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.