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Maternity provision for Church of England clergy is chaotic, report suggests

08 May 2024


From left: Dr Caro, Ms Taylor, and Ms Noppen

From left: Dr Caro, Ms Taylor, and Ms Noppen

VARIATION in maternity policies across the the Church of England’s dioceses means that a pregnant cleric could be entitled to no diocesan pay in one diocese and nine months’ full stipend in another, a new audit has revealed.

Four years after publication of National Ministry Team guidelines (News, 30 March 2020), only five dioceses are meeting them. Only eight have policies promising paid provision regardless of length of service.

The Clergy Babies Maternity Policy Audit, which took a group of women priests two years to complete, includes an analysis and comparison of maternity provision, and makes more than 100 recommendations.

It also brings to light examples of “immoral and illegal” practices. In more that one instance, the authors report, a woman going on maternity leave has been encouraged to pay for her cover because she is “receiving pay for a job she isn’t doing”.

The national guidelines are clear that clergy remain entitled to stay in their provided accommodation, free of charge, during their leave. But the authors report instances where a family with a baby has been made “effectively homeless by the church”. They also write of “numerous reports of unfair or bullying behaviour by training incumbents towards curates who are pregnant or have recently had a child”. The report describes clergy as having to “fight for and protect their rights, from a vulnerable position of challenging those with power and authority over them”.

The three authors all have pre-school and primary-school-age children, born or adopted during training, curacy, or incumbency. They are the Revd Dr Rae Caro, Priest-in-Charge of St Mark’s, Shiremoor (Newcastle); the Revd Chantal Noppen, Team Vicar of North Wearside (Durham); and the Revd Caroline Taylor, Vicar of Marton-in-Cleveland with Easterside (York).

In a summary, they write of their hope that “uncovering the disparities in provision will act as a catalyst for reform and more equitable practices”. The report, endorsed by five bishops, is dedicated to “women clergy who have been denied leave, mistreated, or encouraged to leave ministry due to having a child in the Church of England”.

On Tuesday, Dr Caro said that the audit was prompted by the “terrible stories” shared on the “Clergy Babies” Facebook group, which she and her fellow authors founded in 2019. Accounts shared through the group suggest that “prejudice is widespread,” the new report says.

Work on the audit began two years ago (Features, 10 March 2023). Collating the policies was a “mammoth task”, the authors write. Sophie Hudson, their “data support”, spent many hours searching for information. While the 2020 guidance states that policies should be freely available to all, many were “very difficult to locate and many took us an inordinate amount of time to unpack and understand.” Only 29 dioceses had policies accessible on a diocesan website. Four — Leicester, Norwich, Peterborough, and Sheffield — had no information that the group could study.

The report is critical of the decision by some dioceses to direct people to speak to the diocesan office, HR, or their archdeacon rather than simply publishing the policy. “Many women in our network have been treated unfavourably due to pregnancy and childbirth,” the authors write. “Although this should not be the case, we can see how a woman would not feel able to ask directly for this information out of fear of the treatment they might receive.”

Priests who are office-holders — i.e. not working under an employ­ment contract — have always been eligible for statutory maternity pay, provided they have completed 26 weeks of stipendiary service be­­fore the baby is born. This is set at 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay (SMP), plus an additional 13 weeks of unpaid leave. SMP is 90 per cent of average weekly earnings before tax for the first six weeks followed by £184.03 or the 90-per-cent figure (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks.

The new guidance on parental pay and leave for clergy and ordinands published in 2020 encouraged dioceses “to be as generous as possible in offering parental support”. It notes that the Archbishops’ Council has recommended that all dioceses adopt a level of “minimum provision” for clergy officeholders due to become parents, regardless of legal entitlement or whether they have held office in the diocese for any length of time. This includes enhanced maternity pay of 26 weeks on full stipend, plus 13 weeks at SMP. Other recommendations include extending curacies to take account of maternity leave.

The 2020 guidelines provide an “excellent baseline,” the new audit says. “But many dioceses fall short of them, and some seem to have not realised that the guidelines are not actually policies.”

Most of the diocesan policies (22 out of 36 available) offer 39 weeks of full-stipend maternity pay for those who meet the qualifying criteria. This is more than many women in other organisations receive. Polling conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2022 found that 21 per cent of organisations offered what was recommended by the National Ministry Team, while 33 per cent offered the statutory minimum.

The same number of dioceses — 22 — say that curacy training can be extended to take account of maternity leave. Only eight, however, assure clergy of paid provision regardless of their length of service, and variation in the qualifying criteria for the diocesan offer of maternity pay is “considerable”. In some instances, it is necessary to have completed one year’s continuous service 14 weeks before the expected week of childbirth.

Besides a lack of transparency about policies, and examples of broken links and inconsistent information, the audit reports “far too many instances” of dioceses that have “changed what is offered, or denied any earlier offers in subsequent conversations”, which has been a “huge source of anxiety, stress and pressure”.

Of training incumbents’ attitudes, it reports that some would be “without a doubt, deemed unacceptable in a secular work environment and grounds for legal complaint”.

In most dioceses, organising maternity cover falls to the woman preparing to take leave, a source of “an immense amount of stress and pressure, and often hours of additional work”.

Among what the audit identifies as good practice is the offer in Blackburn diocese of paid cover for two services a week, Occasional Offices, and essential meetings, for up to 12 months. Exeter’s policy is “written in a pastoral tone, especially the section on miscarriage, premature birth, and stillbirth”, the report says. “This level of consideration has not been seen in many other policies.”

With regard to adherence to the national guidelines, it awards the “top spot” to Coventry (with the caveat that it does not offer full stipend for 39 weeks), followed by Birmingham, Exeter, London and Oxford. The ideal, the authors conclude, would be the creation of a single policy, funded and supported nationally.

Dioceses not meeting the standard in the 2020 guidelines had argued that they could not afford to do so, Dr Caro said this week. “There is a feeling, especially for poorer dioceses, that these guidelines are set nationally, but there is no resource given to make them a reality.”

Among those endorsing the report are the Bishops of London, Blackburn, Chester, Newcastle, and Gloucester. The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, writes: “Thirty years after women’s priestly Ordination, the Church still
seems to find it incredibly hard to make ministry compatible with bringing up a family. The result is that many women feel that answering God’s call is something that has to be deferred with the result that years of precious priestly ministry are lost. . . I am sure that I will not be the only Bishop who will be swiftly reviewing our approach and how we advertise it as a result.”

The report’s foreword is by Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley. “The default understanding in the Church still seems to be anchored in social mores from long before the ordination of women, when women cared for children while men went out to work,” she writes.

“Civil society has recognised that specific provision needs to be made for them [women], and that this provision is legitimate and a social ‘good’ that all benefit from. It seems disturbing to think that the Church should be less caring, and less supportive of families, than secular workplaces. . .The Church of England should not be a ‘bare necessities employer’.”

Dr Caro, whose doctorate is in reproductive medicine, and who researched the postpartum period (six to eight weeks after childbirth), had her first child in her final year of training, and was not entitled to maternity leave — so had to “finish as if I hadn’t had a baby”. While her training institution was “amazing”, it was a “miracle that I got to the end”, she said this week. Having been told that she would be unable to have children, she did not have the “luxury” of waiting to be eligible, she said. “Women who are young enough to be having children have got decades left of ministry; so to quibble about the right number of months at the beginning just seems insane.”

Ms Taylor had her first child during the first year of her curacy in the diocese of London, where she had a “hugely supportive” incumbent and PCC, but had not served long enough to be entitled to the diocesan maternity pay. She had received a letter from the Church Commissioners stating that she was entitled to the full stipend, which turned out to be a “clerical error”. She had spent a week’s worth of hours arranging cover, and had been told that appointing a woman of childbearing age was a “risk”.

Ms Noppen, whose children were both born while she was an incumbent, spoke of the challenge of finding any information about shared parental leave. Confirmation had not been provided by the diocese, which had failed to complete the appropriate paperwork. She also spoke of the pressure of trying to secure cover during a challenging pregnancy.

She spoke anecdotally of the “sheer quantity of women leaving parish ministry, because the expectations on us as vicars with young kids is really hard”. Yet she had been “amazed” by how much having children had “fleshed out” her ministry.

It is, the authors write, “worryingly common for women with young children to be steered towards SSM ministry and/or actively discouraged from looking for incumbency posts”.

The report is “one example of something that, arguably, should have been organised and funded centrally”, its authors write. It refers to General Synod questions about a a lack of centrally available data. A 24-hour writing retreat was funded by WATCH. The Ministry Council funded the final publication and distribution.

Many women who told the authors their stories were “reluctant to be named or to identify their diocese”. But the aim was not to “embarrass” dioceses, but to inspire improvements, Dr Caro said this week. “We are doing this on behalf of women who don’t feel able to have the conversation.”

“We are for the Church,” Ms Taylor said. “We are critical, but because we want it to be constructive. The Church could be a brilliant place [for clergy parents] and, in many cases, with a small amount of change.”

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