Stand well back



Eruption alert!

Retirement date set. This had to be done for I was wasting energy prevaricating. But now I want it to be yesterday. I’ve given myself permission to feel that I’ve had enough. I’ve stopped pretending.

And that’s the problem.

Everything that frustrates and dismays and angers me about parochial ministry in the Church of England—things that I’d kept down in order to do the job—now rises to the surface like methane bubbling from the seabed ready to bring conflagration and catastrophe. How can I direct this energy so that calamitous eruptions will not harm me or those around me? Though some parishioners are uninhibited in telling me what they think of me and what I ought to do, I can’t tell parishioners what I think of them. Well I can, but the fallout would be cosmic.

It’s inevitable that a shrinking and insecure organisation should turn inwards, wagons circling. It feels like what I imagine the last days of the Soviet Union must have felt like. The Politburo gathers on Lenin’s tomb, swaggering in their be-medalled uniforms and über-pompous titles, patting each other on the back in faux bonhomie and watching the parade of institutional paraphernalia. Onlookers, numbers dwindling year by year, are dejected, depressed and increasingly elderly. Party big knobs visit hoi polloi, smell fresh paint, and go from one venue to the next along routes lined by empty facades—Potemkin displays. Meanwhile the great unwashed turn their backs on all this flummery and get on with their lives as best they can.

The Church of England has stopped listening and talking to ordinary people. It now talks only to cult members with words that are unintelligible except to the initiated. It’s self-referential newspeak. Decision makers seem to have the attitudes of the 1950s—OK perhaps an exaggeration, the 1970s then—so people, even their own groupies, ignore them. For someone like me who has put a bit of energy into a civic role, despite not being naturally gifted with hail-fellow-well-met attributes, this is disappointing at best and despairing at worst. And as for the institution’s attitudes to sexuality, I am ashamed to be part of it. Reports of how the institutional church has treated those abused in any way by its minions lead me to wonder if there is deep-seated evil sustaining its protect-the-organisation-at all-costs mentality. The last days of the Soviet Union again.

At a recent church meeting we considered briefly some reasons why men so often find church unappealing. (Yes, I’ve read David Murrow’s Why men hate going to church.) We looked at the choice between making a commitment to a football club and a church. Both provide a sense of community. Both provide ritual. Both provide colour and chanting (words might be different, but I’ve always liked profanity—it’s so euphonic). Both have priests and acolytes. Both provide physical expressions of “worship”. Sport is good for the body, church with its emphasis on chocolate and all things farinaceous, is most definitely not: no wonder so many church people are overweight. But only the church provides finger-wagging moralising that, coming from an organisation so rich in hypocrisy and pretence, is hard to stomach.

Then there’s the sense of competition: winner and loser. Scripture, about which more later, can easily be interpreted as encouraging repression and condemning competition. Now look, girls and boys, we are animals. We are driven to a large extent by testosterone, women too. Competitiveness is hard-wired in. It is not to be suppressed—very dangerous—but channelled. Sport does this. Church does not. People are not stupid—they might not be able to articulate this, but they intuitively know it and make their own choices. (Having written this I admit there’s plenty aggression in the church, much of it passive: don’t sit in my seat, don’t interfere with the flower arrangements, don’t change the hymns, don’t use the crockery in this cupboard unless you’re a member of the Mothers’ Union.)

Of course I think the Christian Gospel—the teaching and example of Jesus—is entirely worth promoting. Its psychological authenticity is unquestionable. That’s one thing that has kept me in the job. That’s why I think everybody could benefit from hearing it. And that’s why to be part of an institution that continually shoots itself in the foot is so frustrating. The other thing that is profoundly authentic about religious experience is liturgy which to my mind is not about worshipping God, but celebrating humanity.

Some clergy complain about the burden of administration. Without doubt it’s worse than it was ten years ago, but it doesn’t even begin to compare with that of a job in the real world. These clerics should just get on with it and shut up. Anyway, as I’ve said before, the wastepaper basket is the handiest accessory in my study. So no, girls and boys, it’s not the volume of administration that is so dispiriting, it’s the futility. It doesn’t lead to change for the better. It doesn’t lead to performance being rewarded in any tangible sense.

Two examples suffice.

  • Attendance statistics. How many people have joined/left your worshipping community this year? What’s a worshipping community? This is impossible to answer in an inner urban setting with a constant flow of casual visitors, churchyard sleepers, temporary workers, Eastern Europeans who think S Paul’s is RC. How many people aged 60-70? over 70? As if I or anybody else is going asking old women their age.
  • Mission action plans. Oh God. What do you intend to do over the next year? five years? How will you do it? Who will be in charge? It’s like being back in infants, answering questions set by people less imaginative than you. Sometimes they ask what resources you need—as if they will be provided. Ha bloody ha! I could go on but I’ll stop for the sake of my blood pressure. Every worthwhile development in almost 13 years of my parochial ministry has been serendipitous. Not one could have been planned for.

I suppose these things keep people employed in diocesan offices, checking up. Lichfield diocese is on the whole reasonable (Derby was grim), but it feels as if one is living in a totalitarian regime keeping apparatchiks happy in the land of make-believe. Soviet Union again.

As I said, the psychological authenticity of the gospel is peerless. The way in which it inspires individuals to bring life abundant—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless—is priceless. The church has been a wonderful patron of the arts for almost 2000 years, thereby giving people a vision of the divine. But the more the institutional Church of England promotes this cultic control-freakery, the sooner it deserves to die.

The solution to many problems in medicine is masterly inactivity. There is a lesson in that.

15 thoughts on “Stand well back

  1. I came about your blog after having read earlier this morning the blog of a former seminary professor of mine who is retired. You might enjoy his sarcasm:

    As one who is well into his less decade of service, I wonder what kind of explosion might occur when I officially retire and dedicate more time to writing (or maybe I’ll just stick to sailing, which does seem to clear my head better than most things).

    • Thanks. I shall look at it. Good sailing. Weightlifting keeps me kind of sane. There is more companionship, camaraderie, and mutual support in the gym than in many churches.

  2. Dear Rector, here in Christchurch, New Zealand, just 8 years after devastating earthquakes which decimated our church buildings, and now the tragic death of 40 Muslims in their mosques, at the hands of a madman, while engaged in Friday Prayers; we Christians are aware of our need to put things into more of a proper perspective.

    The gift of life from God is paramount. It is a gift, not a right. We misbehave but God loves us, and does NOT punish us for our sins (Thank God) but wants us to learn from the catastrophes that inevitably occur in our local environment. Out of the hatred of one ‘White-Supremacist’ has grown – here in Christchurch – a movement (led by our female Prime Minister) that has made us understand that all humanity has been created for the purpose of Loving and not hating.

    I guess the sooner we learn that lesson, and get down to the business of loving – as God does, unreservedly – forgetting our petty little disappointments and frustrations – the sooner will the Kingdom of God be established according to what we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer.

    Patience, Father. Retirement will not sort out your woes – as I know after almost 25 years of it. What it will do, is allow you to sit back and take a more equable view of the misdemeanours of those who tend to ‘run the show’, realising that they, too, are made in the Divine Image and Likeness – sinners but redeemed, just like ourselves. Blessings!

      • Mea Culpa! I guess we all see things from our own given perspective. I may have mistaken the cause of your angst. Sorry, Father! Enjoy retirement.

  3. You said that very well – no loss of words there! I look forward to the next installment.

  4. I have only recently joined your following but your comments are so apposite. I enjoy your thoughts immensely.Thank you

  5. Glad you have recovered from your cold. Read your thoughts about the “Church” and other administrative bodies, and enjoyed and was enlightened. A second reading is required to appreciate the finer points of your article. Keep up the good work and I ‘ll look out for your next one.
    Best wishes. Gerald and Baiba

  6. Never stop writing! Your words reflect exactly what is happening in the Catholic Church too. It has never engaged with ordinary people. But it has humiliated and shamed many, mostly because they were poor and uneducated. My grandparents being perfect examples of this. It’s attitude to sexuality is truly shocking. Women are invisible and worthless. It protects and covers up for “priests” who have raped, terrorised, abused and destroyed the lives of innocent little children, and has done for centuries, globally. Evil is very much at the heart of the church in which I was raised. Where is Jesus? We have truly lost sight and forgotten about Him.

    The Church will lose a man of great compassion, sincerity and courage on the day you retire. Sending you wamest wishes from Dublin today. Thinking of you.

  7. Its a good thing you stopped writing Stanley, or you might have popped a blood vessel or two, lol.
    ( just kidding) Religion, and people are changing, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. I did enjoy your article, however. Well written.

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