The privilege of serving the local church

(Photo: Anissa Thompson)

Serving the local church is an enormous privilege, stressful though it can be at times.

That is why the article by Thought for Day presenter Anne Atkins in The Times (February 1st) - 'Go back into parish ministry? It's just too stressful...' - in which she explained why 'she would never allow her husband to work for the Church of England again' calls for an answer.

Mrs Atkins, whose ordained husband served 15 years in parish ministry but is now working happily as a school chaplain, said stress was the reason 'wild horses (would) not drag us back into parish ministry'. Mr Atkins was bedridden twice for six months due to ME; five out of seven members of the Atkins family experienced depression; Mr Atkins suffered a 'shattering' breakdown and the family faced financial difficulties, pressures that were not 'incidental' to the job, but 'caused by it', Mrs Atkins said.

It is very sad that an able and committed evangelical minister like Mr Atkins and members of his family suffered in this way. But his wife's negative generalisation from a particular case needs to be countered by the following points:

1) Whilst chaplaincies provide opportunities for the gospel, parish ministry is an unparalleled opportunity to serve the Body of Christ meeting in a local church. Without churches rooted in local communites, the Christian faith would soon die out in the UK. That is one reason why building up 'God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth' (1 Timothy 3v15 - NIV) with the rich pasture of the God-breathed Scriptures is such an urgent and vital calling.

2) Whilst a proportion of clergy are in the danger zone in terms of stress and may be advised to move into some other area of ministry, many parochial clergy in the Church of England are being by God's grace fruitful for the Lord Jesus Christ in some difficult areas. South Yorkshire, for example, is a difficult area for Christian ministry, but clergy running nurture courses such as Start, Christianity Explored and Alpha in their parishes are seeing people coming to saving faith in Christ.

3) Whilst clergy are paid less in salary than other responsible professionals, the over-all package is pretty good for the voluntary sector. The houses parochial clergy are generally provided with would cost a lot of money to rent or to pay a mortgage on. Yes, clergy do not own the tied houses they live in, but vicarages almost invariably provide spacious accommodation for families growing up, with the payment of council tax part of the package. Many hard-working families in this country are living in much more cramped conditions in accommodation they do not own.

4). The job security clergy enjoy as office holders, even under the new terms of service, is very high. Parochial clergy remain hard to dismiss even when they might deserve to be. The great privilege of serving in the Church of England is that a vicar cannot be sacked for preaching the biblical gospel.

Significantly, Mrs Atkins's article did not engage with a relatively new pressure on clergy serving local churches and that is a growing culture of bureaucratic centralism and managerialism in Church of England dioceses. This culture is unhelpful to the parochial frontline and is in practice counter-productive in a voluntary organisation that is becoming ever more financially reliant on local churches.

But in opposition to Mrs Atkins's portrayal of vicar as victim, the writer of Psalm 84 deserves the last word: 'Better is one day in your (the Lord's) courts than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked' (v10).

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