None for ages, then three at once. Like buses. Funerals I’m talking about. And what a trio: the 20-year-old murdered in Jerusalem, then two from the same extended family with strong church and business connexions—big funerals.
They don’t half take it out of you. Or rather me. The 20-year-old’s last week was excruciating for personal reasons, nails hammered in wounds still raw, but the most difficult that I’ve ever had to do, Hugh excepted, was about 10 years ago, very soon after ordination. A thirty-something-year-old mother of four dropped dead as she was preparing supper. No warning, just kerplunk. I was just about doing OK at the funeral until, during my address from the pulpit, my eyes rested upon the four year old weeping into her teddy bear. Ye Gods.
It’s not easy to process all this—at least I don’t find it so. I asked for some advice from an experienced colleague about coping mechanisms and he said that he imagined the emotion passing down his body into his feet and thence into the earth. He’s something of a Buddhist Christian, and I see that that might do the business for him, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m not sure what does. Sleep possibly.
All jobs have their stresses. I don’t pretend clergy stress is worse than that of any other occupation. After all, we have a free house even though the kitchen is dire, a non-contributory pension (for how much longer?), about £24K a year (no, we don’t get to keep wedding and funeral fees), and, as has been so frequently pointed out to me, we only work one day a week. This remark retains its freshness even on the 137th hearing. So amusing.
Notwithstanding, parochial ministry brings stress of an unusual and peculiar intensity of emotion. Funerals illustrate one aspect, but there’s the stress that comes from the disconnect between the expectations of others, for example that the Vicar will always be smiling and willing to agree with whatever loopy and self-serving notions that fall on his ears, and the demands of the organization and—dare I say—demands of the Gospel to confront hypocrisy and injustice. Like a former Vicar of Chesterfield and Archbishop of Cape Town, Geoffrey Clayton, I was determined when I was ordained that nobody should ever say of me “our nice new Vicar.” Nobody ever has. Or will.
Is this the reason why there is so much fallout from parochial ministry? They are leaving it in droves for such as chaplaincies (much better pay, defined hours of work, protection against exploitation) or civil employment. One of the curates ordained the year before me stuck it for about 18 months, then said she wanted her weekends back.
Anyhoo, it’s time for a palate cleanser, a tart lemon sorbet to mop up the funeral emotion and start the salivary juices flowing again.
I see that novelist Ian McEwan is in the soup for suggesting that before long all the old people who voted Brexit will be dead so we can vote again to stay. Let’s take it a step further. Does it not strike you as a waste of NHS resources that so many old people have expensive hip replacements and then die soon after? Maybe the surgery is too much for them. Maybe they’re shoved downstairs by some avaricious trout who wants their money or house or whatever. It may be practice for the surgeons, but would it not be better to spend the money on getting young people back to work? And what about all the mobility scooters? Would it not be better to force the occupants to go to the gym three times a week and tone up, shed flab and strengthen the heart? There is no better medicine than human sweat. It might be cheaper.
But wait a minute—they might live longer. We can’t have that. Such a drain on the national purse. Maybe we should be forcing cream cakes down people’s throats to send them to the starry heights sooner. Or feeding them antibiotics so that they’ll be carried off by superbugs, leaving only the genetically resistant to repopulate the earth. This is a most attractive notion. It grows on me. A government commission should surely be set up. I shall chair it.
Bearing in mind how I began this piece, you might say “but it will mean more funerals for you”. I doubt that. More and more funerals—sorry I mean Celebrations of Life—are in the hands of non-religious celebrants. Well, I say non-religious, though I gather that they have prayers and very often the Our Father. It’s important to retain a bit of folk religion even though Christianity is actually a middle-eastern religion and it might be more English to go for the pure pagan. Have you seen The Wicker Man with Christopher Lee? There’s something to think on: why wait for people to die?
I’ll get my coat.