THE first priest in Southwark diocese to take shared parental leave has likened the experience of stepping back from ministry to watching a bus he has spent years conducting drive off with others at the wheel — and this was no bad thing, he said.
The Revd Dr Martin Thomas has just returned to his post as Team Rector in the Catford and Downham Team Ministry, in south London, after taking a month of parental leave to look after his two sons — Eddie, who is three, and Adam, six months — while his wife returned to work.
The Archbishops’ Council introduced a shared-parental-leave policy in December 2015, after it became a legal right for the parents of babies born after 5 April that same year. Since then, fewer than ten clerics in the Church of England have taken shared parental leave and received shared parental pay.
The current C of E guidance states that mothers and adopting parents are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave. After taking two weeks’ compulsory leave, this can be reduced by returning or by giving notice to return to work at a future date. “They may then share the balance of any remaining leave, and pay, with the other parent.”
Dr Thomas, who has been ordained 15 years, said: “For the first time in these years, I didn’t say a structured morning and evening prayer each day, but I said my prayers, read my Bible, and went to church — on Sundays, because that’s when you go to church.
“For a month, I swapped the spiritual parenting of being Fr Martin in a very busy, mostly deprived, south-London team ministry, to being daddy to Eddie and Adam. In each setting, one encounters inexplicable tantrums and neediness, profound joys and sustaining togetherness, and, in each environment, a clear sense of the huge responsibility one carries, and the endless number of times you fail to live up to the challenge.”
He was the first to ask for shared parental leave in Southwark diocese, a diocesan spokesperson confirmed. “As a result, the diocese looked at its policy regarding this, and updated it to equalise the entitlements available to both those taking maternity leave and those taking shared parental leave.”
It is up to individual dioceses whether to give more than the statutory minimum, since the dioceses set their own stipend levels in line with recommendations made by the Archbishops’ Council.
The diocese was “hugely supportive” of the decision, Dr Thomas said, although it led to some “strange conversations” with parishioners. “So, what are you planning for your time off? ‘I’m not having time off, I’m going to be on parental leave.’ ‘Oh, that’s lovely. Are you going somewhere nice?’ ‘No, I’ll be looking after the children. We might make it to Catford.’ ‘Good to get a holiday, though. You deserve it really.’”
He and his family continued to live in the vicarage because, unlike employees subject to statutory shared parental leave, clerics remain “in office” during that period.
This had its own challenges. “There were some strange moments, because one cannot, of course, leave ministry behind entirely. There were still callers at the door [who were] surprised to see me in civvies, holding the baby and unable to provide help in the normal way.
“Several people came to the door whom I had not met before, with the usual first question: ‘Are you the vicar here?’ to which I didn’t have a very clear answer. And there were numerous pastoral concerns about ill parishioners that I somehow had to keep in my prayer life, but about which I could take no action.”
There were also “endless emails” requiring attention, he said, mainly from outside the parish, which he read and “mentally filed” how he might respond. “There was a safeguarding incident that I had to know about, and there were odd conversations in the church we went to in a neighbouring deanery, where I tried to remain in deep cover — cover that was somewhat blown by knowing rather too well what was going on, and singing too loudly.”
Dr Thomas and his family attended a different church during the four weeks that he was on leave, where they were warmly welcomed, he said. The experience taught him that that being a lay person “could be addictive but spiritually numbing. I was happy to be a passenger, happy that someone else was driving, quite comfortable that the priest was parenting the congregation.”
He continued: “I look around at happy supine faces, settled in repose as they watch the spectacle and receive the good news. A sermon is delivered, prayer is offered, the mass is said, and, within the hour, religion is pretty much done for the week; a very satisfying and edifying experience, with the prospect of brunch near by. What’s not to like?”
What was missing was the drive for mission, he said. “Going to church is extraordinarily efficient at making one completely passive. My overall feeling is that I have come to church to worship, not to be given a task. We go for four weeks running, and by that stage we already have ‘our’ seats. Over the space of a month I’ve been converted to this new religion of passivity.
“I rather liked having that urgency removed. ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish,’ saith the proverbialist, but I’m thinking: ‘Where there is no vision, the people relax.’ Becoming a passenger was a great experience, but it left me wondering about our models of ministry.”