On call to the parish


Clerical families often live their lives at the heart of a community, with all of the privacy issues and huge benefits this brings, writes SHEILA WAYMAN.

ONE OF the arguments for celibacy in the Catholic Church is that it allows priests to devote themselves to a life of service, without the distractions of a wife and children.

But many of the clergy who minister to the 390,000 members of the Church of Ireland, north and south, choose to juggle the roles of pastor and parent. Their family life is entwined with the parish, which usually owns the house where they are raising their children.

In the Church of Ireland constitution, canon 33 requires clergy “to frame and fashion their lives and those of their families according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make themselves and their families, as far as in them lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ”.

However, it used to be said that children of clergy were the most rebellious and dysfunctional in any parish, because in small communities everyone knew who they were and expected them to behave in a certain way.

Societal change, the ordination of women and the trend for clergy’s spouses to pursue their own careers have combined to shake up the traditional pattern of life for many rectory families.

Yet it is striking how many men and women coming forward for ordination are from clerical families – further proof, jokes one clergyman, that clergy children still tend to be dysfunctional!

Rev Stephen Neill (40), a fifth generation clergyman, sees big differences between his childhood and that of his 12-year-old son Aaron. For a start, as rector of Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary for the past 11 years, it is the longest he has lived anywhere in his entire life. “I feel at home.”

When Stephen was growing up, his father, John, who is now Archbishop of Dublin, served in various parts of the country. For his mother, Betty, and his two younger brothers, it meant a series of upheavals.

“My family didn’t believe in boarding school so we always moved with them,” Stephen explains. “It was hard uprooting; it was painful leaving friends behind. At the same time looking back on it now, I have friends all over the country and lots of contacts.”

He is also glad, in hindsight, that they went to local schools. “We got a great variety of education through different religions, through Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic and Quaker. It brought a richness to our education.”

Born in Dublin, when his father was curate in Glenageary, his schooling started in Skibbereen, Co Cork, continued in St Andrew’s College, Dublin, then it was on to Newtown School in Waterford for a year before finishing up in Mayo when his father was made Bishop of Tuam. They lived in Crossmolina and Stephen spent one and a half years at a local, Catholic, co-ed convent, Gortnor Abbey, where he enjoyed “positive discrimination”, he says.

“I received more encouragement there than at any school I ever attended and I have contacts there to this day. There was a whole pew full of nuns at my ordination!”

Having studied theology and biblical studies at Trinity College Dublin, Stephen trained for the ministry at the Church of Ireland Theological College, where he met his wife, Nicola, who was a year behind him. He describes his years in Trinity as a time of testing.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be ordained,” he explains. “There wasn’t pressure as such from the family but at the same time being potentially the fifth generation there was unspoken expectation probably among certain elements of family and friends and I wanted to make sure that if I was going to enter ministry, it was for the right reasons.”

He believes life is easier these days for rectory families. Not only is there less moving around, “largely due to the spousal employment issue”, he also reckons they are under less scrutiny.

“I think in this generation, particularly where spouses are for the most part working, the rectory isn’t the centre it once was, for better or for worse. When I was growing up, I was used to people in and out the whole time. With the busyness of life, people don’t have time and there is less of that. We are not in a goldfish bowl.”

Parishioners respect a certain level of privacy, he says. “Obviously the rectory has to be a place where people can go if they are in difficulty but people do respect the need for family life as well.”

Nicola has left the ministry and is now owner-manager of three O’Brien Sandwich Bar outlets, in Nenagh, Portlaoise and Athlone. Their son Aaron, who has “a broad spectrum learning difficulty”, attends a special school, St Anne’s, in Roscrea.

“He is a very happy child and has benefited enormously. He will be there for the whole school cycle,” explains Stephen. “He is very sociable, very communicative and has a great love of music.”

Aaron’s school friends are scattered but he has a lot of friends in the parish. “He is in the scouts in Cloughjordan and he’s in the soccer club so he has friends with no disability issues, which is very healthy, as he’s an only child.”

Stephen, who writes a “paddyanglican” blog, has “four and a half” churches under his care – the “half” being Templeharry, which is open only for monthly services during the summer and is where the ancestors of Barack Obama worshipped before they left Moneygall, Co Offaly, for the US. It is a connection which earned the rector an invitation to the president’s inauguration in January.

In the neighbouring county of Laois, the rector of Abbeyleix, a fourth generation clergyman and father of two, Rev Patrick Harvey (51), does not believe the public perception of being a child of a clerical family has changed much. “There will always be gentle gibes, and occasionally stronger, but it depends on your character and how you react.”

Born in India, where his late father was working with a Dublin University Mission, he was 12 when his father was appointed Dean of Ossory and they moved from Northern Ireland to live in the large deanery beside St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny.

“It would have been here that I began to perceive a little about the life of a clergyman and what it meant to his family, and the differences from others,” he explains, recalling that the deanery was a wonderful place to grow up.

“Yes, there were meetings in various rooms, and people coming to the door but as children I don’t think this impinged a lot. In my view it affects the spouse of the clergyman [as it could only be then] more in terms of privacy and consciousness of having one’s own home.

“When you are ordained it is part of the expected package, not that any of us really knows what it is going to be like, and, strangely, growing up in a clerical household didn’t prepare me enormously for it. As I get older, and want to spend more time with a growing family, I have become aware that privacy is more and more important to me.”

He, his wife Jane, a professional cook from Co Cork, and their two children, a 13-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy, are afforded privacy in the rectory by parishioners, he says. (Later he asks that his children’s Christian names not be used in this article.)

“Of course there are always the occasional unexpected callers to the door. The most demanding can be ancestor hunters, who I am delighted to help in principle, but often they call unannounced, clutching large files with many names and dates, and instantly expect a couple of hours’ attention.”

Despite the drawbacks of living in a parish house, there are advantages too. For the past 18 years, he has relished Abbeyleix’s splendid, 19th century, two-storey plus basement rectory, with a walled garden, which is one of the few historic homes that survived the church’s selling spree. It looks out across a field to the spired parish church of St Michael and All Angels.

“One of the greatest privileges in living where we do is having space indoors and out. I had it as a child and our children do too. I never ever take that for granted,” stresses Patrick.

Like all rectors, not having weekends off is part of the job but it is something he notices more now that he has a growing family.

“Being at ‘home’ and in my study, with the children, can be tantalising rather than satisfying,” he says. “Not being ultra organised, Saturday night is usually when I am finally fully focusing on the Sunday sermon.

“Possibly this is one of our most misunderstood tasks,” he suggests. “For those who never write them, they probably appear only to have taken a few minutes to throw together. For those who do, the hours spent in preparation are well known.”

He distinguishes between two types of time off – the opportunity to recharge/retreat and time to spend with family. “How ‘off’ one can ever be, while in a rectory, is a debatable question. My children tell me I change into a different person when I am ‘really’ on holiday, which is probably a sad confession.”

While he has never thought of themselves as being the parish’s “first family”, they are “to a certain extent on show”, he agrees. “The children dutifully sit in the pew with Jane, Sunday by Sunday.”

Earlier this year he had what he describes as “the unusual experience” of having to prepare his own child for confirmation.

“It highlighted the limitations of the process for me,” he says. “To be honest what I would like any of my candidates to have after they are confirmed is a prayer life. I wasn’t sure that I was the right person to prepare my daughter for confirmation, though she kindly said she liked the classes.

“I now know what it feels like to watch a bishop pray with one’s own child for the Holy Spirit to daily increase ‘more and more until she comes to your eternal kingdom’. At that moment, as her rector and father, I stood behind the bishop and it was a strange almost disembodied moment.”

He recalls how a clerical colleague, torn between those two roles, chose, in his own church, to sit in a pew with his family at his child’s confirmation. “This,” adds Patrick, “possibly highlights the no man’s land we find ourselves in from time to time.”