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Michaelmas ordinations: From vocation to vacation: clergy on furlough

by
08 October 2021

Curates who were furloughed during the pandemic talk to Paul Wilkinson

istock

OVER the past 18 months, 90 C of E curates have been, at various times, in effect suspended from their ministry. They were furloughed by cash-strapped dioceses struggling to make their books balance during the Covid pandemic.

Not every diocese had to resort to such drastic measures, but almost one in four had at least one curate on furlough at some point. Some were absent for as long as four months; others were off just one day a week for as little as one month. As recently as August, ten or so curates were away from their posts.

For some, the idea of leaving a post that they regard as much more than a job was difficult to bear. Others, though, came to see it as an opportunity for retrenchment and re-evaluation.

The assistant curate of Christ Church, Winchester, the Revd Craig Philbrick, resisted the idea when he was one of 19 curates approached by Winchester diocese after it decided to decimate its curacies. “We had assumed we were key workers,” he said. “There was a lot of death and sadness going to come our way, and it was time for the clergy to step up and keep it together.

“We thought: ‘We want to be supporting people, we want to be on the front line.’ But we were asked by the diocese to support the financial position. We are here to serve, and at that moment it was the best way we could do that.”

The Revd Craig Philbrick

In the end, 12 curates agreed to step aside, and the diocese was able to recoup about £26,000 from the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Mr Philbrick was signed off for three months during the summer of 2020. Deciding on a clean break, he took all church emails off his laptop, and switched off his mobile’s work SIM. “I didn’t feel cut off from my ministry,” he said. “I think it just continued in a different way; by supporting my family, and, through encounters with people I would bump into, questions of faith came up in different places.”

His debate with an optometrist in Specsavers, during an eye test, sparked a popular blog online: “God on Furlough?”

Describing his furlough as “an unexpected blessing”, he said, “it allowed me to simplify my life, so that I could focus on my family and also regroup and prepare myself to rejoin the parish. Seeing the support and care I could plough into my family, which ministers often don’t get the time to do, was tremendous.”

Once he returned to work, it helped him to connect with others suspended from work. “We were able to speak the same language,” he said.

“Being furloughed has enhanced my feeling of self-worth. It has given me a mission to help in a crisis. My hope is that we will have a generation of clergy who were trained through the pandemic to be much more versatile and independent.”

The director of ministry in Winchester diocese, Canon Mark Collinson, said: “The decision to ask our curates to go on furlough was incredibly difficult, but necessary. I know that stepping away from ministry at such a key time for the Church was painful. The whole diocese owes them a debt of gratitude, for the part they played during those difficult months.

“I was in contact with each of the curates, and I was so encouraged by the commitment and dedication to their vocational training that they all showed, despite the challenges and uncertainty of the time.”

 

THE Revd Sarah Tapp, an assistant curate of St Mary of Bethany, Woking, said that she saw it as “a bit of a gift” when Guildford diocese asked 27 curates to take one day off each week for four months.

“I didn’t find it a terribly negative experience,” she said. “I didn’t feel that my services were not of use, but some of my friends did feel it more acutely. . . I felt that, if the rest of the world was being furloughed, why should the clergy be exempt?

“I had clergy friends who felt they should be doing something to pursue their calling, but I very much felt that it was a directive that came from my bishop, and I come under his authority and do as I am told.

“Initially, there was flurry of horror on our curate group-chat, but I wasn’t flustered by it. And I have a very sensible and boundaried training incumbent, who did not expect me to do the same amount of work [with] one day less a week — which was not the experience of all of my colleagues.”

The Revd Sarah Tapp

Ms Tapp was barred from church activities each Tuesday; she was allowed to do voluntary work. “It felt quite strange. I wasn’t used to stopping in the week. But it was not a wasted day: I found myself walking lots, and that led to lots of conversations with people, some of which were quite pastoral, which was nice.”

She thinks that Guildford’s extra day off was a balanced response. “There were things I have not been able to tick off in my training because of lockdown, but nothing was missed by a one-day a week furlough. It has not affected my sense of ministry, or made me question my self-worth.”

And it gave her a significant experience that she would have missed, had she been working. Out walking one freezing day, she spent more than two hours comforting a teenage boy whose father had just suffered a heart attack. “I think he was already dead, but you stay and do what you can. That will stay with me for a lifetime,” she said. “Had I not been on furlough, I would not have been there. I probably would have been on Zoom.”

A Guildford spokeswoman said that their flexi-furlough scheme enabled curates to continue training and parish work for the majority of the week and, with other cuts, ensured no reduction in stipendiary curacy posts.

The diocese recognised that some curates found the request difficult, especially when needs on the ground increased. The spokeswoman added, however: “Our view was that there was a good degree of understanding for the proposal from the majority of curates and training incumbents, purely on the financial basis.

“It came as many curates were home-schooling children and under other pressures. There was a well-being aspect to it, too, even if that wasn’t the primary motivation.”

 

THE Revd Gillian Hitchen was one of ten curates in Liverpool diocese who volunteered to take a month’s furlough in April last year. The move saved the diocese £20,000. “It might seem a curious thing for a person who has responded to the call of a vocation on their life, to be seen, in a sense, to put it down again,” she said. “But isn’t that call a sacrificial one also — Jesus, asking us to lay down our life for the sake of our friends?

“What it did do was force into focus the blurred boundaries between where the ‘day job’ ends and where life as a disciple of Christ continues. I had to make decisions about what activity was considered ‘work’ and what was loving my neighbour as a neighbour — from clapping on Thursdays, to shopping for others, to the many phone calls, and prayer prompted by bird song.”

The Revd Gill Hitchen

At the time, she was in the second year of her title post, serving three churches in the Parr Team Ministry, in St Helens. She has since become Interim Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew’s, Orford, Warrington.

Her husband, Mike, worked throughout as a train dispatcher at Liverpool Lime Street station, often doing 12-hour shifts, covering for colleagues struck down by Covid. “My heart went out to all the key workers slogging on regardless — my husband included, whom I hardly saw — while I stayed put, with days where not much happened. I experienced loneliness and sometimes boredom.

“Part of the best gift of that time was the opportunity to rediscover praise and worship on Sundays, alongside fellow Christians online or via TV. But I still missed family, who lived a long way away.

“My abiding memory of that time was the palpable sense of God’s fingerprints all over the messiness and complications of the pandemic, as everything, for me, slowed down to stillness. It was such a comfort as we socially distanced from one another to remember we are never socially distanced from Christ.”

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