AMONG those ordained deacon at Petertide, quite a few, perhaps the majority, will be having their first experience of clergy housing.
Assistant curates’ houses are usually provided by the parish; incumbents’ by the diocese. In a very obvious way, those who are housed by the Church are dependent on the Church, while those who, for one reason or another, remain in their own homes miss out both on the privilege of living in some extraordinary houses and the frustrations that go with the privilege.
For those who find themselves dependent, housing can become part of a complex power relationship — at times benign and at other times miserable.
When I was a theological-college tutor, I was horrified by what some parishes regarded as suitable provision for a newly ordained deacon. Far too often, the curate’s house was not ready for occupation; perhaps it had been let out and the lease still had time to run, or there was significant work to be done before it was habitable. I have known situations in which a new curate was invited to lodge temporarily with members of the congregation, or, in one unspeakable case, to sleep on a camp bed in the church hall.
Problems also arise when clergy move. Some find that they are commuting for months, others that the traditional vicarage is being sold and a new house is not yet available. Of course, clergy can refuse a post on the grounds that the house is not suitable, but it is never easy, and can sour relationships. Nor are bishops immune. They, too, can find themselves camping in a soon to be discarded house while the new one is built in the garden or elsewhere.
For the more saintly, of course, a degree of personal discomfort might trigger thankfulness for having at least a roof over one’s head. But what might be endured with prayer and gritted teeth if single and without dependants is much harder when a family is involved. Damp, ill-kept houses do not encourage good health or domestic harmony.
Most dioceses do their best with limited resources. But I have been saddened when handymen employed by the diocese have come in to do small repairs and have told me that this is just sticking plaster: the problem requires a lasting solution, which the diocese is not prepared to pay for.
It is hard to see good houses being neglected, and it does not help the clergy to feel valued. Even when things are well managed, the dependence and vulnerability of the clergy in this area is not easily resolved. There is, of course, something of the gospel in such vulnerability. But it can come as a shock to the system, none the less. I hope that the newly ordained are prepared for it.
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.