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Different angle on the pandemic

by
31 December 2020

Retired clergy have a distinctive take on it, say Andrew Village and Leslie Francis

The Revd Paul Wordsworth has been active in ministry at St Hilda’s, York, since he retired as the Archbishop of York’s mission and evangelism adviser (Features, 22 June 2018)

The Revd Paul Wordsworth has been active in ministry at St Hilda’s, York, since he retired as the Archbishop of York’s mission and evangelism adviser (Features, 22 June 2018)

LARGELY invisible in the ministry statistics published by the Church of England, ministering retired clergy continue to make an effective contribution to maintaining liturgical and pastoral provision.

Recent research into the experiences of retired clergy, published just before the great lockdown in A New Lease of Life (Books, 11 September), identified two contrasting attitudes: some perceived retired clergy as a helpful and supportive repository of wisdom; others perceived them as unhelpfully out of date.

The arrival of Covid-19, the Government’s lockdown of the nation, and the Archbishops’ lockup of the churches may have provided a particular challenge for ministering retired clergy. Many would be over the age of 70, and hence identified among the especially vulnerable.

The Coronavirus, Church & You survey (News, 26 June) allowed us to compare the responses of 231 ministry-active retired clergy with the responses of 748 full-time stipendiary clergy, and thus to test the contrasting theses of helpful repository of wisdom or unhelpfully out-of-date. Four main conclusions emerged from these data.

 

THE first conclusion is that retired clergy were as willing and eager as the stipendiary clergy to use digital means to meet the liturgical and pastoral needs of the lockdown. For example, 81 per cent of retired clergy and 81 per cent of stipendiary clergy agreed that the lockdown had helped the Church to move into the digital age. Retired clergy (66 per cent) were even more likely than stipendiary clergy (60 per cent) to agree that it had been good to see clergy broadcast services from their homes.

The second conclusion is that retired clergy were less sanguine than stipendiary clergy about seeing this trajectory into the digital age as demonstrating the best solution for the future. Eleven per cent of retired clergy commended online worship as the way ahead for the next generation, compared with 20 per cent of stipendiary clergy; 34 per cent of retired clergy commended social media as a great evangelistic tool, compared with 51 per cent of stipendiary clergy.

The third conclusion is that retired clergy attached greater significance and importance to church buildings. Only 36 per cent of retired clergy argued that closing churches to everybody was the right thing to do, compared with 61 per cent of stipendiary clergy. At the same time, 71 per cent of retired clergy argued that church buildings were central to the Church’s witness in the community, compared with 61 per cent of stipendiary clergy.

The fourth conclusion is that retired clergy sustained greater optimism for the future in the face of Covid-19. Only 19 per cent of retired clergy concluded that financial giving to the Church would decline after the pandemic, compared with 39 per cent of stipendiary clergy. Meanwhile, 61 per cent of retired clergy concluded that the lockdown would make us better appreciate church as it normally is, compared with 52 per cent of stipendiary clergy.

 

THE way in which the components within the different perspectives of retired clergy constellate may illuminate what differentiates and sets apart the view of retired clergy. These components have to do with the way in which churches and local communities stand at the heart of their view of Anglican identity and the call to Anglican ministry. Here are fundamental issues of theology and ecclesiology.

When some of those who are now ministry-active retired clergy were initially candidates for ministry in the C of E, there were three distinctive features of ministry that set them apart from those seeking ministry in the neighbouring Free Churches.

The first feature was essentially financial. Unlike ministers serving in the Free Churches, Anglican clergy were not responsible for generating their wages from within the membership of their congregations. They could be viewed as a gift to the community rather than a burden.

The second feature was essentially ecclesial. Unlike ministers serving in the Free Churches, Anglican clergy were called to serve not a congregation, but a place (a parish). The notion of parish served to define both an ecclesial and a secular jurisdiction.

The third feature was essentially theological. Unlike ministers serving in the Free Churches, Anglican clergy were not irreversibly separated by the Reformed tradition of the Reformation from the Catholic roots of faith. As the emergence of the Tractarian and Evangelical movements in the 19th century re-affirmed, Anglican theology and church order were nourished by and resourced from two strong and complementary traditions.

Perhaps it may be the memory of these financial, ecclesial, and theological strands from the roots of the Anglican tradition which causes minstering retired clergy to reflect distinctively on the C of E’s response to Covid-19. Perhaps, too, it is quite understandable why some may applaud their voice as reflecting radical wisdom, calling the Church back to its roots, and why others may see it as anachronistic nostalgia and naïve reluctance to accept the wisdom of the present age.


The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, both at York St John University.

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