Book Review: Being a Curate

Being  A Curate
Jonathon Ross-McNairn, Sonia Barron
SPCK Publishing, London

Unlike previous reviews, I can be a lot more honest about why I was interested in reading it now my own plans are out in the open! (see here for details if you missed the announcement).

No surprise, then, that at first I practically inhaled the words off the page – it’s been a while since I read non-fiction so fast. The book looks back to the discernment process as well as forward to curacy and beyond so I could easily locate myself in that chronology. I imagine reading this pre-BAP would be incredibly powerful (and gut-wrenchingly terrifying). Reading this in the week I resigned my job prior to starting training I found myself wanting to ask the difficult questions the book posed…but not really wanting the answers…not just yet…

I particularly enjoyed Rob Keane’s stories of the ministry of presence in the pub…definitely one for me to model and something I could identify with. Will someone let me know if he ever gets the bar tab as an expense, please?

Everyone is different and everyone’s circumstances are different so Ross-Nairn and Barron could never edit a book of this ilk that will be completely comprehensive. In fact one could argue that it would be pointless to try to enumerate all possible options. If the process of formation is so individual, perhaps trying to do anything more than present a range of stories is counter-productive.

But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ ambling into view at the end of that last sentence) I was nearly reduced to tears on the train one morning when I seemed to read again and again the phrases ‘…and of course your spouse…’ or ‘…the ordinands’ families…’ Michael Perham, for example talked about the potential deacons arriving…accompanied by their families for the pre-ordination gathering. Ouch, I thought.

Is this really still the assumption? There was no-one in this book with whom I really identified, no-one I could point to and say ‘that’s a bit like me.’ Given the editors have gone to some trouble to include many voices, would it not have been possible to find a single person? Or a few more less obviously well-off people? Or does the fact there were no straight, single, 40+ women willing to talk about being a curate mean I really am as unusual as some would make out? (I am looking at you, Diocesan finance department).

Each curate’s story has a particular focus, and so the extra colour about their story is sometimes lacking. I guess that had each person had free rein to talk about themselves there’d have been several volumes, and it’s far better to hear a range of voices briefly describe a variety of situations than one or two in-depth. And despite the lack of mirror images of me, the stories are good reading.

There’s a great spread of experience from the curates. There’s all the joy and pain, happiness and frustration I think we would expect…with some deeper pain, and more rewarding happiness along the way. Good, practical wisdom, with the battle scars to boot. Some situations – a murder, sudden death, casual racism, deception in the appointments process – stand out for their awfulness. I found myself greatly admiring the ability of the curates to shoulder the unexpected and get on with it – and wondering, of course, how I would fare in their shoes. Which, presumably, is part of the point of the book. After having read many of the ‘discernment list’ books about the nature of ‘being’ a priest, I really enjoyed hearing how the curates learned to balance that with the demands of the ‘doing’ they had to get on with.

The chapter from the clergy spouse was disappointing. A brief sketch of some of the issues (how much to be involved, maintaining neutrality) but the assertion that ‘God did not really ask very much of us’ was a bit depressing. And his being asked to be on the PCC as a bit of ‘routine talent-spotting’ sounded, to my ears at least, a bit arrogant.

On the whole, the book feels honest – key issues have been allowed to stand out, undisguised. And there is rawness and pain here – from mismatched curacies, to the sense of fear and failure, and of an uncaring institution. The section that covers most of this is titled ‘Dealing with Thorny Issues’ – possibly an understatement. In a key sentence, it is admitted that ‘Church is essentially patriarchal, hierarchical and slow to change. These factors can easily combine to bring about a structure that is abusive to its most vulnerable clergy…’ (p136) – not something one would necessarily want to hear, but something that needs to be said, and understood. Power is not equally distributed, and it would be folly to pretend otherwise. Alongside this is an insistence that one ‘owns’ what happens to ourselves – that one should stay centred on God, and find our strength from there. I cannot decide whether I cynically think this is another way of blaming the curate for failure, or a realistic way of ensuring survival throughout a life of ministry. Answers on a postcard.

I felt this was an all-round look – with contributions from people at all stages and experiences – the cast has clearly been well put together in terms of level experience, if not class or geography. I recognised some of the names, and wonder if I know any of those under aliases, which also made this book feel at times like a helpful chat in the pub might be.

My church has just acquired a full time stipendiary curate and I’m tempted to suggest this should be compulsory reading for all our congregation.


  1. I had missed your announcement, but I’m delighted (yet not surprised) to hear you have been recommended for ministry. I came out the other side of curacy last year and I can thoroughly recommend the training process.
    Wishing you many blessings in your training and beyond.

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