2010. január 5., kedd

Anglican Clergy - Employed by God?

Employed by God?
Are vicars getting a bad deal because their employer is legally God? Would they be better off with bishops?


Andrew Bronwn's Blog
The Guardian


The idea that the clergy of the Church of England are employed by God is always good for a laugh. If God really did work like the Church of England, the wouldn't be any clergy at all: the 14th revision of the plan for creating the Heavens and the Earth would still be held up while Angels and Archangels argued about whether the sea should be separated from the land, or the land from the sea. After millennia, Satan would storm out and set up in hell, because whatever else is wrong with the place it's only the damned who must sit in meetings there.

But when the Unite trade union complains that the clergy lack employment rights because they can't sue God, they are referring to a serious problem. The church isn't good at thinking about it, because it is caught between two models of authority, or styles of management, and neither seems to get the balance of power right.

Traditionally, parish clergy didn't need rights because they owned their jobs, quite literally. It was a feudal survival; they owed obedience to the bishop, but so long as they did not commit a crime, they would not be sacked or even forced to retire. This wasn't an entirely ludicrous system. It fostered considerable independence of mind, and made for great flexibility. On the other hand, it made it almost impossible, and certainly expensive and complicated, to get rid of a vicar who dug his heels in.

But this system is dying out, and the bishops are doing their best to kill it off. The freehold is tied to particular parish livings. As the church shrinks in the countryside, and parishes are amalgamated, the freeholds can also be eliminated, and replaced by simple contract jobs. These contracts, usually running for three years, can fail to be renewed without explanation. So, while a diminishing majority of clergy still have enviable security of employment, a growing minority have essentially none, and are dependent on the wisdom and benevolence of their bishop. That is not an entirely reassuring position even if some bishops can't see why.

This might not matter so much if the job were one that was easy to do, or in which success was easy to measure. But the parish clergy of the church of England are in an almost impossible position, because they are meant not just to nurture their own congregations, but to be available to anyone, and in some way to benefit their parishes. Whatever they do, someone will think they are failing: are they meant to be expanding their congregations, or looking in some way after everyone who needs their help? What happens if the congregation does not want to grow or change? It is a recipe for dissatisfaction, stress, and ultimately depression. There will always be people who cannot handle the job, or who fight with their congregations. Some of them should never have been priests in the first place.

If the bishop sides with the congregation when that happens, he will be accused of bullying; if he sides with the priest, he may lose the congregation. The one thing that very seldom works is reconciliation, because parochial rows are extraordinarily bitter, just like all other fights in small communities.

So it might seem that a modern and professional service, such as a union offers, is just what the church needs. None the less, the synod has rejected the idea, not just because it offers nothing to the priests who have entirely secure jobs. Instead, it is moving to a system of "common tenure", though this still has to be approved by parliament. This will offer greater security, if more bureaucratised, to those who presently have little: there will be performance reviews, and access to employment tribunals if they are sacked. But there will also be compulsory retirement at 70, and no new freehold jobs. Not exactly kicking and screaming, but after many committee meetings, the church is on schedule to enter the 20th century, round about 2011.

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