Originally published at the Church Times.
It was not unusual in the 1980s for ordinands to be told to sell their homes to fund their training. Thirty years on, some of them feel they were let down. Tim Wyatt investigates
In 1983, Tony, a candidate for ordination from the diocese of Bradford, was told by the diocesan director of ordinands (DDO) that, if he wanted to train for the priesthood, he would first have to sell his house.
The money raised from the sale would be needed to look after his family and cover his costs while training, Tony was told. “Like an idiot, I did it,” he said last month.
The house was sold for £8000; £2000 went to pay off the rest of the mortgage, leaving just £6000 to fund the family during his time in theological college. Before the end of his first year of study, the money raised from selling his house had run out, forcing him to ask his bishop for an emergency handout to stay on at college.
When Tony checked online recently, the same house changed hands recently for more than £300,000 — an increase in value of 3650 per cent in 30 years.
After a string of setbacks, and a breakdown, he chose early retirement in 2005. Four years later, his wife, Susan, who is also a priest, joined him in retirement because of ill health, meaning that the couple needed to find their own home for the first time since 1983.
”We had to arrange to rent one from the Church Commissioners,” Tony said, “a stressful, nasty, and long experience. In the end, we were given a bungalow that had, and has, several faults.”
Two years ago, the Commissioners wrote to him to say that a review had revealed that he had been paying too much rent. It would be gradually reduced by £60 a year until the right level was reached in 30 years’ time.
”If we had been able to keep our house, the rent would have helped my expenses, and we would have a decent home and holidays,” Tony said. “Instead, we struggle. The Church is the only organisation which shoots its wounded. The Church treats its retired clergy like they are not interested. They don’t want to know.”
THIS cautionary tale about the danger of stepping off the housing ladder is far from unique. An investigation by the Church Times has revealed that dozens of clergy, from at least six dioceses across the Church of England, were told that they should, and in some instances must, sell their homes before beginning ordination training.
Rupert, a priest in the diocese of Portsmouth, is another of those left without a property because of what he now regards as bad advice. He was told to sell his home before studying at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, to give him and his wife a “nest egg if things didn’t work out at theological college”.
”We just went along with it. Everyone was telling us about sacrifice, and we assumed that that was the norm.”
Upon arrival at college, however, Rupert discovered that the advice varied widely from diocese to diocese. Indeed, some ordinands had not just been told to hold on to their homes: they were even given help with their mortgages by their dioceses.
Now, poor mental health is pushing Rupert — who has been unable to get back on the property ladder during his ministry — towards an early retirement, and consequently towards the Church Commissioners’ CHARM (Church’s Housing Assistance for the Retired Ministry) rental scheme for retired priests.
”We went on a retirement course where there was another couple who had also been asked to sell their house, but the other couples — 25 or so — were appalled,” he explained. Most of the homes they are being offered through CHARM are two-bedroom bungalows; they are unsuitable for Rupert, as none of his children have managed to buy their own homes yet, and so still use the vicarage as their base.
”It is just like we were penalised in comparison with others when we went to Ridley, and we are penalised again. I don’t feel let down by my bishops, but I do feel let down by the institution of the Church.”
In the early 1980s, Rupert had been “vulnerable” at the time when he had been told he should sell his home, he said. “You are in a weak position: we had both left our jobs because you sense that calling of God. If someone suggests ‘We expect you to sell the house,’ you think that’s what everyone else has to do.”
SOMETIMES, selling a home was not just advice, but a condition of being recommended for training. The Revd Malcolm Lambert, who was sent by the diocese of Leicester for ordination in 1987, recalls being told that he had to sell his house. “My memory is there was no discussion about it. We were told that, if we were going to begin residential training, the only option we had was to sell the house.”
Soon, his situation became more complicated, after the selling chain that their home was in collapsed and they were unable to complete a sale before moving to theological college. By the time they managed to find another buyer, it was December, and he had been defaulting on the mortgage payments to pay the rent for his home near college.
”We got no support from the diocese that I can remember. My memory of finances through college is that they were very tight,” he said.
Because his wife was working, Mr Lambert was able to get back on the property ladder, but not until seven years after ordination, because of the steep rise in house prices in the early 1990s.
”At my last parish, we had three going for ordination — two with property. We were very clear that they should do everything they could to keep it,” he said.
A PRIEST in the diocese of Leeds, the Revd Mark Zammit, tells a similar story. He was sponsored by the diocese of Winchester when he began training in 1990, and selling his home beforehand “was not an option, but a condition”, he recalls.
“The annoying thing was I got to college only to find other people from other dioceses still had their own houses, and their dioceses were supporting them in that. In fact, some of them had been told not to let go of their house.”
The £9000 he made from the sale supported him through college, but he has not managed to buy a house again, and now, aged 56, sees no prospect of getting back on the ladder before retirement. Today, he said, he would urge any prospective ordinand to hold on to his or her home “at all costs”.
The pain at losing his home came to the fore a few years ago, when he realised that his original 25-year mortgage would now have been fully paid off. “Had we kept [the house] we would have owned it outright by now. We sold it for something like £39,000. It would have been worth a lot more these days.”
FOR some of those affected, the episode was simply one symptom of an out-of-control housing market, and a Church without the resources or financial acumen to keep up.
Jerry, a priest in the diocese of Rochester, lost £12,000 in the process of selling a home he had owned for only 18 months, in 1991, on the advice of his sending diocese, Norwich.
“I don’t feel bitter or resentful. I feel it was a missed opportunity. Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” he said. “Had the diocese said ‘We understand this is for the long term; so we will [cover the mortgage] in the hope we will be able to recoup the money in the future,’ then actually we both would have done very well out of it: the house must be worth six times what we got for it now.”
Mr Lambert said there was no point in crying over spilt milk. “I’m not sure if I had been a diocesan treasurer at the time, [house-price rises] was something I would have been able to predict.”
William, another priest, said that the policy that made him sell his home made sense at the time. “What has happened, of course, is nothing to do with the C of E — the fact that housing prices have risen so much — but the lump sum [paid out to retired ministers] has not increased.”
OTHERS who lost out blame the Church for their predicament.
The Revd Andrew Barton, who was told to sell his home before he and his wife both started training at Ridley Hall in 1987, said that his diocese, Coventry, failed in its duty of care. “We assumed the Church would look after us — I suppose, rather naïvely,” he said.
He reckoned that selling his house before the property boom of the 1990s cost him about £150,000 in today’s money. “My stipend has gone up about two or three times, but housing has gone up 20 times,” he said.
Rupert’s wife, Samantha, said that the sense of “injustice and anger” which she and her husband felt about their situation was “significant”.
“The whole process seems like a triple whammy,” Rupert said as he reflected on how they had lost their first home, missed out on profiting from the housing boom, and now were facing retirement in a cramped CHARM property far from their family.
When he raised the issue with the Church Commissioners, he was told: “That wasn’t us: that was your diocese,” he says. “There seems to be no understanding of the situation. We are not talking about financial compensation, but, please, some leeway.”
For Tony, the housing débâcle had affected his spiritual life. “My faith is hitting rock-bottom at the moment,” he said. “As you can tell, I am very bitter about the way clergy are treated by the Church.”
THE picture today is very different. William, who is also an area director of ordinands in his diocese, said that the advice to candidates these days would normally be to keep their homes, and, if moving away to train at a residential college, rent them out.
Conversations between DDOs and candidates would now involve extensive discussion on all aspects of finance, and involve advice from outside experts, William said,
The DDO in Coventry diocese, the Revd Richard Cooke, said that he could see the issue from both sides, having been ordained in Coventry in the 1980s. It had not been the diocese that recommended that he get off the property ladder, he recalled, but someone from the Church Commissioners.
Now, however, it had all changed. “The way in which grants are structured means that, essentially, if people have got a house, you expect them to put it up for rent if they are training elsewhere. I think the general advice would be: if you have a property, if you can, hold on to it.”
But other circumstances had also changed, which made comparisons with different eras difficult, Mr Cooke said. Today’s ordinands were generally older than those of the 1980s and ’90s, and thus more likely not only to own homes, but to have paid off a significant part of the mortgage.
Furthermore, it was now more common for clergy spouses to work, which made it easier either to keep paying off a mortgage, or return to the housing ladder later in ministry.
“Thirty years ago, there was a culture that, when you are ordained, we will take care of you for ever. And that hasn’t proved to be the case, either in terms of pensions or in terms of housing,” Mr Cooke said.
Sadly, the C of E pension had not soared alongside soaring house prices in recent decades, he said, which meant that the lump sum that clergy received at retirement, and which, at one point, had been a stepping-stone back on to the property ladder, today would not even come close.
But Mr Cooke said that it was unreasonable to expect the Church Commissioners, let alone any DDO, to have done a better job of predicting housing-market changes than the Bank of England.
Some names have been changed.