View from the Curate’s stall – ministerial isolation?

The curates stall at Harvest Festival
The curates stall at Harvest Festival

I sat in the congregation at a friends ordination service recently, for the first time in three months. I was in a church I’d never been in before.  I didn’t have to do anything, other than simply worship, and listen, and pray; no choreographed moves, no desperate search of the memory bank for what I needed to do next, no sense that stuff was expected of me, only the sense of expectation that accompanies the knowledge that God was there. I even got to sit next to my husband, and hold hands during the Bishop’s excellent sermon!

The occasion brought sharply into focus some of the changes that I have experienced since my ordination. One of these is that in my new church, I’m always sat in the curates stall, and not among the people. They’re all able to watch me, if they feel so inclined, and I can see some of them, and watch their expressions if I so wish. In my sending parish, where I led worship often as a Reader, this was only sometimes the case, not always.

In the curates stall, I’m isolated. There might be a server sat behind and to one side of me out of sight, but partially tucked behind the pulpit and across from the vicar, there isn’t anyone nearby. From here, I suspect that I’m possibly missing out on the spiritual hum, that hopefully exists within any Christian worship, because I need more than simply my eyes to sense it.

I can’t hear the stifled, swallowed gasps or giggles at the preachers jokes or references – only the ones that escape out loud. I can’t feel the hands or the hair of the person behind me brushing the back of my head as they pray. I can’t see the physical tremors that speak not only of possible infirmity, but of spiritual encounters with our Lord. I can’t catch the eye of a friend, and raise an eyebrow in shared, unspoken comment on something in the proceedings – or at least, I don’t feel that sat up there in curates stall that sort of behaviour is really appropriate. Any sense of expectation of, or reaction to what God is doing, is confined to the bowed heads, reverently lined up at the altar rail, hands outstretched to receive the elements at Eucharist.

My pinata-headed training incumbent stills the target for the children to attack during our Harvest celebrations in September - about as close to part of the congregation as I've got so far in our main morning service.
My pinata-headed training incumbent stills the target for the children to attack during our Harvest celebrations in September – about as close to part of the congregation as I’ve got so far in our main morning service.

That underlines the heart of the difference I suspect – I only get close to people at the Communion rail, or occasionally on the floor with the children in front of chapel altar in smaller services. Here is the isolation of the ordained minister that I had been warned of before ordination, and for which the antidote is the occasional offices with which we encounter people, often, though not exclusively, those outside of our regular congregation.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why in more catholic, Eucharistic worshipping communities, the value of pastoral visiting is heightened? Is this the experience of others who have migrated between traditions, or am I making more of the significations of this ministerial isolation than I need to?



  1. Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful reflection – it is something that has come up for Mike and I this past week as well. The fact that we might no longer be able to sit, worship, laugh, giggle or take communion side by side is something that I’m not relishing at all. There’s a lot of lonliness throughout the journey through ordination, curacy and ministry for both partners in different ways. Good support networks are vital.


  2. I agree that there is loneliness and isolation in ministry, and you document it well. I do feel it less now during our services, partly, I think because I know the congregation better, and know that they in turn care for me and my family as I do for theirs. I am not sure it is an anglo-catholic, evangelical difference, though (we have both), I think it comes from being part of the congregation and yet set apart as well, a curious dichotomy which I am still trying to work out!


  3. Ali, you are so right about partners having to face a lot of changes – Graham is definitely missing sitting with me in the congregation, and both he and Chris are a constant source of interest for the congregation: they stand out because they both sing well and often harmonise in hymns, and the older generation in particular love this. I get complaints when they aren’t there, which is both flattering but also a bit of a pressure on them.

    Carol, it’s interesting that you say you feel it less now you’re stuck into ministry; perhaps the ‘nerve endings’ have been cauterised after a year or so in ministry, and yes I’m sure the better you get to know the individuals in a congregation, the more ‘tuned in you become. Helpful to know that you have both traditions in your patch and you don’t think it’s the tradition that makes it worse. I’ve got little to compare it with now, as I’ve not got that split active in my context – I can only compare with where I was before and don’t know if I would feel different if I was there now.

    Thanks for commenting both.


  4. From the organ loft I can see the choir in the mirror, part of the altar if I crouch, the lectern (and the Gospel and usually intercessions are read from there, for amplification reasons), and one small corner of the congregation. If I turn around on my bench I can look at the choir directly, and see more of the congregation, but there’s still an actual pillar between me and the pulpit. The acoustics are such that I can hear things to the east better than those to the west — making out the sermon isn’t a problem, but comments from the congregation aren’t really going to be audible. But it’s not a congregation that would comment much during a sermon, either.

    I don’t feel particularly isolated, but I’ve been at this for four years. When I started I was too nervous about my playing to worry about questions of isolation! One thing that is a problem sometimes is that it can be hard to hear the congregation sing; this is partly because of the hissing noise from leaky bellows, and partly just the acoustics of the place. I don’t generally think of it in terms of isolation, though, just a practical problem that I do my best to work around (give a good strong lead, keep a consistent tempo, make sure the choir know what they’re doing, listen extra hard, pray the organ doesn’t conk out…).

    Leading sung Compline is another thing entirely, we stand in a semi-circle in a side chapel and it’s quite intimate. That can feel quite exposed but certainly not isolated. I wonder if the combination of physical separation and exposure is contributing to your feeling of isolation.


    • You could well be right, particularly the fact that it’s every week, 3 times on a Sunday morning, not just 2-3 times a month for at most 2 services on a Sunday. I know it’s what I signed up for, but actually living it is a bit different.


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