Author(s)Ros Clarke
Date 26 November 2020

The news that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is to take a sabbatical next year has been met with some complaint.

Is this really the right time to consider stepping away from his normal duties for a while? Doesn’t the country need spiritual leadership and wisdom more than ever? Haven’t we seen that the government can’t be trusted to prioritise the needs of the church and other religious communities without constantly being reminded? Is he, as one commentator suggests, demonstrating a selfishness that puts his personal wellbeing over the needs of the nation in the midst of an acute crisis?

His predecessors took similar periods of sabbatical, the articles grudgingly note, and the announcement from Lambeth points out that all clergy are entitled to apply for what is now commonly known as ‘Extended Study Leave’ every 7-10 years. But should they?

Sabbath rest
I’ve written before on this blog about the purpose of the weekly Sabbath rest. It was intended as a time set aside as holy to the Lord. That is, it was a day for the Lord, and not for the people. It was the day when God’s people gathered together (Leviticus 23:3) and made offerings to God (Numbers 28:9-10). It was a day in which the people expressed their faith in their creator God and worshipped him as their redeemer God.

Because it was also a day for remembering. The Israelites were to remember how God had saved them out of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). They were to tell each generation the stories of the plagues, the Passover, the escape through the Red Sea, the miraculous provision in the desert – over and over again. They remembered their salvation.

And of course, it was a day for resting. They were not to work, their servants were not to work, their foreign visitors were not to work, even their animals were not to work! They rested because they remembered how God had rested on the seventh day, from all his work of creating (Genesis 2:3).

Sabbath is not for frivolous idleness. It is time for faith, for remembering and for rest

The sabbath year
The sabbath year was sabbath taken to its limits. It was not enough for the Israelites to refrain from their normal work for one day out of every seven. They were also supposed to refrain from their normal work for one year out of every seven. While the sabbath day was a token expression of faith in God’s continued care and provision for his people (particularly during their desert wanderings, Exodus 16:21-30), it would not have been hard for most families to know where their sabbath meals were coming from.

But the sabbath year was a far greater test of faith:
“The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.” Leviticus 25:1-4

The land itself must rest, observing a sabbath to the Lord. And what are the people to do?

“Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.”

The people must trust that there will be enough for them to glean from the hedgerows and the fields. As with the manna, they were not supposed to store up in advance. They were simply to trust that God would provide all that they needed. As indeed he provides for them in all the other years.

The Israelites, of course, never had enough faith to observe the sabbath year. As they are taken into exile, the Lord counts up all the sabbath years that the land had not been allowed to take, and all seventy are given to the land in one fell swoop (2 Chronicles 36:21). Sabbaths, it seems, will be taken voluntarily or else imposed, no matter what.

Christ’s example
Where the Israelites had sabbath days and sabbath years formally built into the rhythms of their life, we see in Christ a similar pattern of rest, remembering and trusting as part of his every day priorities for himself and for his disciples (e.g. Matthew 14:13, Mark 6:31). He observes the sabbath day, of course, though he does so in a way that oversets the legalistic attitudes of the time, reminding the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It is a day holy to the Lord, but it is given for our benefit.

Jesus takes time to rest – even in a boat in the middle of a stormy sea. And he offers rest to all who follow him (Matthew 11:28-29). Rest should be held by Christians in high regard. Exhaustion and burn out should not characterise Christian ministry.

Sabbatical – or study leave?
So, ought Christian ministers to take sabbatical breaks? These days, it is rare for ministers to have a sabbatical year. More often three months, or occasionally six months, are given. And as I said earlier, dioceses usually refer to these as times of ‘Extended Study Leave’ rather than sabbatical rest.

I think there is huge benefit for ministers in being able to step aside from their regular duties – their ‘work’ – for a time. Just as the Israelites could continue to trust that God would provide for all their physical needs, so ministers can trust that God will continue to provide for all the spiritual needs of the flock. It is Christ who builds his church and he will do that whether the minister is on sabbatical, or on annual leave, or off sick, or present and active. Sabbatical time is still an exercise of faith and a public demonstration of that faith.

Justin Welby’s sabbatical in 2021 is a very visible reminder to the church and signal to the world that he is not, in fact, the head of the church (and nor is Her Majesty). Christ is the head of the church. God is sovereign over pandemics and policy changes. He is in control of the NHS and the economy. We do not need to fear while we are trusting in him.

A sabbatical is not a selfish indulgence for the sake of personal wellbeing. It is a time for faith, a time for remembering and a time for rest. I don’t like the language of ‘Extended Study Leave’ and I don’t like the idea that anyone should be asked to give account for their time on sabbatical. Sabbath isn’t about being productive. It doesn’t need to result in papers written, sermons prepared or books studied, though of course it is possible to do all these things as part of sabbath faith and remembering, or even rest. But sabbath is primarily a time of building relationship with God, our creator and our redeemer, of learning to trust him more fully, and of learning to rest in him more deeply.

I pray that Justin Welby’s time of sabbatical will be filled with these things.

I hope that if you too need a time of sabbath rest, you will take it. The sabbath day and the sabbath year were regularly programmed in. They didn’t wait for a convenient time because there’s never a convenient time for a sabbath rest. Do it anyway and trust that God will build his church.