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Curacies — the dreams and the nightmares

05 July 2019

How well are curates being trained? Tim Wyatt sought the views of those who know

Worcester diocese

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, and other clergy and ministers lay hands on the Revd Jen Denniston, at ordination to the priesthood in Worcester Cathedral, on 22 June. She serves in the West Worcestershire Rural Team Ministry as an NSM

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, and other clergy and ministers lay hands on the Revd Jen Denniston, at ordination to the priesthood in Worceste...

PREVAILING opinions about curacy in the Church of England are perhaps best indicated in the title of a recent book on the topic: Curacies and How to Survive Them.

Negativity and anxiety seem to abound in any discussion of the three-year clerical apprenticeship that all priests must complete. Curates are said to be overworked, and end up burned out. Relationships with training incumbents are invariably “toxic” or non-existent. And of those who survive this exhausting ordeal, few are actually prepared for a solo ministry.

I wanted to find out whether this Eeyore-ish portrait bore any relation to reality. What do the current generation of assistant curates think about how well the process works?

IN TOTAL, 33 priests ordained three years ago — and therefore now just coming to the end of their first curacies — responded to our online survey last month.

They ranged in age from young new parents to a 70 year-old. Some were paid; others self-supporting. In all, 24 dioceses in England and Wales were represented.

A word of caution: because these were people who chose to answer, they cannot be claimed as a representative sample. Their opinions and experiences, nonetheless, are genuine.

FIRST, almost all said how good their curacies had been. Many, too, spoke of the privilege of presiding regularly at the eucharist.

Conducting weddings, funerals, and baptisms was also a pleasure for most, particularly with the opportunities they gave to forge pastoral linkswith the communities they serve. “Baptisms and weddings — sheer joy!” one cleric pronounced.

Others wrote of how much they had relished the sheer variety of work involved in modern priestly ministry, and being able to put into practice what they had learned during the years of discernment and training.

Elaine Wykes

This variety included visiting schools and village fetes, getting to know those in their parish, and offering them spiritual succour in good times and bad. One had even helped deliver a lamb, before blessing sheep farmers at a special service.

One unexpected factor was the comradeship that they had shared with their fellow curates. Whether through formal diocesan forums or just keeping in touch with those they knew through college, the importance of going through curacy with a group of peers was emphasised by many.

THE survey also uncovered examples of unhappiness, however.

The causes were diverse. Many said that they had struggled with loneliness and isolation, particularly those whose incumbents had moved to other parishes, gone on sabbatical, or become ill during the curacy. Others found fitting into a church with a different tradition or worship-style a challenge, affecting their own spiritual growth.

Busyness and overwork came up repeatedly. Curates spoke of their frustrations at trying to find time to complete their dizzying array of responsibilities, while also having space for family and friends, let alone rest.

This was a particular concern for respondents who were only part-time and non-stipendiary. Several found that church tasks ate into time that should have gone to earning money.

The biggest area of concern was the relationship between curates and their training incumbents. Two-thirds, 23 of the 33 respondents, said that the relationship was at least partly positive. Curates wrote about the benefit of having a more experienced colleague with which to discuss ministry openly and honestly. Many also praised their incumbent not only offering companionship and mutual support, but also for trusting them to try things out and take risks.

One curate described the link with their “patient, kind, and caring” incumbent as a “life-giving journey as we have grown together spiritually. . .

”As my first incumbent said, if you do something well you take the praise, but if it goes wrong it is the incumbent’s fault for not showing you how it should be done.”

Sandra Marsh

Another spoke warmly of laughing every day with their present training incumbent. “I’d walk over hot coals for my TI now,” they wrote, before admitting that the experience with a first incumbent had been so bad they could not even be in the same room together.

It is stories like this that are fuelling concern about the training process. Four out of five of those responding to the survey, 26 in all, knew of curacies that had ended early, sometimes their own. Of those 26, 21 said that the cause was a breakdown in the relationship with the training incumbent.

THIS proportion tallies with research conducted by the Revd Rhona Knight, an assistant curate in the diocese of Lincoln. As part of her Master’s degree, she looked into what helped curacies to flourish, and concluded the relationship between the curate and incumbent was essential.

Those curates who were able to communicate deeply, manage conflict, establish appropriate boundaries, and share together with their parish superior tended to have much better experiences during their three years together.

Contrary to what some assume, Ms Knight explained to me how matching tradition or churchmanship between curates and incumbents did not seem to make or break curacies. “You could have a curate from a very Charismatic background in an Anglo-Catholic church, or the other way round,” she said. “A different tradition is not a problem; it’s the relationship which is key.”

Matthew Caminer — who co-wrote Curacies and How to Survive Them after watching his wife struggle — agreed. Seeking to serve in a parish of a different tradition could be helpful, especially for someone used to only one tradition.

But Canon Dr Neil Burgess, a diocesan official in Lincoln, and author of his own book on curacy, Into Deep Water, warned that too much attention was sometimes paid to the personal chemistry between curates and their incumbents.

It was perfectly possible to work well with someone you did not get on with personally, he thought, provided there was “high levels of trust and openness” in the relationship.

Margot Suter

One reason why curacies are always tricky affairs is that this working relationship inevitably includes a power imbalance, Dr Burgess said. The incumbent has not only got formal authority and years of experience but also knows the parish, its people, and context. “It is actually a very unequal relationship.”

This last point was echoed frequently by curates in the survey. One described the relationship as “very difficult, like an ill-arranged marriage that went wrong very quickly.”

“We don’t have much relationship, I receive little feedback and little mentoring,” another wrote. “His first utterance on our first contact — ‘I don’t really need a curate’ — have proved correct.”

Some felt that curacies hinged entirely on the personality of their incumbent. One said that she had shed “many bitter tears” over interactions with her incumbent, who she described as “unhappy and insecure. . . The arrival of an enthusiastic curate who was also a capable middle-aged woman with many years’ experience in the secular working world was a recipe for disaster.”

A SOLUTION is suggested the Revd Jonathan Ross-McNairn, a school chaplain and co-editor of Being A Curate: Stories of what it’s really like — establishing full employment rights for curates.

Under the current system, curates and incumbents sign a non-legally binding “working agreement”, which lays out rights and responsibilities for each. This is not working, Mr Ross-McNairn argued, because it assumed that the relationship was one of equals.

His own curacy had been blighted by a poor relationship with his incumbent, and said that sorting this out by introducing legal safeguards would be transformational.

Mr Caminer was not convinced. More useful, he thought, would be to work on the matching process, to ensure that difficult relationships were avoided from the start. The culture in dioceses also needed to change, so that curates’ concerns were taken more seriously.

In the diocese of Lincoln, curates are also assigned a supervisor and a theological reflector, ensuring that their wellbeing is not the sole responsibility of the training incumbent, Dr Burgess explained. Written clarity about what the curate was there to do was vital, but ultimately it came down to how closely such agreements were monitored and upheld, and by whom. One curate from Lincoln who answered the survey spoke warmly of this system.

ANOTHER factor is how well training prepares priests for clerical life. In the survey, more than two-thirds said that they felt properly equipped. This was particularly true of those who had received mixed-mode training — where academic study is fitted around part-time work in a church.

Some of those who had gone down the residential route reflected that, while their theological study had been excellent on the whole, the training lacked a practical edge.

Said one: “Academically, the training has given me a good foundation on which to build. However, on a practical side, and on the day-to-day running [of a parish], I feel it was inadequate.”

Joe Roberts

Another wrote that they were not given a “realistic picture” of the demands of curacy, in both workload and cost to the family. There was only so much that could be gleaned from classroom study, one priest reflected, which was ultimately why the Church required all clergy to learn on the job.

In truth, it was hard to make sweeping statements about training, Mr Caminer thought, given the huge diversity of colleges, dioceses and modes. Mr Ross-McNairn recalled how he had spent three years reading theological textbooks during mixed-mode training at St Mellitus in London, but had been given only a “15-minute walk-through” on how to conduct a funeral.

THE pressure of curacy is often portrayed as an enemy of spiritual growth; but this does not tally with the experience of the latest cohort.

Almost nine in ten of those who answered the survey said that the past three years had been mostly positive for their own spiritual lives. Many emphasised how helpful they had found the rhythm of morning and evening prayer, following the Church calendar, and worshipping with the liturgy.

One recalled that their spirituality “has been enriched, as I have needed to turn to God at times of difficulty, and by times of joyfully seeing God at work”.

“It has been humbling but yet a privilege, and my relationship with God has grown immensely,” another wrote. “There is little I can do without God beside me, directing me and being the staff on which I lean.”

Part of Ms Knight’s research came to the same conclusion: “The faith-life of the training incumbent and curate needed to be rooted in God and needed to be growing” for a curacy to flourish.

When asked what advice they would give to those following them into curacies this summer, the 2016 cohort emphasised the importance of building a routine of prayer and spiritual reflection. “Put aside more time for prayer than you think you need,” said one.

THE other piece of advice concerned overwork and how to say “no”. It was vital to protect time with family and not feel obliged to fill the diary to bursting, they said. “Be firm,” one priest wrote. “Don’t feel guilty about not working. Don’t let people tell you it’s your fault things aren’t working.”

Both Mr Ross-McNairn and Mr Caminer raised concerns about the level of training curates received. “Some training incumbents really want to train curates, whereas others just want another pair of hands”, Mr Ross-McNairn said.

This was something that curates needed to watch, too. They must understand that their primary task is not to build something amazing in the parish but learn how to lead their own one day, Mr Caminer said.

WHAT remains from these encounters is concern at the patchiness of provision and support. Some dioceses, colleges, courses, incumbents, and curacies are clearly excellent — perhaps most of them. But some fall well short, causing unhappiness and frustration to curates and their incumbents, and leaving curates feeling unprepared for their next move.

Dr Burgess said: “Some dioceses have just been much more clued up about it than others. To a certain degree, it’s a matter of pot luck. Some dioceses have evolved a good system, other dioceses haven’t.”

There was a pressing need for a better national framework for curacy, sharing best practice and ensuring that minimum standards were upheld. Some of those surveyed agreed: “The HR structures are rubbish,” one respondent wrote. “No one looks after us, there is no accountability, there are no structures for seeking real help.”

Mr Ross-McNairn concurred. More centralisation would help, as it had with the discernment and training procedure. “The Church is very good at selecting ordinands,” he said. “People are really looked after, and it’s a comprehensive, in-depth, rigorous process up to ordination. Then curates are pretty much just left to get on with it.”

Ms Knight found out during her research that the Ministry Division simply did not know how many curacies had failed. Without this data, there can be little hope of understanding why curacies do break down and what reforms could help stop this.

One respondent to the survey had enjoyed their three years, but expressed concern at the wider picture: “I’ve been blessed — but it feels like a lottery.”

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