Letters to the Editor

by
24 March 2017

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Ordinands, the housing ladder, and the Church’s care for the clergy

 

From the Bishop of Brechin
Sir, — Tim Wyatt’s investigation into historic cases of ordinand house sales (News, 10 March) revisits a worrying story.

When, as Archdeacon of Newark, I conducted research interviews with 46 Church of England parish clergy about their vocational experiences (Managing Clergy Lives: Obedience, Sacrifice, Intimacy, Bloomsbury, 2013; Books, 17 April 2014), five clergy gave painful accounts of the consequences of being told as ordinands to give up home ownership. If my sample was anywhere near representative, the legacy of resentment, corroding the morale of some clergy, is understandable.

In the 1980s, the implicit assumption was, “Don’t worry: the Church will look after you,” but, years on, some clergy feel that this sacrifice has not been honoured. One interviewee who began training in 1996 said: “Everybody gives up something, what we were encouraged to do . . . but I am feeling quite angry . . . and I am getting nothing back.”

This suggests that a claim made in the Church of England report Generosity and Sacrifice (2001) on clergy remuneration, that “ordinands have not been required to sell any house they owned to fund training since 1990” (page 78), may not be entirely correct. Clergy interviews about retirement and housing conducted for two Archbishops’ Council reports in 2007-08, and anecdotal evidence from Pensions Board staff, reveal similar distress to that reported now in the Church Times.

Several things strike me as remarkable about these accounts: first, the degree of uncritical compliance with the Church’s directions by some ordinands in past years; second, the arbitrary nature of contrary and non-independent financial advice across different dioceses; and, last, the hiddenness of this issue in church life.

Clergy undoubtedly live within an obedient and self-sacrificial ministerial culture worth affirming, and hindsight is telling. The mis-selling story leaves me, however, pastorally uncomfortable that the Church might have done better.

 

NIGEL BRECHIN
Bishops House
Dundee DD2 1QG

 

From Canon Roger Humphreys
Sir, — I was a Coventry ordinand in the late 1970s. I was given a conditional acceptance for ordination. The condition was that we should sell our four-bedroom detached home, using what remained after the mortgage was paid off to maintain my family during my training.

On retirement, we bought a house, using the “shared-equity” (CHARM!) scheme of the Pensions Board. We were able to put in 75 per cent of our own money, saved from family bequests. This scheme turned out to be a horrid experience. We were told by the Board that we were their “tenants” in spite of owning 75 per cent of the property. The Pensions Board took the majority of my pension, leaving us very little to live on. In the end, we decided to pay off the Board by taking out an interest-only mortgage. This cost much less each month than the Pensions Board took.

The parting shot from the Board was to have the house revalued (at our expense!). We had done improvements to the house; so its value had increased. The Board insisted on taking their 25 per cent share of the profit. They wanted thousands of pounds in return for not having spent one penny piece on the property over all the time we had it. We were indebted to our archdeacon, who helped us recoup some of the money. But we were still considerably out of pocket.

Having reaching the age of 70, I had to pay off the mortgage; so we took out equity release on our home. Three years later, this is where we are now, living off our pension and equity release.

I believe we answered God’s call for ordination and, after 35 years in full-time ministry, I have no regrets. It is, though, difficult to compare our lifestyle with friends of a similar age who were able to remain on the property ladder. I am glad that ordinands now are helped to keep their properties; I wish we had been, instead of being told to step off the ladder.

 

ROGER HUMPHREYS
12 The Pieces
Bampton, Oxon OX18 2JZ

 

From the Revd Bill Blakey
Sir, — Thank you for highlighting the problems of retirement housing for me and many contemporaries.

It was, in fact, the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry who said that we could not receive funding towards our personal living costs unless we sold our house. At the time (1979), no body took responsibility for supporting families, and such help as there was varied from diocese to diocese.

In 1981, I chaired the Association of Ordinands and Candidates for Ministry, and was part of a national study for the General Synod (the Birchall report) on the funding of training. The group managed to change the system of funding families, and this was resolved in the late 1980s by getting dioceses to give grants. Nothing has ever been done to help our group with the huge losses incurred through selling houses. Many have felt anger, insecurity, and so on.

Now we come to retirement, I have discovered another anomaly. Housing is available through CHARM for rental for those of us with low resources, but the rents now seem to be linked to the value of the property rather than our income, which, I understand, it used to be.

Thus, houses in the north and other cheaper areas have a lower rent than those in the south, where many of us have always worked and have families. Our pensions, however, do not vary according to how much the cost of living is where we need to live, as they are on a national scale.

It seems sad that, although many have given everything to serve the Church, more care and thought hasn’t been given to long-serving clergy, especially those whose spouses also gave up work to serve the Church.

 

BILL BLAKEY
St John’s Vicarage, 6 Burford Road
Carterton OX18 3AA

 

Sir, — Unlike Tony and Rupert, in Tim Wyatt’s article, I didn’t have to sell my house to pay for my training for the priesthood. I didn’t have a house. I lived with my parents until I went to university at 19. Three years at university and one year at theological college saw me ordained to the diaconate aged 23 in 1967 — 50 years ago. The state paid for the whole of my training.

Like Tony, however, we rent a house from the Pensions Board as part of their CHARM scheme. When I retired, we did not have enough money to be able to take out a mortgage with the Pensions Board; so the Board bought a house, which we rent.

The arrangement at the time, seven years ago, meant that the Board would take one third of our gross income; we would pay water rates and council tax. Our rent is just over £700 per month. Not long before I retired, the deal was a quarter of gross income and the Board paid the water rates and the council tax.

Like Tony, our rent should have reduced under the new review, to £400 per month. Like him, our rent will reduce by £60 a year until we finally reach that figure. In the mean time, we are paying almost £300 more than we should be.

I think most churchgoers would be horrified if they knew how the Church treats its retired clergy. We were not able to buy a house because my stipend was never enough to do so.

I would love to own the house we live in. It is small, but adequate for our needs. There are many things I would like to do to the house and garden, but am reluctant to do so, since it is not my house.

I’m not bitter. I just think it is a scandal that archbishops and their widows get higher pensions than bishops, that bishops and their widows get higher pensions than archdeacons, that archdeacons . . . — you get the point. And not only am I, after 42 years’ full-time ministry, having to rent a house, but my landlord knows that I am paying £300 a month more rent than I should be.

 

NAME & ADDRESS SUPPLIED

 

School’s stipulations for its visiting preacher

 

From the Revd John Thackray
Sir, — I fulfilled a preaching engagement in a school recently. When I arrived, the chaplain explained that, before I could be allowed to speak in the school chapel, I was required to sign a document, prepared by the school, in which I was to state that I would not “radicalise” the pupils by my sermon, and that it would be in accord with the school’s equality and diversity policies. (A copy of these was not provided.) Should any member of staff be disturbed by the content of my sermon, this document stated, my sermon would be immediately ended.

Being British and thus unwilling to make a fuss, I signed, and the headmaster allowed me to speak. In retrospect, I think I should have refused. The Christian gospel is radical; Jesus did discriminate between people, at least according to their actions and intentions.

Those who drew up this document probably had good intentions, but it is disquieting that in a Church of England school chapel an Anglican priest who holds his bishop’s licence is thus treated by the school authorities.

 

JOHN A. THACKRAY
68 Black Horse Lane
Ipswich, Suffolk IP1 2EF

 

Helping people discover the benefits of silence

 

From Mary Green, Canon Andrew Bryant, Professor Brian Thorne, and others
Sir, — We read with interest your back-page interview with Alison Woolley, director of Seeds of Silence (3 March).

For almost ten years, we have been promoting Silence in the Cathedral in Norwich, which was started in response to people who appreciate the space and silence of this massive, beautiful, and iconic building, seen by some as a beating heart in the centre of Norwich. We ensure that, as each season changes and in tune with the Christian liturgy, time is given to quietening the building, and, in a container of three minutes of music at either end of the hour, offer the space for people to use as they would like.

Over the years, some people will return to the same place every time, while others walk around the building, interacting with the space around them. Some people read; some people go out into the cloisters, or walk the labyrinth. Someone recently wondered about bringing their knitting. Once, someone simply lay on the vast flagstones, as if tangibly in touch with the many feet that had trodden on those stones before them. We have seen people writing or drawing or even, in that place of inner stillness, taking a photo. Often people are kneeling.

There is something else that we are offering in this silence: the opportunity to change our backdrop of life. By being in an environment that is predominantly silent, we hear the notes of music with crystal clarity, we hear words with fresh articulation, we hear birdsong such as we didn’t even know existed, we smell the perfume of a herb that lingers, and we notice the person who is crying. We are spiritually awakened not just to the voice or movement inside our heads, but also to what surrounds us. Our senses come back to life, revitalising our bodies, our hearts, and our souls.

Many people find sitting in silence “not for them”. Perhaps it is not for us to persuade them that it is. But it is for us to understand how silence and the sounds embedded in that silence can be uniquely nurtured, held, or transformed, and thus become an eternal source of wisdom. When we do that for ourselves, we will inadvertently do it for others.

 

MARY GREEN, ANDREW BRYANT, ANN REED, MARGARET RICHES, BRIAN THORNE, GUDRUN WARREN
Silence in the Cathedral Committee
c/o Oaklands Farmhouse
Strumpshaw
Norfolk NR13 4AG

 

In retrospect, a non-recommendation for training

 

Sir, — I read the article “A bumpy ride to training” (Vocations, 3 March) with interest, since I am the person who wrote the blog post after a non-recommendation for training at the Bishops’ Advisory Panel.

Yes, the huge disappointment at not being recommended affected my life for some time. I believe that I have now recovered from it, apart from a lingering regret for what might have been; but I have to say that my experience was not all negative.

Yes, the discernment process is hard and can be intrusive to an extent that you wonder why you bothered in the first place. It takes over your life, and your family life is involved, as your spouse or partner can be subjected to the same inquisition as the candidate if a divorce is involved. But the process is also hugely positive. It is a formative process: you are challenged in many ways.

You build solid relationships with the (assistant) diocesan director of ordinands whom you see, and with whom you share confidences, as he or she needs to know you well enough to recommend you to the Bishop. There is an element of trust from both sides, and trust in the system to be fair and impartial is implicit within it.

It is when you are not recommended that the system can sometimes seem to be unfeeling and negative, unless you have a support network in place. I thought that I had, and was hugely supported by my sending diocese, incumbent, and others, but the question what next presents a difficulty to the system. What exactly do you do with a candidate not recommended for ordination?

After all, the call from God doesn’t vanish over night: it persists, and that needs to be addressed. Sadly, in my situation, I found it virtually impossible to do so. It seemed at the time that I needed to change direction, but, without support from the vocations team, that is an insurmountable obstacle.

Fortunately, that change of direction came with a decision to change diocese and parish, and I have found a place where my call to ministry has been able to flourish.

I do not have any answers on how the Church deals with candidates who don’t make it through to recommendation, but I believe that a system or safety net needs to be in place to support them in further vocational discernment. I do not have any evidence that many leave the Church altogether, but anecdotal information suggests that many do so.

 

NAME & ADDRESS SUPPLIED

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