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Leader comment: Uncovered: how clergy struggle to take holidays

26 August 2022

WE HAVE noticed a measure of quiet resignation in several parishes, particularly the more urban ones. Or is it desperation, born of hard work? In former times, an incumbent could happily leave his curate in charge during the summer weeks. (Indeed, some incumbents left them in charge for several years at a time.) Today, a curate is a distant memory in many parishes. So, if incumbents want a break of more than six consecutive days, they will probably look for a retired cleric to stand in for them. The trouble is that clerics do odd things when you stop paying them — such as choose where to live, or find other things to do with their time. Their state of health, too, can inhibit their availability. We can attest to the remarkable, rich, and wise ministry of many retired clerics, and the selfless service that they provide — but there is no central deployment management. One correspondent has no retired cleric in the parish, and there is none in either of the neighbouring ones; but another has nine in the congregation. A note on Twitter said: “I won’t be going to Greenbelt because, to be blunt, it’s too bloody hard getting enough cover to take Sundays off to see family never mind anything else sigh.”

Nor is it easy to see how the situation could improve: the same trend as is moving more clergy into the retired bracket than can be replaced by the output of the theological colleges and courses is working its unfortunate effects on the ranks of the elderly clergy, rendering them unable to stand in for others, however willing they might be. Many of them are all too aware of their failing powers, and yet push themselves further than they ought to out of a sense of duty and compassion for hard-pressed incumbents.

Local solutions do exist. Members of well-staffed ministry teams have holiday cover built into their working pattern. Some area and rural deans are able to call on wider resources — although others struggle to find cover even for themselves. Other churches are looking to the neglected pattern of services of morning and evening prayer led by Readers. But a vacancy, or an illness in a deanery, can easily absorb any spare capacity that exists.

In the end, more congregations may have to accept what is already experienced in rural areas: the closure of their parish church during their priest’s absence and the need to travel to another parish for a service. It is not ideal, but not the end of the world. The alternative, continuing to deprive the clergy of proper holidays, might be the end of them.

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