Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: Do my colleagues think I’m getting stale?

When clerical life has taken the shape of a career in management, is staying put a bad thing to do? 
October 4, 2023

It’s 12 years now that I’ve been rector of Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams. I’m 65 years old. Like our churches, I’m starting to need regular inspection and repair: knee replacements in 2018 and 2022, a mastectomy last year, and this summer, after a church warden suggested I have “that cough” checked out, a diagnosis of chronic sarcoidosis, an autoimmune condition I’d never previously heard of. Although this leaves me short of breath, it’s manageable at the moment. 

I now wear hearing aids, some of the time at least. An old lady, that’s what I’m becoming. My hair is grey. I stopped colouring it when I came here. Sooner or later, I figured, I’d need to bite the bullet if I didn’t want to turn into the woman on the bus with the jet black hair and the scary grey roots. 

The reasoning behind my choice—at that moment—to go grey was that I knew that this would be my last post, the one I wouldn’t move on from. It wasn’t, like the chaplaincy, a fixed-term contract. The rectors of Fulbourn tended to stay on for decades unless the plague took them or they were turfed out by parliament or the king. When I was installed here, part of the ceremony involved being led up to the bell chamber and ringing the bell. According to custom, the number of times the bell was tolled was the number of years the rector would stay. “How many?” asked the tower captain. “As many as possible,” I said. That turned out to be 17, which the congregation counted out loud. 

After a dozen years in post, you know a lot of the story of the village, and many of the stories of the long-established families. You have a good idea of who’s related to whom. You’ve seen the village changing and have been part of that change: two jubilees, the queen’s death and the king’s coronation, the lockdowns, the community aid network, new housing, a neighbourhood plan, the enlarging school and the encroaching city. People know me, and I know them. Many of the congregation from that installation have died, and I’ve told their stories from the eagle lectern and laid them in the ground. The first Baby Jesus is now in high school. Life is never boring.

The rectors of Fulbourn tended to stay on unless the plague took them or they were turfed out by parliament or the king

All this has come to mind, not so much because of the anniversary of my coming here but because when I visited the archdeacon last week to let him know about my health, he remarked that he and another friend of mine had been talking together about how a priest can tell when they’re becoming stale and need to move on. Afterwards, on the way home, I wondered: “Do my colleagues think I’m getting stale? Is the parish sick of me? Am I becoming stale?”

Both these friends are some 20 years younger than me, and both have been in their posts about as long as I’ve been here. They’re two of the best priests I know. If they’re worried, how much more so should I be? Then I thought some more. The old pattern of clerical life was that, once appointed, the vicar stayed put unless preferment beckoned. “Come up higher—to a canonry, or an archdeaconry, or a bishopric, or, at the very least, a more desirable parish with a larger stipend and a better house.” It was all very Trollopean. This began to change in the late 20th century, at least for some of us. The idea, inculcated at theological college, was that after your curacy you’d go to a junior post somewhere and stay there for a few years, before applying for a more visible post with more responsibility. You’d stay and make your mark for five to seven years, and then move on. Moving on and moving upwards was the point. Clerical life had taken the shape of a career in management. 

The thing was, this structure took hold at the same time that women were being accepted for ordination. And women didn’t move up the ladder the same way men did. Rural parishes and multi-parish benefices are filled with women, women like me, who have come and stayed, and cheerfully gone grey. Maidens who have turned into mothers and crones in post. We can’t think about going stale. We have to think about getting better with age, like fine wine or a good tin of sardines. I have to chalk it up as a mission success when the teenagers outside the Coop want to give me fist-bumps the way they did when they were in Year Two. And believe me, I do.