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Leader comment: Lasting gift: why the C of E needs its retired clergy

28 July 2023

OUR investigation this week into the circumstances of the retired clergy is little more than a snapshot of how a few of them are faring in the present economic climate, but the picture is not good. Of course, anyone on a fixed income at a time of high inflation is going to struggle, but we can sympathise with retired clergy who see large sums of church money going into initiatives, projects, and diocesan schemes while they have to cut back on household expenses simply to survive. There is a danger that the Church will come to rely on the Clergy Support Trust in the way that the Government now relies on the Trussell Trust and other foodbank charities: it can feel that hardship is being addressed without having to acknowledge the fundamental problem. namely the inability of the clergy pension to match inflation. The 10.1-per-cent increase in April was welcome, and, now that overall inflation in the UK has dropped to 7.9 per cent, it is tempting to think that the crisis is over. But clergy involved with the CHARM system, either in shared-equity housing or paying rent, had to deal with a simultaneous 10.1-per-cent rise; and all retired clergy are having to cope with food inflation that remains at 17.3 per cent.

There is no need to look further for a reason to treat retired clergy justly than for their loyal service to the Church over the past decades. There is, none the less, another prompt. There is currently a two-year lag on the release of ministry statistics, but the last that we have, for 2020, show virtual parity between stipendiary clergy (7670) and those with a licence or permission to officiate (7210), made up almost exclusively of retired clergy. Non-stipendiaries and chaplains bring the total of active clergy up to 19,770, meaning that retired clergy make up more than one third of those able to officiate in the Church of England’s 15,622 churches. The simple fact is that the Church could not function in anything like its present form without the continuing ministry of clergy beyond retirement — and for many years beyond retirement. The average age of someone with a licence or permission to officiate in 2020 was 74.9.

The clergy regard their priesthood as something that persists from their ordination until their decease. But that does not allow the Church to presume on their services. The 2020 statistics showed that, of the clergy who retired that year, 31 per cent were either licensed or working in parochial ministry in some other form. Two-thirds, 66 per cent, were not active, though the rubric supposed that many would soon be involved in some form of ministry. But they need not. If it is felt that the Church is taking advantage of them, or that they need to take some form of paid employment to supplement their pensions, their services will be lost. And then pity the cleric who seeks to find holiday cover; or the churchwardens who try to keep a parish’s ministry going during a vacancy. Thus it is not only caring, but wise, to ensure that the retired clergy are comfortable, secure, contented . . . and available.

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