Reading Lesley’s blog reminded me that I wanted to write something on this.
First a lengthy quotation from Rowan’s remarks:
“On the humanity of priesthood and episcopacy, it does seem to me that, if we have an ordained ministry in the Church, and if part of the function of any ordained ministry is to help the Church be the Church, and if the Church truly is the Church when it is the human community that is Christ’s body among us (and you can add lots more ifs), then the ordained person — deacon, priest, or bishop — is not exempt from modelling the new humanity.
The ordained person does not just talk to other people about how they become better human beings or more effective parts of the Body of Christ. The ordained person is a part of the Body of Christ, and therefore involved in modelling the new humanity.
So if we ask whether this or that form of ordained ministry models a humanity that looks full or joyful or renewed, maybe that is the crucial question. And frequently the answer is no, for men and for women.
When looking at challenges such as employment practice, work patterns, couples in ministry, and a whole range of issues, we might ask whether this human ministry looks as though it stands for an attractive, a transforming and transformed, new humanity. Because if it doesn’t, we are actually not doing what we are supposed to do, and we are treating ordained ministry as if it were something other than the life of the Body of Christ. So it is all right for a congregation to flourish and a priest to be crushed? I don’t think it is all right.
We all know how the pain and the cost of ordained ministry can feed the life of a community. And I think that is what St Paul is talking about in a great deal of 2 Corinthians.
But we can’t leave it there, because that both dehumanises and super-humanises the ordained ministry. It dehumanises because it says it doesn’t really matter what happens to these particular persons that God loves in Jesus Christ. That is dehumanising.
These particular persons in Jesus Christ, who have collars round their necks and various coloured shirts, are the ones who do the work for the Body of Christ, including the sacrificial suffering. And everybody else sort of freewheels on it.”
Now two quotations from David Hare’s ‘Racing Demon’, which I read a little while back and which (the play as a whole) has been haunting me:
+Southwark to an incumbent: “In any other job you’d have been fired years ago. You’re a joke, Lionel. You stand in the centre of the parish like some great fat wobbly girl’s blouse. Crying for humanity. And doing absolutely nothing at all… you are the reason the whole church is dying. Immobile. Wracked. Turned inward. Caught in a cycle of decline. Your personal integrity your only concern. Incapable of reaching out. A great vacillating pea-green half-set jelly… It truly offends me, the idea that people need authority, and every time they come to ask what does the church think then they are hit in the face by a spurt of lukewarm water from a rugby bladder. And I simply will not allow it to go on.”
and especially this one, where the incumbent’s experienced colleagues (Harry and Streaky) are discussing him with the new curate (Tony):
Harry: He’s tired.
Tony: Yes. He’s tired. Exactly. Lionel is tired because he gets no strength from the gospel. That’s my whole point. He’s tired because he isn’t getting anything back.
Harry: (shaking his head, disbelieving) You can’t say that. How dare you? You can’t say that of any priest.
Tony: Of course I can say it.
Harry: Who are you to judge?
Tony: Have you seen him? Going down the street? In Brixton? His forehead is knotted. He gives off one message: ‘Keep away. I carry the cares of the world.’ It’s true. People don’t go near him. He reeks of personal failure. And anguish. Like so much of the church.”
Now regular readers will be aware that this is a theme I have pondered a lot. A little while back I commented that I didn’t know any happy incumbents and was taken to task for this. So I changed it to ‘many’ rather than ‘any’ – my rule of thumb being that you have to be a moderate evangelical called Tim in order to be a happy incumbent in the Church of England today (grin). As it happens, speaking personally, I’m in quite a happy place at the moment – I might even qualify as a happy incumbent, although it might also simply be that I’ve found a more comfortable position on my own personal cross – but the ‘going around with a knotted forehead’ would, I think, be a reasonably accurate description of me in the last few years! Not good, and I hope that I’m eliminating it.
The general problem remains, however. The nature of the ministry than a priest is called to, in the way that Rowan articulates, is – to generalise hugely – a ministry that will become rarer and rarer in the Church of England today, and that means that there is something profoundly wrong somewhere. So what is to be done? How are we to cultivate an ordained ministry that enables a witness to the full humanity that is the inheritance of every member of the Kingdom? I’m starting to wonder if it’s possible, or whether there needs to be a massively more traumatic shift in the Church of England in order to enable it. As I said to one group the other day, the church on Mersea – understood as a community – has been gathered together for a good 1400 years, only the last 450 or so of which have been under the auspices of the Church of England. It may well be that the present institutional arrangements have to break down comprehensively before something new can be released.
What might that look like? Well how about these proposals as food for thought: the abolition of the parish system and parish boundaries, the abolition of parish share, leaving each congregation to pay for its own minister(s), the abolition of Church House and all the financial arrangements there, and the abolition (or, realistically, the massive simplification) of the faculty process. Most of the disagreements I’ve come across to such proposals take the form of saying ‘the Church of England has to be in every place’ (which is a good ideal that I support, although we ought to be realistic and say a) we don’t achieve that now and b) why can’t we be ecumenical about it and say, eg, ‘here the Methodists are the Body of Christ’ in this place?) or, what would happen to the poor churches that can’t afford their own minister? Well that latter assumes that Christians don’t wish to exercise Christian charity – a very telling assumption – and ignores the pre-20th century history of, for example, all the work done in the East End by the slum priests. This is not congregationalism – after all, the financial and faculty elements to be removed haven’t been in place for very long – a hundred years, if that. What I’m advocating is a radical shift in power away from twentieth century centralisation and back towards the local autonomy that has, for most of our history, characterised the English church.
I just have a suspicion that, in the environment into which we are moving, with more and more incumbents having to stretch across large multi-parish benefices (see eg here – it is highly likely that the Mersea patch will be expanded by yet more parishes in the next few years), the institutional side needs to become much more streamlined and simplified. I think that would make for happier incumbents.
NB I’m aware that I haven’t talked about the underlying spiritualities in this post – I think they are even more important, but one thing at a time, and for a flavour of what I think is needed to make incumbents happier, see this recent post. The larger point is about what it means to be a servant of institutional Christianity when both institutions and Christianity are generally regarded with scorn, scepticism and pity – but I’ll talk more about that some other time.)