a good idea, should not simply become a Measure of the Synod, so that the Church could feel it had done something, but an active process. As clergy were not the only profession exploring resilience training, maybe there were opportunities for cross-training with doctors or police officers also.

Josile Munro (London) spoke as someone who had been involved in recruiting clergy. First, clergy well-being should start from the interview and selection process, she said. “We must be better at recruiting clergy, ensuring a better fit between parish, experience, competency, and potential.”

Second, resources should be available to help clergy and lay people prioritise, to avoid burnout and address conflict. Third, could there be a 24-hour confidential helpline? “I understand it would be costly, but failures of appointments and burnout are also costly.”

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) spoke about vulnerability. The report spoke of aiming for “happy, fulfilled, effective clergy”, and this was “right and proper”, but there were many clergy who, “as a consequence of their discipleship, are suffering, or have suffered”. He worried that, “because of our aims and hopes and models, those who are vulnerable, who are suffering for the sake of Christ, may not get their due.”

He explained: “Vulnerability which issues under suffering is actually a paradigmatic case of where the presence of Christ is.” He reminded the Synod that “when one ministers to someone suffering there Christ is ministering to you.” It needed to avoid “being condescending” or having “images of the priest as superman”, which was an “inappropriate model”.

On the subject of isolated clergy, he thought of those on estates, who should not be described as “disengaged”. There were “many great clergy who are not being properly recognised in this report”.

The Revd Zoe Heming (Lichfield) suggested that this topic was “one of those Pandora’s boxes we are afraid to open because of what might jump out. We might get an overwhelming problem we cannot fix.” She sought to tell stories that might make the Synod feel “a bit braver”.

Disabled people “can teach us something as we already know we cannot do it all”. She had interviewed disabled people in her diocese, including a woman who had become paraplegic about ten years after her ordination. Her ministry had grown rather than shrunk, partly through a “powerful sacramental witness to the gorgeous body of Christ, which is most gorgeous when interdependent and working together. . . Pretending to be strong is not what priests are called to do. . . We can’t afford not to take the lid off this box.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that “the hardest work I have ever done, and the most stressful, was as a parish priest, mainly as it was isolated, insatiably demanding, and I was, on the whole, working without colleagues. That wears people down.”

Yet “sometimes one’s colleagues can add to the stress. . . You can find yourself in a place with lots of colleagues, and you would dearly love a hermitage.” National events could cause stress for the clergy, he said, and referred to the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.

“Clergy in Manchester and London have had enormous stress, which will have consequences over the next few years, as a result of what they have had to go through in dealing with issues of terrorism.” The Church, “often out of the best intentions, but not always entirely wisely, adds minefields that line our path . . . Issues around safeguarding — what might come up and what people might be accused of — can be a huge worry and concern.”

Some clergy inherited a parish or chaplaincy with a “sad history which is a constant threat”. The resources available for clergy well-being could be “very limited”, he said.

“My own experience in dealing with people who may have gone wrong is the CDM process has often contributed very, very badly indeed to their well-being. The process has been the punishment, not the outcome.” This received a “Hear, hear”.

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield) was reminded of working with the National Association of Head Teachers. “Stress was evident to me daily, and unfortunately some broke down, and some even were driven to take their own lives. A similar picture can be dawn for our clergy.” The laity must pray for their clergy, she said.

Mary Bucknall (Deaf Anglicans Together) asked that the report make specific reference to including deaf and disabled clergy on the working group, “to ensure they are not forgotten or ignored. It is a question of justice and fairness for all.” Deaf clergy had particular needs: “they can easily get isolated, working by themselves without support . . . This is a special danger for profoundly deaf people as they cannot hear conversations without support. It can lead to depression and mental-health issues if it is unaddressed. It can be truly terrible.”

Deaf clergy sometimes found it hard to ask for help, owing to their fear of not being able to communicate, and often struggled on alone. “They need more support and more time. . . Deaf clergy also have great difficulty accessing welfare support networks, as they cannot easily pick up the phone and talk.” They had to travel further afield to find a counsellor or spiritual director.

Flourishing as a human being was a good thing, the Revd Bill Braviner (Durham) said. The need for well-being applied to the whole people of God, and beyond — including guide dogs, he joked. The report recognised that obligations on the clergy had been codified, and now it was time to codify the response to clergy and others.

He had been sick for two years because of a lack of clergy well-being. He sought to model mutual care and independence, and had come across much evidence that much more work needed to be done. Clergy well-being needed to be a “top priority”.

Dr Simon Clift (Winchester) said that, as an occupational therapist, he welcomed the report. He drew the Synod’s attention to recent surveys that suggested that the vast majority of the clergy were engaged in their ministry, and did not burn out, and that the clergy were similar to other professions. But was that enough, he asked, in the light of recent events?

Clerics needed the capacity to respond in a crisis, and these responsibilities had to be shared between the diocese and bishop. “The whole Church must play a part in promoting the health of the clergy,” he said, “for the health of wider society.”

Carol Wolstenholme (Newcastle) supported the intentions of the report, and was committed to a Church “reimagining ministry and culture”, including of the part played by lay people. Somehow they had slipped out of the report, she said. If the motion was accepted, could the working group change the title to “ministry well-being”, or something similar, to make it more inclusive, and take into account lay ministers, who had comparable stresses?

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, said that the issue was essential to sustaining the ministry of all God’s people, particularly during an innovative and exciting season of reform and renewal. The clergy might find it difficult to accept their weaknesses and seek support and help. He had often wished to speak to people sooner about his work. In his experience, when a leader had been willing to speak about hope through disappointment and personal failure, he had been encouraged.

Canon Butler apologised for the failure to meet the needs of deaf and disabled clergy. The House of Clergy would meet tomorrow to begin two years’ work, which, he assured the Synod, would not be a “top-down” process, but an opportunity to be vulnerable witjh one another.

The motion was carried. It read:


That this Synod:

(a) welcome and support the proposal to establish a Covenant for Clergy Wellbeing as laid out in GS 2072; and

(b) invite the Appointments Committee to appoint a Clergy Wellbeing Working Group to bring proposals for such a Covenant back to this Synod by July 2019.

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