Causes of clergy stress aired in the General Synod

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PRIESTS responding to terror attacks in Manchester and London have experienced “enormous stress” that will have consequences for years, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Sunday.

He was speaking during a debate on clergy well-being, in which the General Synod was warned about patchy support for clergy under pressure, and asked to consider how to better support them.

Presenting a report on the topic, the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, who is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea, said that, at its worst, the Church “moulds us into a straitjacket that slowly ekes away our human goodness into a caricature of Christ”. Some of the expectations of congregations were “poisonous, setting us on pedestals only to rejoice in knocking us off again, treating us as amateurs in a world of professionals, expecting a perfection that hides great hypocrisy”.

Clergy “have to take responsibility for our own well-being”, he said. The question was “what should we expect of one another that the Church’s ordained ministers should be happy, fulfilled,and effective in their vocation?”

“The hardest work I have ever done, and the most stressful, was as a parish priest,” Archbishop Welby observed. “It was isolated, insatiably demanding, and I was, on the whole, working without colleagues. That wears people down.” National events could create challenges for priests: “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 itself could create “minefields” for priests.

“Issues around safeguarding – what might come up and what people might be accused of – can be a huge worry and concern,” he said. Some clergy inherited a parish or chaplaincy with a “sad history, which is a constant threat”. The Clergy Discipline Measure process had “often contributed very, very badly indeed to their well-being. The process has been the punishment, not the outcome.”

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This received a “hear hear” in some quarters. The report on clergy well-being makes reference to “the use of the CDM over relatively minor complaints and as a potential vehicle for bullying”.

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” in a “lonely” role. As a bishop, he aspired to be a “vicar for the vicars”, but this was not always possible. He welcomed the report, which freed bishops from feeling guilty for not being able to care for their clergy as much as they would like to.

Fr Thomas Seville CR was concerned that 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 told the Synod that “when one ministers to someone suffering, there Christ is ministering to you.” The Church needed to avoid “being condescending” or having “images of the priest as superman”, which was an “inappropriate model”.

A priest in Lichfield diocese, the Revd Zoe Heming, suggested that stories from disabled people could make the Synod braver about opening the “Pandora’s box” before it. Among the disabled priests she had interviewed was a woman who had become paraplegic about ten years after her ordination. Her ministry had grown rather than shrunk, through a “powerful sacramental witness to the gorgeous body of Christ, which is most gorgeous when inter-dependent and working together”.

Yvonne Warren, a psychotherapist in Coventry, said that one of the main issues was the decreasing number of clergy, which meant 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.

The Church of England Experiences of Ministry Survey (EMS), conducted in collaboration with King’s College, London, found that clergy appeared to report higher levels of emotional exhaustion than many other professional groups.

The report on clergy well-being says that provision for support “varies widely” and that there is some evidence that spiritual direction is proving harder to find, and more clergy are having to pay for it. It cautions that the language of “sacrifice” must be understood “with considerable subtlety and care. Sacrifice is always given, never to be expected, and that the personal sacrifice of vocational living is understood and lived healthily, without ever denying the humanity and the proper needs of the individual minister.”

The Renewal and Reform programme requires “significant changes of approach and pace in the life of the Church”, it says. “Some clergy may find adapting to such change harder to accomplish.”

The Synod’s approval of the motion means that a working group will now be created, to bring proposals for a Covenant (an idea inspired by the Armed Forces Covenant) back to the Synod by July 2019.

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