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Synod backs a change in church culture to allow clergy a proper day off

07 July 2024

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CLERGY will be entitled to 36 hours of rest in every seven-day period, including an uninterrupted rest period of 24 hours, if the Archbishops’ Council amends the Terms of Service regulations as the General Synod requested on Saturday.

The motion from the diocese of Winchester was brought by Alison Coulter (Winchester), who told the clergy: “You are a precious resource. . . Our priority is to care for you.” Rest was fundamental to well-being, “part of our God-given pattern of life”, she said.

The latest report from the ten-year Living Ministry research project had revealed one quarter of incumbents to be suffering from poor mental health as a result, in part at least, of not getting enough rest (News, 23 February). One had described his appointment to a benefice with seven churches as “the worst time in my life”.

There was no obstacle in the current regulations to the “modest increase” in time off proposed, which would allow clerics to take more than a 24-hour break each week, she said. “We want to encourage wider discussion of what is realistic. It’s a small but important step which I ask you to support.”

The debate was lively and intense.

Professor Lynn Nichol (Worcester), a clergy wife for 37 years, hoped wryly that the motion could be backdated to 1987 — she had calculated that more than two years of time off would be owing. It was about “principles, practicalities, and permission”, she said. “The requirement for a six-day working pattern is ingrained in the Church of England. This would give clergy explicit permission to look after themselves.”

A successful amendment by the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland, specifically affirmed the Sabbath “as a time to cease and delight, part of God’s creation, a life-giving gift of God”. “A day off catching up on necessary tasks is not a Sabbath day,” he said.

Many clergy contributors to the debate acknowledged their own liability for not resting. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that the motion was trying to achieve culture change, and so the Sabbath amendment was very appropriate. “We have much work to do to bring about that cultural shift,” she said. “We are particularly vulnerable to an assumption that everything relies on us.”

“Much as love this call, I could too easily become a slave to it,” Canon Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich), said, and made reference to clergy inclination towards “a Messiah complex”.

The challenge to take time off in a parish context was more complex than a legislative one, Denis Tully (Southwell & Nottingham) suggested. Priests had to manage a range of often conflicting expectations, “most coming from within, which can be a distillation of all the external expectations”.

Dr Simon Clift (Winchester) referred to “unmanageable workloads and unrealistic job descriptions”. The Archdeacon of Leeds, the Ven. Paul Ayers, pointed out that there was no obstacle to clergy taking rest within the current rules, unless out of “ignorance and self-management. . . Sometimes we impose this pressure on ourselves. I have valued the huge freedom to organise my own life. We should be careful about wanting to become normal employees,” he said.

The Revd Steve Wilcox (York) and the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, both strongly emphasised the need to address the underlying culture of the Church, which they said was compliance heavy.

The Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield) said that self-supporting ministers should also be thought of. Her self-supporting curate had a dual calling as a funeral director, and many in full-time jobs did not even have 24 hours off, she said.

“Be careful we don’t sound a little bit entitled. . . In the wider world out there, people are doing two jobs just to survive.”

“Let this be just the start,” the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, said. “I will be looking for a much better deal for parish clergy.”

The Synod resisted an amendment which called for a 48-hour rest period. The vote in favour was overwhelming: 336 for, three against, with six abstentions.

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