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Change and Clerical Decay

Dexter Bracey asks if the current agenda for change in the Church of England might not be at odds with the spirit of the newly published Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing. Could it be that the trend for reinvention is driving clergy to burn out?

The heavy burden of office appears to be taking its toll on Archbishop Justin Welby, with comments on social media about his sometimes frail-looking appearance. I for one hope that he is in good health, and that his forthcoming sabbatical may be a time of refreshment and renewal for him.

Yet, only a year from when the Church of England agreed its Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing, I find myself pondering why the burdens of office might weigh on him in a particularly heavy way. I have no doubt that the demands of that particular office are very weighty; but I can think of too many clergy who have been made ill in the exercise of their office, so I suspect that a deeper malaise is at work.

Part of that malaise, I suspect, is the culture in which “change” has become so central. It is no secret that Justin Welby took up office intending to instigate a significant change in the life and culture of the Church of England. Indeed, the programme at the heart of his archiepiscopate is called ‘Renewal and Reform’, words that speak of things being shaken up rather than of stability and continuity. At various points, Archbishop Justin has complained that “there are no easy levers of change that I can pull” (1) but despite that he has overseen a massive shift in the way in which the Church of England sets its priorities, focusses its spending, and speaks and thinks about its purpose. The introduction of the Strategic Development Fund, and the rapid growth of resource churches, have seen traditional parish ministry, with all its established connections and relationship, downgraded in favour of resource hubs and fresh expressions. Follow the money, and you will see exactly what the Church of England under Justin Welby thinks is important.

Achieving such a shift will not have come easily. It will have required the overcoming of resistance at every level, and constantly working against the grain would be exhausting for anyone. That will be as true for an archbishop as it will be for anyone else. There are also clergy around the country who have suffered as a result of the pressure to introduce change, and to be seen to be getting with the programme.

In some places, the expectation that those in ministry will be in the business of driving change through the barriers of resistance is embedded in some of the on-going training offered to clergy. When I served in the Bristol Diocese I was one of a large number of clergy put through its Missional Leadership Course run jointly with CPAS. Those leading the course were enthusiastic supporters of the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme, and at the heart of that course was a conviction that change was an inherently good thing, which should be the goal of every Christian minister. Indeed, such was the commitment to the ideal of change as an inherent good that one of the tutors said at one point that he wished that at theological college he had spent less time studying Christology and more time studying change management.

One particular session from that course, however, remains stuck in my mind. Another of the tutors told us the supposedly encouraging tale of one minister who had achieved his desired change in his church. He had done so by committing an entire year to his project of changing the community for which he was responsible, and spending every available evening visiting members of his congregation, putting his case, and winning people over one by one. They came to agree with him: he achieved his goal. Having told this story, though, the tutor added – almost as an afterthought – that the minister in question had made himself ill in the process of seeing his project through.

I don’t know if I was the only one to be struck by that final comment, but I was the one stupid enough to put up my hand and ask if that was what the Church of England now expected of its clergy, that we should put our health on the line in order to pursue the holy grail of change. Of course, it was a stupid question, because there is no way that anyone would answer it. The tutor ‘ummed’, and ‘ahhed’, and fluffed and flannelled, and averred that it was all very difficult. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the Church of England does indeed see its clergy as cannon fodder in the war for change, and that we are expected, as one former colleague of mine once put it, to suck it up for Jesus.

Of course, we all know that change in the life of the Church of England is inevitable, and that things can’t go on as they are indefinitely. Yet quite how the life of the Church will develop cannot now be known, much less planned for. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that plans are the playthings of fools: events will lay waste the best made plans, and we gain nothing by making ourselves ill in pursuit of them. What we need now is the Spirit of wisdom that we might know something of God’s intentions for his Church, not the wisdom of management consultants and change managers.

The Church of England now has a Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing. We might find it ironic that such a thing has come into being in the year when clergy redundancies have begun to loom as a frightening reality. I would suggest, therefore, that if the Church of England is serious about the well-being of its clergy, it might revisit some of the assumptions behind the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme. It might then consider where and how to invest in parish clergy who are so often overstretched and under-resourced. It might even do away with the idol of ‘change’ which so often puts clergy through the mill, can stretch pastoral relationships to their limit or beyond, and takes a massive toll, spiritually and emotionally, on those expected to drive that change through.

We have recently celebrated the incarnation of the One who came that we might have life and have it in abundance: clergy, be they parish priest or archbishop, might know more of that abundant life if they were free of programmes for change.

The Rev’d Dexter Bracey, Rector of St John the Baptist, Coventry

1) e.g. (15th July 2019)

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