I am currently on a training course equipping me for ‘senior leadership’ in diocesan, para church and larger church contexts. There may be many things wrong or surprising about that sentence but the one that strikes me most today is the personal pronoun ‘I’.
I am one half of a clergy couple. Not by any means the better half – in gifts, talent or any other marker you might like to put down.
I am the taller half (by a whopping 14″), the male half, and certainly outwardly the most needy half, and it is for any combination of those factors – not least the last of them – that over past 18 years of exploring and living out ordained ministry I have attracted a whole range of mentors, coaches and other people wanting to and willing to invest in my life.
I have been invited to stand for general synod, joined significant committees there, been implored not to stand down after five years by 70 members of the synod, invited onto a senior leadership development track, trustee bodies, editing bodies, and given the opportunity of serving in a phenomenal and well resourced parish in West London.
But more often than not all this has until recently been ‘I‘.
There are various forms of clergy couples, and couples in ministry out there. Some have competing gifts, some operate in totally different spheres of influence, some easily play a role where one is a figurehead and the other a support. I’m not like that at all.
When I was 20 I was a passionate, charismatic, revivalist member of the FIEC and NFI churches. I met an 18-year-old girl on a scripture union camp who was totally unimpressed by me and all the things I thought I knew, and almost bewitched me with her ministry / skill /care /love /servant heartedness, teaching ability and downright brilliantness – as well as her femininity, beauty and way of laughing at herself.
At the time I was unsure whether women should have a leadership place in ministry. I was on a journey from the hardline position that said that women shouldn’t teach in church to having been struck by some amazing role models far more gifted than many men I had ever met. Whether internationally renowned Jackie Pullinger, or an unknown student at University leading her college CU group, I could see God at work in these women’s ministry in a way that defied some of the free church circles’ logic I had been operating in.
This 18-year-old girl with a calling to ordination since she was 7 sent shockwaves through my brain. But she still had to spend the next two or three years wading through my catching up on God’s plan for her, and many others around her echoing the gender theology (extreme complementarianism) I was increasingly beginning to reject. That amount of background noise is so hard for young women called by God for ordination. Inevitably it would make anyone question calling in a way that men never have to. It’s a sea of indifference or hostility to wade and swim through before you get to the shore of opportunity. Such a journey can make it hard to stand on the seashore next to men who have never had their calling questioned by those who are gatekeepers for their vocation.
My ordained journey hence began four years earlier than Nicola’s. The wonder of this was that we got to do successive curacies in a brilliant church under the ever-encouraging Revd Robert Carter. Even when I was curate and Nicola was a lay reader Robert saw us as an equally yoked team together and is clearly valued Nicola’s input at least as much as mine.* She was a part-time secondary school teacher in a tough school, and a part-time unpaid staff member of the church doing wonderful things across all age groups, including breaking down any residual resistance to women preaching in the church where the previous incumbent had been the chair of Reform through her wonderful expositional, logical preaching style. When she was curate Nicola had the substantial job of unpicking many of the mistakes I’d made in curacy, keeping the ministry going and growing and leading a substantial church through its interregnum. Yet even with all that wonderful ministry under her belt there I remember a PCC member saying they didn’t think that as a church they will be ready to have a woman as incumbent. (A high church nearby turned down a fabulous female candidate for a similar reason – that woman is now a Bishop).
When our attention was drawn by God to our current appointment we applied for it as a job share. Recognising the particularities of having three young children under four – the last of Nicola was pregnant with – we suggested a 60/40 split in the appointment. We recognised that such a job share faced significant challenges beyond imagination failure and subconscious prejudices: Incumbency is in the Anglican church has come under something called corporation sole, which basically means that the parish, it’s buildings & its vicarage become something akin to the legal property of a sole named incumbent (vicar) [despite the irony that there would usually be a plurality of members in a corporation]. The same is true for episcopal (Bishop) posts as for incumbents.
In what was probably retrospectively a wise Episcopal decision in the short-term, we acquiesced to Bishop in changing our application to say that I would be the named sole incumbent on the understanding that Nicola would be licensed as an associate vicar at the end of her maternity leave. This proceeded as planned and Nicola is even now paid a part stipend through the parish (which makes her a very affordable highly trained staff member in the rapidly grown parish team of c.14 paid staff including two other clergy). However, what has been enshrined in the episcopal decision to vest me as Vicar, predictably but tragically, is a putting asunder (separation) of ‘what God has brought together’ in our priestly ministry together. When people outside of the church context talk about what is going on, it’s me they see as the vicar. Increasingly however as people get to know us and certainly in the context the PCC and wardens see our gifts as utterly interchangeable. This looks to be increasingly true as our children’s start school and wider horizons open up for both of us in personal space and ministry.
One day, people tell me, I may be asked to be in ‘senior’ leadership. I may or may not be inadequate for that task. But my experience in pioneering, diocesan and parish ministry is that it’s when we work close together that we are most effective, and I have flourished far more. My hunch is that in God’s grace together we might do a halfway decent job of whatever God calls us to in the future. But for us to be at our best in parish, para church or any other context we are a ‘we‘.
Clearly couples working together can be, and has been, highly problematic in terms of power dynamics in all sorts of organisations and institutions. I’ve witnessed this in third sector and in church work. But if I am to do what God has called me to do in the way he has called me to do it, with the person who is frankly the only reason I’m doing it at all -thanks to her wonderful wisdom and influence and grace – then for us at least it’s time that end corporation sole – in both its legal, and psychological manifestations. We are a We!
* yoked oxen, apparently, will only walk side-by-side together if they are friends.