Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: Last days of the curates

I hear more and more about gifted young clergy leaving the church—and it fills me with dread
May 10, 2023

This June I will celebrate the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. The ordination was a big day. My title parish, St Mary and All Saints, Kidderminster, mustered the green Beryl crockery and prepared the chantry for a buffet luncheon to end all buffet luncheons. My sister and her family flew over from Minnesota, and my youngest stepson and his family came from London, representing the Jewish and Catholic sides of the family. My godfather, the composer Hugh Wood, came via Oxfordshire, offering a lift to the Revd Professor Christopher Evans (then aged 94) and the Rt Revd Peter Walker (formerly bishop of Ely), who baptised and confirmed me. Most importantly, my husband and daughter were cheering me on. 

In the Church of England, you are ordained first as a deacon, attaining the priesthood a year later. You then serve a kind of apprenticeship for two or three more years, working as an assistant curate, “curate” for short, under a more senior member of the clergy, known as a training incumbent, or TI. It’s the church equivalent of someone being a houseman in a hospital: they’re a doctor, but they’re still in training. 

 Curates seldom get a choice about where they begin their ministry. If you say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think this will work,” there’s a strong sense that you may not be given another choice. In the past, large town-centre parishes were sent curates as a matter of course, as were priests with recognised gifts for training new clergy. These days it’s not so clear why a certain parish gets a curate, or what the curate should get out of the curacy. I think it should be a storehouse of good memories, so that later on, when they’re in a parish of their own and things go wrong (as they inevitably will), they will have the strength and hope to persevere.

My bishop’s first attempt to set me up in a curacy fizzled out just before Lent in the year I was due to be ordained. We had paid a visit to the church, in Worcester. It didn’t occur to me to offer to help in the kitchen. Later in the evening, my teenager called me a bitch. The prospective TI, who had teenagers of his own, blanched. A deacon is called upon to endeavour to fashion their own life and that of their household according to the way of Christ, that they may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people. I clearly didn’t, and wasn’t, and that was that. My diocese had to scramble around to find another curacy, and when one was found I was told it was my last chance. 

I can’t say my first eight months as a deacon were an unmitigated disaster. When I received the letter ending my time in Redditch and informing me that I would not be priested and would have to move out of the curate’s house, some of the lovely people in the congregation wrote outraged letters in my support to the bishop. But my relationship with my TI and his wife was dire. 

It’s not so clear why a certain parish gets a curate, or what the curate should get out of it

The first sign of trouble was when I was told that if long-life milk was good enough for the vicar, the curate had no business buying fresh. It got worse. There were timesheets to be filled in: 60 hours a week for work. Two hours on Sunday afternoon for “quality time” with the family. By Christmas my TI’s wife had begun to make a big deal of declining to exchange the peace with me at mass. 

It’s hard to describe my sense of dread at seeing that curacy disintegrating. Ordained ministry is a way of life as well as an occupation. Deacons have been through an arduous selection process in which they’ve been repeatedly examined, sifted, questioned and have bared their souls. Many of them have given up homes and professions. But, although a diocese will have invested time and money in that curate, more time, money and reputation will have been invested in the TI. So, when things go wrong, it is almost inevitably the curate who is expendable. 

I hear more and more about curacies going wrong, about bad matches between curates and training incumbents, about gifted young clergy leaving the church. This isn’t something that theological colleges talk about. I think they should: I would be happy to help design a study unit on what to do when things fall apart, with practical advice and theological reflection. I would even come and teach it. 

Because, in the end, my ministry survived. My bishop did something bishops do very rarely: he changed his mind. I was moved to another curacy. I repeated my deacon’s year. And when I came up and knelt before the bishop, and he put his hands on my head and called down the Holy Spirit to ordain me for the work of a priest, 40 other priests surged round and laid their hands on me too. For a moment, I was four years old again, in Trafalgar Square, with two fists full of crumbs and my sisters’ instruction to open my hands for the birds to come and feed from them. I did and vanished into a vast flock of pigeons. Thanks be to God.