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Don’t forget us, say vulnerable clergy

28 August 2020

Open letter requests robust guidance at national level

Charlotte Cheshire

The Revd Charlotte Cheshire, the lead signatory to the letter

The Revd Charlotte Cheshire, the lead signatory to the letter

SHIELDING clergy — now classified as Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) to Covid-19 — are calling for the support and understanding of bishops and senior staff.

Mixed messages from the Church have increased clergy anxiety and resulted in their “feeling left behind, or our CEV ignored, in favour of a desperate desire to return to normal”, an informal group write in an open letter issued earlier this month.

Government employment protections were removed when the designation changed on 1 August. As a result, the group fear an even greater disparity of support than before.

They write: “While we recognise shielding has ended, this has not diminished either our anxiety or our vulnerability to the virus. And although the national Church has sought to respond to the ever-changing challenge of this pandemic, we have experienced widely varying interpretation of national guidelines, and similarly variable pastoral responses, from our dioceses and senior staff.”

Some dioceses, the group say, have offered excellent support to enable CEV clergy to continue working from home or online: “However, other clergy have felt pressured to open their buildings rapidly; some have received emails from senior staff avowing the need for masks or PPE, while others have been bluntly told to arrange their own cover if they cannot immediately return to leading services in person.”

The lead signatory to the letter is the Priest-in-Charge of Moldgreen and Rawthorpe, in Huddersfield, the Revd Charlotte Cheshire, who is in the position of being both CEV and recently widowed. She had felt able to “lift her head above the parapet” because the response from her own diocese of Leeds had been excellent, she said last week.

“Throughout the shutdown, we have had phenomenal contact from Bishop Nick Baines, who has regularly sent us very detailed ad clerum [letters], with directions, offering support, and aware of all the challenges.

“He and the senior staff here have been proactive in saying that permission to reopen doesn’t mean a requirement to reopen. The message is: ‘Take it at your own pace and we’ll support you.’”

But others had “without a shadow of a doubt” been made to feel as though they were shirking, she said. “Some of them are genuinely thinking, ‘What do I do?’ If they’re being told by the Government and others that you might die, and by others, ‘Just find cover,’ where is the compassion?

“We need robust guidance at a national level — guidance which is specifically for us. My PCC are supporting me to try to open the building some time in September. I feel safe enough to try because I know they’re working with me.”

Another signatory, the Assistant Curate of All Saints with St John, Clifton, in Bristol, the Revd Wendy Bray, cannot predict when she will be back behind the altar, or how long she will need to shield. But she still wants to do something positive, and has suggested, in various quarters, liaising and offering mutual support for people in the diocese who were also shielding or vulnerable.

It was frustrating to have had no response from senior staff, she said last week. “I think many shielding priests would have much to offer their anxious congregations in terms of pastoral care — even at a distance — and what it means to find God in a place of isolation and uncertainty. It would be to everyone’s benefit to recognise and utilise that.”

The Rector of the Orwell Group, in Ely diocese, the Revd Felicity Couch, said that, despite good support for clergy in general in the diocese, she had felt very alone as one of the shielding clergy: “not pressured from above, but not supported, either”.

It had been hard, she said, not to be able to go and stand in the church with the churchwardens and talk about the reopening of the building on a practical level. Emotional pressure to take funerals had been particularly hard, amid the perception that shielding had finished.

“It is much harder, now, to ask people to do anything,” she said. “Nothing has changed: it is no safer for me than it was, but I don’t see how I can keep saying no when it comes to September.”

A third signatory, the Revd Jody Stowell, is the Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Harrow Weald, in London diocese. Her church remains the only one in the deanery which will not reopen in September for worship. Her husband is CEV — “If we catch the virus in this household, the risk of something bad happening is significant” — and, in September, her 17-year-old will return to school, which will call for more judgements to be made within the household.

Centralised advice is interpreted differently by different dioceses, she says, and specific guidance about what it is to be an incumbent and also part of a shielding household is not there yet. Practical support was needed if the church was to reopen. She had not yet had a chance to “talk through the emotional and psychological impact of what’s happening to us and to our church”.

There are ten signatories to the letter. Other names are withheld.

“The main conversation among us of late is that people just don’t get it,” Ms Cheshire said. “Now that shielding is officially over, we’re largely being expected to go back to our public-facing duties. But some of us have doctors telling us we should not be going near people (anyone not in our household) for the foreseeable future, or until a vaccine is available, as our risk level has not changed, regardless of government policy.

“Others are trying to work and carefully explaining to congregations that we’re in the shielding category only to be told: ‘Oh that’s OK, my house is safe; I’ve only had xxx people over this week’; or trying to keep our physical distance while engaging in conversations, only to be told: “Oh, it’s all a load of nonsense, really. I mean it’s mostly sick or disabled people who would have died anyway.’”

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