The debate about whether or not people will ‘return to the office’ is hotting up. People value the lifestyle gains – the loss of those hours spent on a stressful commute, the possibility of choosing to live somewhere more rural and maybe even less expensive.
Employers seem to vary in their views. Fewer big – and expensive – office buildings will help the ‘bottom line’. But they worry about the loss of potential creativity when people are not interacting around the water cooler. There is a whole new jargon – like ‘proximity bias’ which means that those who are most visible are more likely to receive whatever favour is around.
Meanwhile the housing market is changing. People are expanding their house searches into areas which they wouldn’t have felt able to consider before. Garden sheds, garages and attics are being scrutinised for their potential as work spaces. I suspect that what are becoming known as hybrid patterns of working may become the norm – one or two days in the office and the rest at home. Schroeders are saying that they will expect everyone to live close enough that they can be in the office ‘tomorrow’ if required.
Clergy of course know all about this. And so do farmers. The Rectory sits – in theory at least – in the middle of the parish or congregational area and assumes, I suppose, a model of ministry which is pastorally orientated. The Rector works sometimes from a dedicated study and often from a spare bedroom. It’s a model with great strengths – but in reality its appropriateness erodes when people’s lives are lived on networks rather than in neighbourhoods.
In my days as Rector of a parish in Northern Ireland, I worked on what is now a fashionably hybrid model. In effect, I did the spiritualities in the Rectory and decamped to the Parish Office for administration, management, meetings and all the rest. I found it helpful to have a definite separation between those two. But I know if course that the administration and management are all part of the spirituality.
Meanwhile clergy life experiences its own version of these questions. Vestries are very aware of the cost of maintaining a rectory. Some wonder if a smaller house would do. Others suggest it might be better for clergy to be able to buy their own homes and have a foot on the housing ladder rather than to live as Canon 17 requires ‘in the house provided’. That has its merits but it isn’t the system which we operate – and clergy have a tax break which protects them from Capital Gains Tax on a house which they own but do not occupy. I do think that the pastoral rationale for our present system is less compelling than it was. But what the tied housing system does do is to preserve at least the aspiration that clergy will be able to move to ‘wherever the call comes’ without being inhibited by differentials in house prices.
All of this is part of the great ‘shake-out’ which is coming as the crisis period of pandemic moves away and we begin to be able to recognise the long term changes which it has brought