My Heart’s Desire

Pondering that ‘I confess’ meme, and my response to it – I think it dislodged something in me (something that was ripe for dislodging), especially with regard to the question of establishment. So this is a bit more of me thinking out loud about vocation. Click full post for text.

The other day, at my clergy support group, we had a conversation about the crazy way in which being a full time priest in the Church of England tends to frustrate vocation. It was this group which came up with the phrase ‘Incumbency drives out priesthood’, which I think sums up so much that has gone wrong (elsewhere I call it the ‘George Herbert model’ – though that is really a distinct problem). Why is it that in the one institution that you might expect to be able to foster a committed Christian pattern of life, that is, a life which is shaped around the Word spoken into each heart, and not around Worldly forms, there is this structure of expectations and practices that to all intents and purposes annihilates vocation? One of my jobs is Warden of Ordinands in this area, and so every so often I have a chat with people who are exploring a call to ordained ministry. I have met many remarkable, capable and effective people – God is clearly not slackening his call to ministry in the Church of England. Nor do I have any worries about the spread of the gospel in our wider culture. The mismatch seems to be between what is asked for from a parish priest by the institution – including all of parishioners, Bishops and the wider society – and what is asked for from a parish priest by God. In part this is a question of insane expectations, especially with regard to workload, but I’ve gone into that elsewhere, and since starting to take two days off a week, that issue has really receded for me. I’m not yet into the state of optimum balance, but I’m much closer to it. I am more and more of the mind that the issue is one of bad theology. It’s the Christendom model of passive faith, which is now utterly exhausted and without merit. The shell is still tottering and hasn’t yet dissolved, but the Spirit has moved on elsewhere. This isn’t a matter of abandoning everything about establishment. The notion of a ‘local church’ is profoundly important, and I’m rather a long way from abandoning the idea of episcopal oversight, with all that that entails. It’s more that I think the parishes should be set free to be genuinely Christian communities (especially with regard to their finances – but that’s another post really). What I want to talk about here is how I understand my vocation, ie what would be my heart’s desire for my role in a situation more or less the same as the one I’m in now?

I think it would involve the following:

The apostolic role of guarding the faith. This was the great benefit I gained from reading Hirsch’s book on mission – the precise word describing that part of my nature which I hadn’t clarified before, ie the task of an apostle: to keep the church to authentic faith, rooting out that bad theology which destroys life, in order that the community might flourish and manifest that abundance of life which is our inheritance. So the bulk of my time would be spent in teaching and forming the understanding of the community around the living Word.

As the first fruit of that, and as one of the primary things to foster: vibrant small groups as the engine of maturity and discipline within the wider body as a whole. I don’t see a way to be a Christian without being embedded in some form of accountability structure; it’s impossible (near-impossible) to do it as a solitary act, and I see small groups, meeting weekly for structured teaching and fellowship as the driving force of the wider church as a whole.

Leading corporate worship, especially the weekly common eucharist and liturgical daily prayer – the latter not just as something for a clerical elite but as the daily bread which all Christians can be fed by. The Daily Office doesn’t replace private prayer, it supplements it, most particularly by diminishing the importance of the individual ego with its whims and diversions. To be immersed in Scripture in the act of reading and praising and interceding – this is the meat and drink of spiritual formation. For a Christian to be without it is like choosing to be a marathon runner yet not moving your legs. And to be attached to just one church – for each church to have its own minister, who lives with and alongside that community. It’s impossible to do this for more than one locale.

The routine pastoral work – and many other things – is then distributed throughout the body and is only something for me to engage with when there are things that cannot be dealt with by anybody else – the GP vs surgeon model. Similarly the main task of engaging with the wider population is taken forward by each church member themselves – I would spend hardly any time at all dealing directly with the wider community, I would no longer be the ‘court chaplain’ (= court jester) at the beck and call of the authorities. Yet I would still be needed to act as a spokesperson for the church community, I don’t see that changing.

Basically – lots of ways in which I am used up as a source of value for the committed Christian community – and virtually no ways in which I am used up either as an institutional pawn or as a panderer to the jaded appetites of spiritually self-abusing baby-boomers! No more needing to be ‘nice’ to people! Something much starker, much more austere, much more disciplined and disciplining – but also much more life-giving and healing.

That’s what I think I’m called to be. That’s what a priest is, isn’t it?

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

Feed the sheep – protect them from the wolves. Don’t feed the wolves by neglecting the sheep. And how to feed the sheep? Word and Sacrament. Nothing more, nothing less.