Religion News Service reports that Church of England clergy are turning in increasing numbers to trade unions for support in a stressful line of work.
According to one of Britain’s largest unions, Unite, there has been a rapid increase in the past year in the number of Anglican parish priests, or vicars, joining its specialist faith worker branch. Almost 1,500 priests plus a few rabbis and imams joined the union last year — an increase of 16 percent in 12 months.
The Anglican vicars are joining despite not having the usual British employment rights, because they are termed “officeholders” and cannot take their complaints to an employment tribunal. And while they cannot pursue rights they don’t have as members of Unite, they can seek counsel and support there from others familiar with their travails.
According to the Rev. Peter Hobson, who is head of the priests’ Unite branch, Church of England Clergy Advocates, vicars are turning to the union because they are under pressure from all sides — from the people in the pews and from their bishops.
“Although it is a vocation, it is also a very difficult role,” Hobson said.
The fact that their bishop is at once their pastor and their manager makes it difficult for clergy at times to know where to turn for advice and support, Hobson told RNS, and more likely to turn to someone outside of the church system, such as a union.
In rural areas, the benefice approach often has clergy taking care of several churches at once, adding to the sense of isolation, the report finds.
Rector Sarah Jones … came into the church after a career in industry and … is now in charge of three benefices in the picturesque town of Ross-on-Wye.
“I can honestly say that this is the toughest role I have ever had,” she said. While vicars work a six-day week, she said that they are “always on call.”
“People nowadays expect and demand a quick response if they contact you. And there are some people who seem to feel free to express their anger to clergy in a way they would never do to someone else. They think we should turn the other cheek.”
Jones agrees that rural priests in particular have a very stressful life.
“Most of us find that we do our best pastoral work when we are in tune with a particular community. But if you have five or six communities to look after, it becomes very hard.”
But while Jones is one of those who have turned to the union for support, it is not her first port of call.
… As rector, Jones finds one thing above all helps. “The rhythm of prayer and the Scriptures is the greatest help there is in handling stress.”