Priests suffer stress as workload rises

SOME village priests are coming under increasing stress as they have to take on more and more churches, it has been warned.The claim was made as it emerged the numbers of clergymen and women in Suffolk and Essex has fallen in the last five years.

By John Howard

SOME village priests are coming under increasing stress as they have to take on more and more churches, it has been warned.

The claim was made as it emerged the numbers of clergymen and women in Suffolk and Essex has fallen in the last five years.

The Rev Dr Graham Blyth, an East Anglian clergyman and the region's representative for the Clergy and Church Workers Union, believes some priests even suffer breakdowns from stress.


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Priests in the region can minister to many villages at a time, and as clergy retire or move on parishes can be added to the workload of those remaining.

The Rev Dr Blyth, whose union is part of AMICUS MSF, said: "Part of the problem comes from the excessive number of churches priests care for. In Norfolk's very rural areas some people have nine or ten churches which becomes a huge logistical issue.

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"Often these churches have very small numbers and this adds to the pressure enormously. There is a danger of whizzing from one church to another, throwing things down the throats of the faithful without taking the time to talk to people, having coffee with them, getting to know them better. You are almost priests on the run.

"Stipendiary clergy are facing an increasing amount of stress related illnesses from the mental burdens they are under.

"It's a major issue for the Church. There are even some clergy who simply break down, although often it is covered up in some way and other reasons are given, as if the Church is ashamed of it. The union is concerned about stress.''

Rev Dr Blyth, 51, priest-in-charge at Danbury in Essex, said: "Jesus would probably shut some buildings straight away and go to people's living rooms, or down a bar.''

Church officials argue that working practices have changed and dioceses will use unpaid clergy - non-stipendiary ministers - who have the same training as many of their full-time paid colleagues, but do it alongside their careers and help support their paid colleagues.

They argue that in fact - in terms of those working alongside the paid clergy - the Church has never had it so good.

In Suffolk the diocese had 148.5 paid parish clergy in post three years ago during 2001. That figure has fallen to an average of 143.6 today.

But senior Church figures point out that this figure changes during the year, and there are more ordinations planned in the coming months.

In the Chelmsford Diocese, which incorporates all of Essex and part of London, they have 14 less paid clergy now than they did five years ago - a drop of just over 3%. In December 1999 it employed 438 clergy, including those in senior roles outside parish work - by January 2004 that had fallen to 424.

Nick Clarke, spokesman for the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese, said they were committed to maintaining clergy levels.

He said: "Thirty years ago there would be larger numbers of stipendiary clergy, but working practises have changed.

"Thirty years ago newspapers employed people for jobs that computers do nowadays. The Church of England went through the same sort of rationalisation and we use the services of more than 400 trained people who are not stipendiary clergy.

"Bishop Richard Lewis wants to maintain clergy numbers, providing there is the financial support from members of the Church of England to keep those numbers.

"It's our number one priority to maintain clergy numbers and support the full-time clergy with increasing numbers of trained people in other ministries.''

Jenny Robinson, spokeswoman for the Chelmsford Diocese, said: "We have seen lay people training more and more to do things like being lay evangelists and lay pastoral assistants.

"Paid priests are under no more pressure than anyone else, you tell me someone who is not under more pressure these days.''

Mrs Robinson said their priests in rural Essex typically have a maximum average of five or six parishes each to look after.

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