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Beware talk of choice about retirement housing, theologian warns Pensions Board     

19 January 2024

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THE “starkly consumeristic vocabulary” of “enabling choice”, used in the Pensions Board’s consultation on retirement housing for clergy, has been criticised in a set of theological reflections.

The Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, who is a specialist in economic ethics, suggests that the language is “perhaps somewhat unhelpful here, since choice is a feature of privilege . . . alongside the document’s seeming preference for home ownership [it] suggests a potential middle-class bias, whereas many clergy will not feel like they have much choice about retirement housing.

“Other aspects of the document are more encouraging, when the aim is not so much enabling choice, as recognising the diversity of circumstances in which clergy find themselves.”

The consultation was launched in November after the Board warned that the current provision — the CHARM scheme that enables clergy to rent a property from the Board — had become unsustainable (News, 17 November, 24 November).

Among the four principles set out in the proposals is “enabling home ownership during ministry, through overcoming barriers to level the playing field between clergy and their peers”.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Revd Dr Sean Doherty speaks at the General Synod meeting in York, last July

Dr Doherty welcomes some elements of the document, including the suggestion of a “substantial means-tested contribution towards a deposit on a first-time mortgage” — in line with the biblical principle that “the worker deserves their wages.” The emphasis on long-term planning “potentially guards against clergy becoming infantilised and falling into an expectation that ‘the Church will look after me/us”, he writes.

He warns, however, that “greater responsibility on the part of the clergy should not be an excuse for the Church to take less responsibility.” The Board has emphasised the effect of rising costs, he writes, but “does not propose a meaningful discussion about how much additional funding the Church should make available to meet these rising costs. It places the primary responsibility for addressing the situation on the shoulders of the clergy. When it does talk about the continued provision of Church retirement homes, it is primarily to suggest ways in which this provision could be reduced or more restricted.”

The document is “one-sided at best”, he concludes, “especially since any reduction in provision will take place at a time in which the clergy pension has been reduced from 2/3 to 1/2 of the National Minimum Stipend”. More discussion is needed, he writes, to ensure that the Church is not hindered in its aim of “reducing the barriers that prevent ordained ministry from being as accessible as it should be to people from all backgrounds”.

The deadline for responses to the consultation is 31 January. Dr Doherty’s contribution is one of four requested by the Pensions Board, and can be read here.

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