Theological reflection: Mandy Ford

A theological reflection in response to Enabling Choice by The Very Revd Dr Mandy Ford, Dean of Bristol.

The biblical model of covenant is the unifying thread describing God’s relationship with God’s people; an asymmetrical relationship between the giver of all gifts and the creatures who are dependent on them, containing within it a gracious invitation. We are invited not only to a relationship with God but to relationship with one another that reflect that covenant relationship – relationships of gracious generosity and mutual regard.

In 2019 the General Synod adopted the “Clergy Covenant” as an expression of the mutuality between bishops, the National Church Institutions, congregations and clergy.

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scripture and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in every generation.

In its formularies, the Church of England recognises that God calls some to serve as deacons, priests and bishops to build up and equip the whole People of God.

Conscious that such a calling is both a privilege and a demand, we commit together to promote the welfare of our clergy and their households.

We undertake to work together to coordinate and improve our approach to clergy care and wellbeing so that the whole Church may flourish in the service of the mission of God.

Whilst much of the supporting documentation focussed on the relationships between clergy and their bishops, and clergy and their congregations, there was also acknowledgement that the financial and resource provision (primarily housing during the period of active ministry) for clergy impacts on their wellbeing. The documentation recognises that a healthy and flourishing church will include healthy and flourishing clergy who are confident in being valued and appreciated not only by the individuals with whom they come into contact, but also by the institution. The clergy covenant seeks to embody a sense of mutuality between all the different constituent parts.

Throughout scripture, we see God making free provision for his people in creation, in relationship and in salvation. We understand this covenantal relationship as a promise, not a transaction. However, we do need a word of caution. While there is mutuality in the biblical covenants, they are entirely asymmetrical. God acts freely in creating us, sustaining us and redeeming us. All is gift and grace.

Human frailty has led us to feel the need to boundary some covenantal relationships with legal frameworks, such as those which govern marriage, and those present in the provision of stipends and housing for most office holding clergy. The vocation to ministry is a self-sacrificial calling in which fulfilment is tied to God’s purpose for the individual, the community and the world. It has dimensions far beyond the legal frameworks of ministry, but the church recognises that ministerial vocation is lived out within the community of the church.

Every covenant relationship enables individual freedom, yet takes individual need seriously within the covenant community. Thus holiness, (For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. Lev 11:44, 19:2, 20:7 and 1 Peter 1:16) includes care for the widow, the outcast and the orphan (Deut 14:29, 1 Tim 5:13-16). If one metaphor for the church is that of a covenant community, then the church has an obligation to care for those who can no longer care for themselves.

The challenge lies in balancing the obligation towards every individual member with the obligation towards the wider community, including those who will minister in the church of the future. A further challenge lies in the varied understandings of the nature of the covenant, promise or obligation as it has been expressed over time.

In the past, some ordinands have been told that they should sell any property they owned - “because the church will look after you”, others have been encouraged to hold onto property or even to buy before beginning training as part of their financial planning.

Where perhaps once it was anticipated that the (male) cleric would have a spouse whose full-time task was to care for the home and family while sharing in parochial pastoral ministry, in more recent times clergy of both genders may have full-time working partners contributing to the family income. Income levels and expectations of lifestyle have varied widely across time and geography. Finally, we cannot ignore the impact of class on clergy quality of life – the availability of wider family resources to pay for education, holidays, or to provide the deposit for a house or car.

While one generation of clergy may willingly acknowledge that they can and should take responsibility for planning for their own retirement, while still struggling to find the resources to do so, another generation may look to the church to fulfil the promise to care for its retired clergy, on the basis that the stipend is insufficient to provide savings for all that is needed for retirement. Finally, the current cost of housing in England may simply prohibit clergy from getting on the housing ladder, as is the case for many in wider society.

Such a diversity of experience and contexts makes it clear that one model of provision will not provide appropriate housing for all clergy in retirement. Considering our overriding model of covenant, what theological principles might underlie a range of approaches?

The principle of mutual regard reminds us that we are part of one body and should care for the weaker part. That will mean making provision for those in the greatest need, both at the end and the beginning of ministry.

The principle of freedom invites us into dialogue with one another and the institution, to discern how that mutuality will be best expressed in response to individual need, including the suggestion that not all clergy will need to, or wish to, wait until retirement to make provision for housing.

Finally, we return to the gifts we enjoy in creation, freely and generously given by God. How might we focus faithfully on the things that enable the flourishing of the whole body of the church and its ministers?