One of the strange things about my job is what happens when I have to fill in an official form that asks about my work status. I am not employed, and I don’t have a contract. I don’t get paid to work: I receive a stipend. (I am ‘given a living’.) Technically, I am an ‘office holder’. I hold the office of vicar, but I am not employed by the Church or anyone else.
Since 2011, all new appointments of clergy have been under something called ‘Common Tenure’. This is an attempt by the Church of England to ensure that office holders have rights and responsibilities like those who are employed and who do have a contract. It came about partly because the Government has the power to give the rights of employees to those in work who are not employees and to impose employment legislation on the Church. Common Tenure is the Church’s attempt to ensure that it follows best practice, comparable to other professions.
For example, under Common Tenure, I have the right to a day off each week – 24 hours of uninterrupted rest. (I have that right – the reality is often different!) I also have the right to 36 days leave each year. (During the pandemic that, too, has been difficult.) Because of the nature of my office, I am not allowed to take Sunday as my day off, in the normal run of things, nor any of the Church’s principal feasts; or Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. In addition to annual leave, the diocesan bishop is allowed to grant periods of ‘special leave’. (I’m not expecting to need paternity leave any time soon.)
Again, under Common Tenure, I have the responsibility to cooperate with the diocese’s scheme of Ministerial Development Review (MDR), Education and Training. This is like continuing professional development that you would find in other professions. In July 2021, as part of my MDR, I met with the Archdeacon of Chester, Mike Gilbertson, to review my ministry, to identify how my ministry might best develop and what training or other needs I had. One of the outcomes of this meeting was that we identified that it might be time for me to take a Sabbatical.
Legally, a Sabbatical comes under the bishop’s power to grant special leave to clergy. It is a period of 90 days paid leave, during which time the person taking the Sabbatical still receives their stipend but is on leave from the duties of their office. I can already hear voices saying, “It’s alright for some!” and I understand that.
There are professions where taking a sabbatical is par for the course – academics, for example, often have the opportunity to take sabbatical leave. They might use this time to do research or writing, uninterrupted by the routine meetings and other administrative demands of their job. In some parts of the world, long service leave is available to all. In Australia, for example, anyone who has been in a job for a certain number of years is entitled to a period of leave in addition to their annual leave.
To qualify for a Sabbatical in Chester Diocese, you have to have been in post for not less than seven years, and not have had a sabbatical for at least seven years. I was ordained in 1986, which means that I have been in ministry for over 35 years, and in that time I have only had one previous Sabbatical – I used that in my previous parish to complete a Master’s Degree in Ecumenical Theology. It also meant that I was able to take Christmas Day as a holiday and spend it with my parents. And that meant they were able to see their grandchildren on Christmas Day – a rare occurrence. (In my previous diocese, the bishop insisted that sabbatical leave had to include being on holiday for either Christmas or Easter – because it is the only opportunity you will have until retirement to be off on either of those holidays.)
The word ‘sabbatical’ comes from the biblical idea of Sabbath, where, as part of God’s good creation there is a rhythm of work and rest (Genesis 2.3; Exodus 20.8-11). You work for six days and then the seventh is the Sabbath when you do no work. The bible also gives the land a sabbath: you work the land for six years and then, in the seventh, you allow the land to rest; you leave it fallow (Exodus 23:10–11). The idea is to give the land chance to recover so that it will be more productive when you return to it.
This is also the idea behind clergy taking a period of sabbatical leave: it gives an opportunity to rest from the demands of work and to reflect and, hopefully, return to their duties renewed and refreshed.
Following my MDR meeting, I applied to the Bishop to ask for Sabbatical leave. The bishops considered my request and agreed to it. My Sabbatical will begin in November this year and end in January 2023. So, I will be off work for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. We plan to spend part of that time in Australia, visiting family, and spending time with grandchildren at Christmas – something we would not otherwise be able to do.
You may know that I have just come back from Australia, as I took my post-Easter break to travel to Melbourne. While there, as well as playing on the beach with grandchildren, I made contact with the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, and spoke to him about my plans. While we are in Australia, I will make the Cathedral my home church and hope to learn about how the Anglican Church in the Southern Hemisphere marks Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. In England, we do those things during the winter – Christmas falls around the time of the winter solstice when days are short and dark, and cold. So much of our seasonal liturgy is about the light shining in the darkness. But in Australia, of course, Christmas Day is in the summer. People go to the beach and ‘chuck another shrimp on the barbie’. (Imagine singing, “Snow had fallen, snow on snow… in the bleak midwinter” when outside the sun is cracking the flags!) As it happens, the Dean of Melbourne was born in Germany and has also had to give thought to how the church can translate its liturgy from the northern to the southern hemisphere. I look forward to continuing that conversation with him.
I am aware that this opportunity for me comes at cost to others. With the wardens of both churches I will make sure that services are covered in my absence. (I am also planning to take one of the church musicians with me, so that will mean that we will need to make other arrangements for church services.)
My job between now and November will be to get in contact with other clergy in the Deanery and Diocese, including those who are retired but have permission to officiate, to ask for them to take services at St Cross and St Matthew’s during my period of leave. I hope that most services will proceed as normal, but we might need to look at some united services if resources are stretched. I will, of course, prioritise the main services for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
I am very grateful to the Wardens and PCCs of both churches who have expressed their support for my sabbatical. I plan to return to work revived and refreshed and better placed to face the challenges of the years ahead.