A new paper by Professor Caroline Gatrell and Bishop Nigel Peyton shows that priestly life can present a constant challenge. Nevertheless, most Anglican priests remain steadfast to their vows and consider the commitment of ordination to be lifelong.
They feel under obligation to be resilient and to continue inhabiting their particular vocational occupation regardless of whether or obedience to the vows they make when ordained comes easily to them.
The authors carried out the first ever study of the lives of Church of England clergy which revealed the personal costs of committing yourself to God.
Written by the Bishop of Brechin and Professor Caroline Gatrell of Lancaster University Management School, the book “Managing Clergy Lives” (Bloomsbury) is based on in-depth interviews with 46 deans.
The Bishop, the Rt Rev Dr Nigel Peyton, said it was revealing that every interview was interrupted in some way by a caller at the door or on the phone.
“Being a priest is like being a monarch – you can’t resign and your job is your life. You must always be available to people. As the vicar in the very accurate TV sitcom Rev said, there is no such thing as a day off when you are a vicar. You do not have the same opportunities or freedom as other people and this does entail sacrifices.”
One interviewee, Philip, found that when he opened his vicarage for “hunger lunches”, some parishioners took advantage.
“People don’t knock, they just come straight in. They’ll rifle through the kitchen cupboards to get the stuff ready for lunch without asking…”
Professor Gatrell said the clergy had developed strategies for coping with the loss of privacy involved in living in a vicarage, where there were constant callers.
Colin and his wife even pretended to be out.
“We will put the car in the garage and drop the blind in the living room and if we want to sit in the garden and read a book or something like that we shall do it and probably in front of the television as well, because otherwise people even ring on Bank Holidays won’t they?”
Other emotional costs include the problems of being friends with parishioners.
Patricia said: “There is almost a sense that if I have an intimate friendship with people in the parish then I am depriving them of their parish priest.”
She felt she had paid a “high price” in sacrificing motherhood since nobody had asked her out since she was ordained.
Living together is not an option for clergy whose behaviour is under constant scrutiny by parishioners, the Church, and God.
Spouses often resent the unofficial duties which they did not sign up to since they were not ordained. As one priest explained: “I am the only one handcuffed here.”
Other problems include having to adapt to a strange parish, whether a northern coalfield or an affluent suburb. Fiona even explored her new parish by going incognito to a local pub: “I wanted to find out what sort of community I was coming to and the local people.”
The authors say that their research revealed a greater anxiety about the mixed blessings of ministry in this world rather than an interest in deferred benefits in the next.