I’ve been scathing about clergy who after a few years in parochial ministry suddenly discover they are being “called” to sit behind a desk. I become incandescent when I see more and more parishes dumped on fewer and fewer parish clergy, while at the same time noting the cancerous growth in the number of staff in diocesan offices.
It was similar in academic life. Forty years ago one of the pleasures of being a university teacher was that apart from academic work there were ancillary tasks to be attended to, such as admissions, and student pastoral care. Since then, these have been taken from academics and put in the hands of people employed solely for the purpose. Whether or not this improved the student experience is questionable, but it certainly made my life less interesting. Coupled to this, the staff-student relationship was destroyed as Orwellian algorithms replaced discretion and discernment. The reduction in the number of people at the coalface, and the pestilential growth of faceless administrators, are common to both.
Now, after thirteen years in parochial ministry I must eat my words. I understand why clergy desert parish ministry for administrative jobs and chaplaincies in hospitals, prisons and such like, where professional standards apply, and employment is governed by law.
I’ve had a varied life. I learnt survival skills as a fat and bookish boy in a rural community where only sport mattered. I survived—enjoyed—university life on the edge of the fens despite a northern accent (no, I’m not a professional northerner). I was moulded into a career that I didn’t particularly want but found a niche for myself in one of its side streets. I ministered to people in towns, villages and cities, including Camberwell and Brixton. I learnt Machiavellian skills of university politics and wielded them with some distinction. I developed a feel for what people need if they are to flourish. I dealt with happy students, sad students, needy students, independent students, crazy students, manipulative students, delightful students, apprehensive students (I was one myself). I can recognize chancers and charmers. I coped with being an Englishman in the Republic of Ireland. I survived the death of one of my sons. I’ve dealt with all sorts and conditions of colleagues, many of whom were and are egomaniacs.
But nothing, nothing, compares to the pressures on my psyche that come with front-line parochial ministry: the frustration and helplessness when confronted by almost malicious bureaucracy, the way it impinges on innocent people trying their best, and having to deal with mendacious, manipulative and occasionally psychotic church people.
Two things sap my morale more than anything else.
First, cowards who complain to others but lack the courage to complain to whomever they’re complaining about—me. There have been only two or three (that I know of) in my ordained ministry, but it takes only one to drip poison. I know they’re doing it because people tell me (that of course raises more questions). The poison is like acid that becomes more destructive the further it spreads, so that by the time it gets back to me, it could corrode steel.
The force that breaks down and splinters—diabolic—is much more potent than that which builds up—anabolic. The tendency to entropy rules every bit as much as in thermodynamics. I know in my head that complainers are in a tiny minority, but they are vocal. They are deeply disturbed, and part of me is concerned for their welfare. But first I must look after myself. People say I need a less porous roof over my head. And I do. But I don’t know how to grow it, and if I did, it would change me. Perhaps I need to change.
Second, people who are incapable or unwilling to think for themselves. They think that because someone from former millennia said something or propounded some theory, the old view must prevail, the implication being that people of a former age were more intelligent and better informed than we are. I know of no evidence for this.
Such people are obviously frightened. They need the security of the straitjackets woven by others. They sit like abused children, cowering in the corner of the room. They are sad. And I am naive to hope that they might change.
I’m heartily sick of hearing that my views on such-and-such are heretical and of little worth because they are out of line with those of say Paul or Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Wesley. If the church is to regain any kind traction in society, it has to come to terms with the realities of life here and now, not there and then. It has to think afresh. I’m on record as saying that if there is a conflict between, say, biology and theology, then theology must either be ditched or changed. But I feel as if I’m pissing in the wind.
As I get older I find it increasingly difficult to cope with stress. At present I feel much like I did shortly after Hugh died: exhausted, drained, anxious, with barely enough energy for myself, let alone others. A year ago I thought I might seek a year’s extension and stay in post till I was 71. I was enjoying the job. I’m shocked at how quickly the feeling of having had enough has overwhelmed me.