Just a few clarifications…

Eight days on from my last post I confess I have been amazed at the amount of views it has had. Clearly Angela Tilby’s comments have stirred up much interest in this area. I was equally surprised to find my blog referred to by Ian Paul in his own blog post on the topic http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/should-clergy-have-christmas-day-off/. The whole post is worth reading as it raises many important questions about Christmas and the wider topic of clergy work and marriage.

His comments on my post did leave me feeling that on some points he was arguing against something which I had not said. I realise that my writing may have lacked clarity in some areas and is perhaps open to being misunderstood so I wish to respond to his comments to (hopefully!) make sure that no one misunderstands what I am trying to say. Ian’s comments were as follows:

‘One response to the ‘model’ question is offered on the Clergy Spouse Support blog, commenting on Tilby. In reaction to an approach to ministry that says clergy marriages must find their place in the wider context of ordination, the response seems to be to reverse the order: ordination must find its place in and under the more primary call to marriage. I understand this reaction, but I am not convinced about it, not least because, for the first years of our marriage we only had every other Christmas Day together, since Maggie was the GP on call. Why is ordination less important than other vocations? And what then might we say to those who are not married—do we have an equally strong sense of the vocation to friendship? Surely a better model is to locate both marriage and ordination within the wider category of God’s call, within which there needs to be negotiation between conflicting demands. And if we are offering a model, that should neither be one of workaholic neglect of family, nor retreating into the bunker of nuclear family, but the kind of engaged and open relational structures that we aim to model at other times of ministry (don’t we?).’

By referring to Tilby’s column I may have given the impression that I was arguing strongly for clergy to take most of Christmas Day off. I actually think that clergy families and the contexts in which clergy are ministering are so diverse that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Christmas Day – this is partly why I was so baffled by Tilby’s column as it was making vast generalisations about a very varied set of people and situations. I did not mean to say that working on Christmas day is equivalent to ‘job-olatry’, just as I do not think that taking some time-off on Christmas Day is equivalent to ‘family-olatry.’ You are not a great wife just because you do not work on Christmas Day or a terrible one because you do.

Rather than being prescriptive about how we should all spend Christmas Day, I was trying to set a theological context for how we understand the balance between marriage and ordained ministry throughout the year. If my husband thought there was a pastoral need for him to work all of Christmas Day I would support this and I do not feel a particular need to protect that specific time. However this is because as a couple we are working in the belief that our marriage is a priority and this means that I trust him to prioritise his work and our family needs appropriately. We are constantly discerning how this balance works and we have made plenty of mistakes in the past six years and will certainly make plenty more but overall I know that there is no sense in which the parish ‘comes first’ at any time of year. There are busy times when the parish inevitably gets more of his time but this was the case in my job when I was in full-time employment. I think it was Tilby’s language of the parish coming first which disturbed me. Why use that particular turn of phrase? When I had busy times at work I never declared to my husband ‘the students of Durham University must come first at this time of year.’ It never occurred to me to think of any job in this way until I married a clergyman and discovered that people would talk about ordained ministry in these terms.

I am not sure I fully understand the suggestion that whether you work or not on Christmas Day indicates anything about the value of your vocation. I was not saying that ordination is less important than being a doctor therefore clergy do not need to work on Christmas Day. I hold that every vocation is important all of the time and how we discern where our time is best spent day-to-day and season-to-season will vary for each of us. Many people are in jobs where they have to work on Christmas Day and I think most of us are rightly grateful to them for serving their community in this way. I only feel that the drive for clergy to work excessively (which may come from them or others) when they do not need to suggests that ordination is all too often held to be more important than other vocations.

I am certainly not advocating a ‘retreat into the bunker of nuclear family’ approach. I agree with Ian that engaged and open relational structures are what we would like to aim for at all times of year. The longer my husband has been in ministry the more I find that I want to find ways to better share our lives with the people around us and I value when others share their day-to-day lives with us. Yet to me this seems enabled by the fact that our marriage is held as our first calling within the overarching call to follow God. When I know the parish will not be prioritised over our marriage I feel no need to be protective or draw up boundaries. When our marriage is healthy our cup is full and overflows with love into our other relationships. No one can serve from an empty cup which is why all clergy should enjoy the blessing of friends and family whether single or married. I love Fredrickson and Smith’s description of how marriage fits into the wider community:

 ‘All are joined together in Christ through baptism, remaining connected throughout life. Faith ties the couple together and anchors them securely in the larger community. Through marriage and union, the love of Christ shines. A marriage is nurtured through its connection with the larger community, just as community life is enriched by the grace of those who are bound together in union.’

I’m not saying clergy families should be hiding away in their little family units and only scurrying out to take the odd service or two. I much prefer the vision of marriage and community as interdependent and mutually enriching.

I was definitely not suggesting that single clergy should work more than those who are married. I don’t think you need to put forward friendship as a greater vocation than ordination to prevent them from overworking. In order to model a Christian life we are all called to enjoy the blessing of family and friends in whatever way this takes form in our life. We are to live trusting in God rather than our own efforts which is why overworking is bad regardless of your job or marital status. It seems to me that many clergy are sent the message that the job must come before everything. If they respond to this message it is damaging for them all but some of the ways this damage appears will vary depending on their marital status. A single clergy friend once spoke of how lonely they found their curacy – in a busy work schedule it may be hard to find time to form deep friendships which are sustaining. For married clergy being married can protect against this loneliness but the damage often appears in the stress put on their marriage.

I do not think I can agree that we should see marriage and ordination as conflicting demands which we must negotiate. Why would God call us to two things which will be in conflict with each other? Marriage and ordination have some fundamental differences. If you read the marriage and ordination vows you can see that both vocations are a serious undertaking but the ordination vows are to a way of life and activities which can be carried out in many varied ways. Within the vow to live according to Christ’s example every ordained person will find a unique way to live out their ordination vows in such a way as to build up the whole body of Christ. The Church ordains Self-Supporting Ministers who in terms of hours spent on duties may spend more time working in a secular role but will still be living out their ordination vows in all that they do. I would argue that the marriage vows are more specific as you vow to love, comfort, honour, protect and cherish your spouse, forsaking all others. Your vows are focused on one person and the unique relationship you will hold with them. You do not have a variety of options in how you live out life as a married person, you are specifically called to love one person in a way in which you will love no other human being. Reading the vows also highlights that this sort of relationship requires real time and dedication. If other aspects of your life are intruding on your marriage and eroding away time together it will be impossible to grow together in love in such a way as to ‘be united with one another in heart, body and mind.’ Ordination vows can be upheld in whatever situation the ordained person finds themselves in, including when they are spending time with their spouse.

Ultimately I don’t think you can approach any decision making process holding two aspects of your life in perfect balance. I agree with the clergyman quoted in Public People: Private Lives, ‘I think we’ve got the message wrong. You can’t have two priorities of equal standing. You’ve got to say one’s first and the other’s second.’ You will always end up thinking of one thing in light of the other. Either you make decisions about your marriage in light of your vocation or you make decisions about your vocation in the context of your marriage. I think the latter is the only way you can get marriage and vocation in right relation to each other.

I hope this has clarified areas where I may have been unclear or open to misinterpretation. It is great to see the discussion generated by Tilby’s column and I hope whatever conclusion you come to you find it helpful to think through your own views on marriage, ordained ministry and how we balance however many vocations God calls us to!

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