'Reclothed in our rightful mind?'

by Graham Blyth

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

For most clergy perhaps the spectre of depressive illness rarely darkens their door. They usually report high job-satisfaction, and often continue in fulfilling ministry during retirement. Despite the stresses and strains of parochial life clergy are often resilient; and many are sustained by what they often claim is an unshakeable personal faith.

However others are haunted by shadows. The decline in the number of stipendiary clergy, and rapidly-changing patterns of ministry already involve seismic shifts in the nature of our task ('task' rather than vocation) and the intensity of our workload. Anxiety about pensions, retirement housing and about the energy needed to 'keep the show on the road' are beginning to sap spiritual vitality. For many clergy 'burnout' is a likely outcome at least once during a long ministry (those who come into ministry later in life are probably better protected). At a much wider level morale is being eroded by the very public display of the church's global divisions in the media. For anyone who cares not only about their pastoral calling but their commission to spread the Good News there is now the uncomfortable recognition that the Anglican Christian family is highly dysfunctional. Inviting others to join it in the hope of finding God's love begins to look more like advertising the Macbeths' dinner-party: the outcome will provoke an apparition of bloodied ghosts (liberal and conservative) and result in blood on the carpet.

Although the Church of England likes to pretend that it does not have 'employees' it still owes a 'duty of care' to its workforce. Whilst the parochial clergy continue to deliver usually highly professional levels of pastoral care to their congregations and communities, the managerial style of those higher up the ladder often leaves them confused and let down. Isolation is a well-known factor in clergy life. There are fewer guarantees today that one's ecclesiastical superiors will be able to be involved, supportive or understanding. That is partly a matter of the heavy workload of archdeacons and bishops. But it is also partly the human cost of running a large and unwieldy institution which often runs at a loss and is exempt from human rights and other forms of employment legislation. Today's clergy are in fact well-advised to put their own individual support-systems in place; and appropriate self-care is the model which many dioceses now recommend (usually with limited funding).

The subtext to all this is 'Put up and shut up'. The institutional church often hits back with the argument 'You knew what you were signing up for when you got ordained'. There is also the handy proof-text of course about putting one's hand to the plough but then (like Lot's wife or the hapless Orpheus) looking back. But I wonder how many of us did know? And how many of today's ordinands do? Emotional casualties amongst the clergy are, I believe, far more common than is realised. A great many 'suffer in silence', avoiding hospitalisation but living with disabling and difficult mental illnesses which they dare not confide to their employers. For to 'break down' means that clergy themselves become 'the problem'. Few senior clergy in positions of authority are likely to blame the 'system' for exacerbating the issue. It is so much more expedient to 'shoot the messenger' instead and blame the victim. Parishes can often be encouraged to collude with this scenario - 'why didn't someone warn us our vicar had problems?' - although there are courageous and loving exceptions. And if one is going to be off duty with stress it is always better to have some physical ailment to hang the truth upon.

It was telling that in the Windsor Report, Section A (2004) the 'illness' model ('surface symptoms and deeper symptoms') was applied not only to the Anglican Communion (as opposed to its being 'healthy') but to the status of homosexual partnered priests. Using the illness metaphor makes it all the more obvious that gay and lesbian clergy (to say nothing of those who are bisexual or transgendered) are not seen by the church as 'wholesome examples'; and in the case of sexuality the metaphor flies in the face anyway of scientific assessments since 1973. Although all clergy are currently under considerable pressure, I believe we ought to be particularly aware of the appalling strain under which clergy whose sexual orientation is different have to work. Although most in the latter category are more than familiar with the terms of the debate which has ground on for well over a decade, it is the insidious psychological 'war of attrition' which makes their situation week by week and day by day so draining.

Severe depressive illness or bipolar disorder (characterised by extreme mood- swings) can greatly undermine cognitive ability and impair effective functioning. Desolation and doubt become constant, unwelcome companions. Social and professional taboos make such illnesses difficult to talk about. In terms of a minister's faith such disorders can have devastating and lasting effects, making any sense of the presence of God or prayer both impossible. Often the treatments of choice are medication coupled with psychotherapy (the latter being expensive). Many of these diseases recur or persist for years. Some dioceses do have funds to assist clergy with counselling costs. But in general the church seems largely oblivious to the fact that her own strictures - and structures too - often contribute to this excruciating form of suffering. Such denial of responsibility is surely another 'symptom' of the church's need to always give a positive spin to its mission and ministry. This approach leaves its pastors to fend for themselves, and to seek out sympathetic secular sources of help. Mental illness amongst the working clergy is but another example of an area (like sexuality) which the Christian church finds it impossible to address with understanding. Perhaps Windsor is right. Until it finds a way, the church cannot hope to be restored to 'its rightful mind', however much it brags about already having 'the mind of Christ'. We have yet a long way to travel. It's ironic how this state of affairs reminds me of those words of Jesus: 'I have much to say to you, but you cannot bear it now.'

Dr Graham Blyth is Priest in Charge, St John Baptist, Danbury and Non-Residentiary Canon of Chelmsford Cathedral.