The Church of England is, to put it mildly, wetting its knickers about attendance. No punters, no moolah. In a bid to save money it’s dumping ordinary clergy and leaving posts unfilled. It’s still appointing bishops and administrators, but that’s modern management for you.
Church hierarchs – and let me assure you that I yield to no-one in my admiration for and loyalty to the church politburo – think that mission initiatives will sort it all out. There’s a whole series of blogs I could write on the idiocy of this, but though I’m convinced that there are too many people on the planet and humanity needs culling, death from boredom reading this blog is not the way to do it. So let’s move on.
In a recent Church Times piece, a senior cleric suggests that missions could be held in gyms and cafes. A retired colleague, Dean Henley, pointed out on the blog Thinking Anglicans some of the difficulties of this in a gym, bearing in mind “the sound of the thumping treadmills, the pop music, the grunting and the slamming metal of the weights machines” and that most of the participants wear headphones. “It might not be the right time to ask if someone is saved as they attempt the downward dog in a yoga class.”
He is absolutely right. I go further.
People who don’t use gyms often have a mistaken view of what goes on in them. Perhaps they see them as social clubs with people chatting, gossiping, making deals, arranging dinner parties, having a pint or a gin after sitting on a bike for 5 minutes in the latest designer gear, peering into mirrors saying “does my bum/belly look big in this?” Like a golf club, I suppose (I’m not old enough to play golf, so I wouldn’t know for sure).
I’ve been a gym rat for over 40 years on and off. What I see are people with focus, determination, discipline, and commitment to healthy living. They mind what they eat and drink, so church functions with their farinaceous and sugar-laden fare are for them (and me) evil.
For us, gym = church. There are all sorts, conditions, faiths, races, ages, shapes and sizes. The atmosphere is businesslike and purposeful. No gossip, socialising or preening – there just isn’t the time when you’ve got to be back at work. The admiration of someone with a fine physique is not accompanied by snide remarks or by belittling those without, as would often be the case in equivalent circumstances in church where cattiness can be woeful. On the contrary, in gyms there is acknowledgement of the courage it takes to start a journey: mutual encouragement.
So I ask myself: what would anyone who takes physical wellbeing seriously enough to be a gym regular want or need of church? What does church have to offer that gym does not?
Every good thing that church provides is available at the gym: companionship, common purpose, community, ritual, discipline, time out from the daily grind. People mind their own business but are happy to help when asked. No bossy interference.
And the gym provides one thing that church does not: a sense of achievement.
Does the church offer anything that gyms do not?
Yes. The threat of damnation. Indeed, the church harps on incessantly about this: after a good sing, it has people grovelling for being miserable sinners. Now, given that many of us use the gym as therapy for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, being brought down low by this medieval control-freakery (control is what it’s all about) is not conducive to mental well-being.
Gym wins hands down.
The church politburo has it the wrong way round. If they are serious about spreading the message of Jesus Christ – life abundant – then rather than running mission initiatives in gyms, they’d be better off making gyms of all the churches. A different sort of conversion.
The English public, if it thinks of the Church of England at all, assumes it’s phenomenally wealthy, and that the church receives funding from the state or from taxes.
None of this is true.
The church is at a crisis. The history of how it has come to this is long and complex involving mediaeval laws and customs, agricultural and land legislation, economic changes, societal and cultural changes, the impact of scientific endeavour, and more. But though the history is interesting, we must move on from where we are now.
Funds come from:
personal giving by parishioners;
fees from weddings and funerals;
parish rental and investment income, if any; and
subventions from the Church Commissioners whose funds are also dependent on rental and investment income.
As a result of lockdown, church closures and economic effects of government response to the virus:
Giving has plummeted. Although some churchgoers give by standing order or direct debt, more do not, instead putting cash on the collection plate week by week—which of course has completely dried up. Most churchgoers are elderly and many know nothing of online banking.
There are no occasional offices in church at present, and in any case they were in sharp decline before covid.
Church halls are shut, so there is no rental income. Income from residential and commercial property is significantly reduced. Investment income has been decimated by the stock market crash.
Commissioners’ funds have taken a big hit for similar reasons.
Funds from parishes, sources 1, 2 and 3, go to:
Pay, pension and continuing training for all clergy except bishops and cathedral deans.
Diocesan advisers, administrators and secretaries
Churches, parish buildings and their maintenance
Funds from Commissioners, source 4, go to:
National mission initiatives
Central administration (Church House London, Lambeth Palace), large and Byzantine.
Subventions to dioceses to help plug the gap between what comes in from parishes and what goes out in pay and pensions. Such subventions do not close that gap.
Most dioceses are using reserves or are already bust.
Liverpool and St Albans have furloughed some clergy.
Sheffield even before covid was aiming to reduce paid clergy numbers by almost a half in the next few years.
Worcester has asked the public for donations to pay clergy.
Chelmsford has told parishes if they can’t stump up £60K annually, they won’t get a paid parson, and has announced that paid clergy will be cut by a third.
It’s acknowledged or rumoured that Truro, Hereford, Sodor and Man, Blackburn, Manchester, Newcastle, Derby, Leicester, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Southwark, Rochester, Portsmouth, and Guildford (Surrey of all places!) are at the edge or just tipping over. Others too possibly.
One source who knows Carlisle diocese said that the only reason it isn’t bust yet is because it doesn’t spend anything – and as a Carliolian by birth and Cumbrian by descent and upbringing, I see this as admirable prudence.
Clergy pay and pensions
Consider these figures.
1 Archbishop of Canterbury £85,070
1 Archbishop of York £72,900
1 Bishop of London £66,820
39 other diocesan bishops £46,180
About 60 suffragan (assistant) bishops £37,670
43 Deans £37,670 (Dean of Oxford not remunerated by the Church)
About 100 Archdeacons £36,100
Ordinary paid parsons £25,265 minimum (about 5000 I guess)
Although the typical parson receives an annual stipend of just over £25K, the cost to the parishes is about £60K since the parish share also funds the parson’s pension and continuing training, parsonage maintenance, and diocesan staff such as mission advisers, safeguarding advisers, vocations advisers, and other advisers, administrators and secretaries. The church collects the money and passes it to the dioceses that then pay the clergy. Wealthy parishes that pay more than £60K in theory subsidise poor parishes that can’t afford to. Some do. Other wealthy parishes resent giving their money to an organisation that they disapprove of and withhold what they are asked to pay as a form of blackmail.
Since income from parishioners (source 1) has now dried up, the Commissioners recently loaned the dioceses £75 million to tide them over the covid crisis. Note: loaned—I’ll return to that. The pension is a significant call on funds, for it is a non-contributory defined benefit pension with a very generous lump sum. Furthermore, for Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons, the pension enhancement that comes from their increased pay is backdated to the year of their entry into clerical orders—this could amount to 20 years’ worth enhanced pension. That is scandalous.
Pensions used to be the responsibility of the Commissioners, but in 1997, after the Commissioners had had their fingers burnt, they were passed to the dioceses, that is the parishes. Parish income having now collapsed, the Commissioners will have to pick up the cost, and this will leave a big hole in their assets—unless of course clergy pay and pensions were to be slashed.
Sources 1, 2 and 3 also fund the building. Think ancient, damp, roof, structure, stained glass, organs, plumbing, electrics, heating, and more. Think of a building the size of a small cathedral, often to be found in inner city deprived areas, sustained by a regular congregation of say 25 people all over the age of 60.
Remember that the vast majority of congregations are numerically tiny, elderly, and on pensions. As a result of the lockdown they have lost the habit of weekly attendance. Lost habits are hard to re-establish. Will they want to return given the anxiety that will persist about catching the virus? How many will still be alive next year? Another issue is that many churchgoers have loyalty not to Christianity, nor to the parson, but to the building and, in rural areas, to the graveyard where they wish to be buried with their ancestors.
Why would these people continue to give to church funds if they’ve stopped attending? And it’s unwise to put any faith in online worship: it brings in no money, it requires web access and equipment, it is yet another task, and it is questionable how well supported it will be when people are able to resume “normal” activities.
The Commissioners fund, in short, cathedrals, bishops, central administration, training institutions and mission initiatives. In 1997 their assets were about £2.5 billion. After they stopped funding clergy pensions, assets grew to about £8 billion. As I said earlier, that’s being eaten into as I write: property prices and rental incomes are slashed, markets are depressed, and with working from home here to stay, rent from commercial properties is in short supply. And now they will have to take back most or all the pensions burden.
So far, then:
Parishes are in the red and reserves are being gobbled up.
Dioceses are in the red and reserves are being gobbled up.
The £75 million loaned to the dioceses some weeks ago won’t last long – it may already have run out. How can dioceses be expected to pay back this loan?
Prospects are gloomy.
You can see why there’s a money problem.
And I hope you can see that the biggest drain on funds is clergy pay and pensions.
What to do?
Closing and selling off churches has been suggested.
Who wants them? Few are amenable to other uses. They wouldn’t raise much cash given present property prices, and once a church is sold, it’s sold.
If they are sold, the heritage brigade will be up in arms: national heritage, part of the landscape. belong to the community, the people’s patrimony – all this they will cry. Morally, selling them to fund the religious activity of a dwindling sect is questionable since the buildings over the centuries were largely funded from taxation or levies and so can indeed be said to belong to the people.
Most significant of all, many—most—people are emotionally and atavistically attached to churches whether they attend or not: churches are community temples and memory deposits; they are often focal points of community cohesion. People care about churches and graveyards, but they don’t care about a resident parson. To them, buildings matter more than clergy or doctrine. Many clergy, and I suspect bishops too, find this difficult to stomach: they regard churches as inconvenient and expensive money pits and would rather worship in a warm industrial unit.
If churches were to be closed and/or sold, how would decisions be made and by whom? Many of the poorest churches are in the most deprived areas—the very areas where the churches do the most valuable work. Will the well scrubbed and well heeled of leafy suburbia be happy to see their money going to needle-strewn inner city parishes?
In summary, selling off churches would be a once-off; it wouldn’t raise much; and it would be hugely unpopular with a substantial and vocal section of the public. It would, truly, strike at the nature of the culture we have inherited.
So how about reducing pay and pension costs?
Since all clergy will in future have to be paid by the Commissioners, change the whole basis. Abolish all differentials. Pay all clergy the same, bishops the same as parsons, and reimburse expenses in full according to the nature of the work. It’s worth noting that clergy in France, including bishops, get less than a half of what a C of E parson gets. Yes, French clerics are unmarried, but then most C of E clerics have earning partners.
Restructure the pension scheme to be more in line with almost every other: contributory, DC, realistic lump sum.
Cull paid clergy
Reduce numbers by at least two thirds, those remaining being sited strategically in accordance with population or geographical factors. Most churches could be served by unpaid clergy living locally, selected by local agreement.
Stop – now – recruitment to paid posts. A few years ago there was a national drive to recruit more young people to the ranks of stipendiary clergy. This was immoral then, and is much more so now. There is no way that the church will be able to fund them for say 40 years, let alone provide a pension.
All other paid clergy to take early retirement, packages funded by the Commissioners.
Ordain nonstipendiary ministers as required on the basis of local recommendation, and after rigorous training.
But: do turkeys vote for Christmas?
Within one hour by road of where I sit there are five, maybe six diocesan offices, finance departments, safeguarding teams, mission teams … and so on. So:
Merge all 42 diocesan administrations into one central body, sited in the midlands or the north. Think of the likely savings and increased efficiency.
Dioceses should retain only pastoral functions.
Ordained diocesan staff now surplus to requirements should serve in parishes or use their skills in other careers.
Bishops don’t need cathedrals (Lutheran style), so cathedrals to become merely churches with historic titles only (Presbyterian Church of Scotland). Deans, chapters, residentiary canonries to be abolished. Musical and other mission activities could – should – survive, appropriately funded.
Fabric and maintenance of large churches and “cathedrals” to be funded centrally, perhaps with the introduction of a voluntary church tax (continental style) to support only the fabric (but not the activities within). Maybe HMRC would deal with this. Or perhaps, French style, fabric could become the responsibility of the state given the payment by the Commissioners of a suitable dowry. Unfortunately, available funds are unlikely to be adequate, and the economic and political circumstances are far from propitious.
All other churches to be run by unpaid clergy and/or lay minsters living in their own homes.
There are too many churches, especially in towns, so churches could be offered to local communities. Unwanted churches should be abandoned or demolished.
Sell all parsonages no longer required.
Bishops and dioceses
Some say we need fewer, some say we need more.
Option 1: reduce the number of dioceses and diocesan bishops from 42 to about 17, and the number of suffragans from about 60 to 14 or so, suggested * below, on the basis of population and/or area and communications.
Durham, Newcastle *
Carlisle, Blackburn, Sodor & Man *
Liverpool, Manchester, Chester *
Lichfield, Coventry, Birmingham *
Hereford, Worcester, Gloucester
Bristol, Bath and Wells, Salisbury *
Exeter, Truro *
Winchester, Portsmouth, Guildford
Southwark, Rochester, Canterbury *
London * *
Norwich, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich *
Ely, St Albans
Peterborough, Leicester *
Sheffield, Southwell. Derby *
This would run the risk of fewer bishops feeling more important with a regrettable further increase in clericalism.
Increase the number of dioceses and bishops from 42 to about 150 – maybe each deanery as at preset becoming a “diocese” (do we need the title?).
No suffragan bishops needed, nor Archdeacons or Deans since a cathedral is now no more than a church with a history.
No fancy titles. No House of Lords. No pay differentials. No purple shirts. No clericalism. No establishment. Perhaps these “bishops” would be the only paid clergy.
Increase the number of unpaid clergy. Ordain on the basis of local recommendation and need,
A difficult business, especially given the shortage of funds. At present there are nine residential institutions and a multiplicity of local part time courses. Some clergy are trained for three years full time, others (like me) for two years part time with a few residential weekends. There is no agreed national curriculum. Some students are grounded in New Testament Greek, some are not. Some are fed the arcane enthusiasms of course staff.
I don’t know what the future of training will be, but online learning and e-resources are essential. We don’t need so many training institutions, but we do need:
Standardisation with agreed curriculum.
Intelligent study of Scripture.
Instruction in basic liturgical history and praxis.
Instruction in church history.
Extensive e–resources in the widest possible sense.
And finally …
This is a great opportunity for radical action. The church does not need a sticking plaster, but rather a scalpel wielded mercilessly to drain the abscesses. “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
I thank many people for stimulating me to think about this, and am particularly grateful to “Froghole”, Rupert Moreton, Andy Sparrow and Susan Monkhouse.
As is now well known, Church of England bishops have recently covered themselves in glory and ordure by reiterating the church’s teaching that hanky-panky is permitted only between people of contradictory gender that are married to each other.
Polygamy, entirely Biblical by the way, is out. Same-sex sex is out—no question. Opposite-sex sex if you’re civilly partnered rather than married is out. Adolescent fumbles behind the chip shop, or bike sheds if you’re at school, are presumably out, out, out. For heaven’s sake, how is a decent upstanding teenager to learn the ropes? And what about the Archbishop of York who said of a royal couple living together before marriage that people would be wise to “test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow”.
You couldn’t make it up, could you?
Church of England bishops, it seems, have a view on lots of things. People ignore them. They had a view on how we should vote. People, even their groupies, ignored that. They had a view on brexit. People, even their groupies, ignored that. So they changed their view.
It comes as no surprise, then, that at the forthcoming General Synod the agenda include discussion on the carbon footprints of churches. On the blog Thinking Anglicans, a correspondent has recently suggested tongue in cheek that each church should review how its carbon footprint is affected by people travelling to church. He points out that so many people came to one of the large evangelical churches in Bristol by car—Chelsea tractor I expect—that Sunday parking outside his house was a nightmare.
This set me thinking.
I wonder how many people attend services on foot or by public transport, well known to be reliable on Sundays. I see horse and cart soon becoming a necessity and imagine the conversations between the Mrs Proudies and the hapless Archdeacons when a new bishop arrives, to say nothing of discussions on the quality of locks and keys.
This would enable the appointment of diocesan stable-hands, grooms and cleaners-up-after to add to the growing army of diocesan posts—only these people would actually be useful.
There are many other benefits that I can imagine, not the least of which is a general slowing down, for I doubt the horses pulling clerical, nay episcopal, carriages would be capable of running at Ascot (a horse worthy of an episcopal employer would surely not be entered to run at Aintree: do they have champagne that far north?).
Another consequence would be that since it would take longer to travel between palace and parish, bishops would perforce visit the parishes less often. This could be seen as a bad thing, or a good thing.
There would have to be a position paper written on the carbon hoofprint of increased horse dung, but maybe not, for it might be that horses were merely redeployed such that it was not necessary to breed more of the elegant equines.
Having said that, breeding more would benefit the artificial insemination industry and enable bishops to produce episcopal guidelines on what was and was not permissible in that reproductive activity. And if there were more dung, just think how the rose gardens and vegetable patches would benefit—this latter being significant in carbon footprint reduction and “woke” ideas about diet.
Which brings me to a dietary question: why is the fare offered at church events so unhealthy? Chocolate, pastry, flour, sandwiches, cakes. General Synod should discuss this.
There is so much about which the bishops have yet to opine: as Alan Bennett remarked in his monologue Bed Among the Lentils, the role of the church is unclear in so many hitherto uncolonised departments of life—underfloor central heating for example.
But they need to get their fingers out, for soon there won’t be anybody to opine to.
RR writes: not long after I’d posted Retirement 1, I had this response from a retired priest. I have her permission to post it — it’s worth reading.
I can relate to a lot of what you say. I’ve been out of Church now for about 15 years and it took me an awful long time to get rid of enough rage to be able to recover the sense of the divine chuckle at the silliness of most of it.
When I went forward for ministry, women were not ordained at all, just licensed as Deacons, so I spent much of my time being regarded as the freak, and forcing a pathway to acceptance. Of course now the C of E is so desperate for ministers that women are accepted because they are willing, as a result of cultural pressure, to fill the vacancies. That, of course, will change as new generations of women, my children’s generation, no longer see that women have to be submissive, willing to do anything, to take on a job.
The saddest thing I’ve witnessed is the retreat of the Church from engagement with the world as it is for most people. When I was ‘called’, liberation theologians from South America were essential reading for us. David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham, and constantly in the media for standing on the side of the marginalised. In our own diocese, the then Bishop of Stafford was out on the streets marching against Thatcherism. I suppose this is what you mean by “being Jesus” rather than “talking Jesus” – the latter being something that makes me nauseous.
As you can see, the rage is still present.
As for speaking out—it takes its toll. The state of the Church Rampant (irony alert) now makes me sad. I see rural clergy with six churches and no ministerial help, up against all the things you mention in terms of nonsense from the institution. I would like to get involved but, as I’m constantly reminded by my partner, it is no longer my problem.
Maybe this is just as well, for beyond the confines of the institutional church there is plenty of life, and contributions to “The Kingdom” can come in other ways.
The abuse scandals in the Church of England haven’t featured in this blog up to now. This is not because I don’t care, but rather because I care so much. I’m so incandescent with rage that I hardly know what to write.
Anybody who wants a flavour of what’s been going on could start by dipping into two websites: Thinking Anglicans and Archbishop Cranmer. If you can’t be bothered, then take it from me that the institutional Church of England is secretive, evasive, cruel and corrupt. The people who work at the coal face, paid and unpaid, are by and large utterly decent and thoroughly commendable, but they don’t know the half of what goes on in the sleazy corridors of power.
It’s difficult to preach about this because, to be frank, the bulk of the punters simply don’t want to know. They come for a weekly fix of what they’ve always done on Sunday before pootling off to the pub or the local beauty spot. The last thing they want is for their complacency to be sullied by deeply unpalatable facts about the organisation that they profess to be part of. The latest morsel to come our way is the extent to which the tentacles of the establishment infiltrate this fetid, decaying corruption. Read this: Nobody’s Friends
Of all the issues that the Church should be concerned with, this—abuse in all its forms—is the topic that eats away at me the most. I’ve no idea why this should be so, for I don’t recall ever having been on the receiving end, except as I relate below.
At school I was taunted for being fat, bookish, wearing specs, and being more interested in church music than in grabbing other boys’ scrotums in the scrum. But I didn’t regard this as abuse then, and don’t now. I wasn’t at boarding school so had no experience of what is alleged to have gone on in some of them. As a church musician I soon became aware of the need to maintain distance between young choristers and me, and on the two occasions when I felt I’d overstepped the mark I visited the parents to apologize.
So, as I say, I’m not sure why the revelations of abuse should so affect me other than being profoundly disappointed in an organization that professes to be Godly. Every fibre of my being goes out to those who have suffered.
I am ashamed to be a public representative of the Church of England. I was ordained at the age of 56 (now 69) and I wonder if I’ve wasted the last thirteen years of my life—a fool to have been seduced by the institution. Am I alone amongst clergy in feeling this? And there has been not a single word of encouragement from any bishop.
In other walks of life, the boss might sympathize with the plight of embattled foot-soldiers, assuring them (us) of support when needed. I can imagine a Brigadier encouraging the troops after a battle that didn’t go to plan, in order to restore morale.
But not a peep from Church of England hierarchs.
I must confess to a feeling of schadenfreude about the John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher stories. At several points in my life I’ve been assailed by evangelical so-called Christians who have condemned my views, and assured me that I’m destined for hellfire unless I believe precisely what they believe. This happened in childhood (rural Methodism), at university where some of the most oleaginous and judgmental creeps imaginable (Cambridge Christian Union types) poured scorn on us “College Chapel” Christians, and since then at meetings of Churches Together, especially in Chesterfield and Burton.
All this could be regarded as abusive, so there’s a certain guilty pleasure in seeing that the scions of these corruptions of Christianity now stand with their reputations in tatters. To read that one of them beat the crap out of an adolescent boy, to the extent that blood was gushing down his legs, puts that form of “Christianity” in its proper place. Just imagine: eight hundred lashes—they had to break for lunch—as punishment for a wank, or some such. Ye Gods. Satanists would be more humane.
About five years ago my elder son told me that if I willed any of my estate to the church he would utter incantations and stick pins into a clay doll made in my image. There is no danger of that. After a lifetime of sacrificial giving to the church, not one penny more will go to this cruel, hypocritical and putrid institution.
It is Rambling Rector’s considered opinion, based on 11 years as an incumbent, that people who contact him in their quest to find out about family history are – how shall he put this? – ah yes – a pain in the hole.
They seem to imagine that he has nothing better to do than to drop everything, run to their aid, and accede to their every loopy demand.
They seem to imagine that when he sees an email in his inbox headed “Family history enquiry”, his heart overflows with joy and his life is complete. “Oh whoopee!” they think he thinks, “another enquiry about dead people. Yippee!”
Reader, this is far from the truth. This Vicar, be it understood, is concerned with the living. He doesn’t give two hoots about the dead or about memorials or vaults or tombs or other manifestations of family arrogance and pride.
It’s icing on the cake when people announce that they’re coming to Burton on such and such a date, or are standing at the church, and demand that someone let them in. RR can barely be civil at such impoliteness. The notion that they might have consulted in advance is foreign to them. RR detects an attitude of entitlement that is common in the white middle classes. Perhaps they think that the Church of England is part of the NHS, funded by their taxes.
To all of you out there who might be thinking of contacting the Vicar of the church where your forbears lived, or worshipped, or were baptized, married or buried centuries ago, I say “don’t”. Just don’t.
Find another hobby. Go for a walk. Kick the cat. Take up foxy boxing.
Homily by Rambling Rector at Robin Trotter’s first mass, 22 June 2019.
Proper 7: Isaiah 65:1-9. Luke 8:26-39
Isaiah 65:1-9, my précis based on The Message:
I’ve made myself available to those who haven’t bothered to ask. I kept saying ‘I’m here’, but they ignore me. They get on my nerves. They make up their own religion, a potluck stew. They spend the night in tombs to get messages from the dead, eat forbidden foods and drink potions and charms. They say, ‘don’t touch me. I’m holier than thou.’ These people make me sick. But the Lord says they’ll get their comeuppance—actions have consequences.
All clerks in holy orders can sympathise with the prophet as they deal with people who appear to have ears but hear not. Robin, you will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to minister as priest to the wayward group of individuals that make up a church.
You will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to do as you promised yesterday: to teach and to admonish, to resist evil, support the weak, and defend the poor. Note the word admonish. This is more than warn, or premonish as the Book of Common Prayer has it; you are to rebuke, to challenge bad behaviour—and there is plenty of that in churches.
Did you notice that people in tombs feature in both readings? In Greek, tomb is mnema, which gives us memory, memorial, mnemonic. People living in the past, people who moan constantly that the solution to all the church’s problems is to have things as they were when they were young—it’s piffle, of course, because things never were as they imagine. There is plenty of that in churches.
The priest is to pull people out of the tombs they live in. It is often said that the Lord loves us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us festering there.
The things I want to explore in the rest of this homily are demons, like those driven into the pigs as we heard in the Gospel—in our world today, addictions, obsessions, fixed false beliefs.
The three demons that afflict us, and that do untold damage to us as priests, are those that we hear of in the Lord’s wilderness temptations:
the demon that incites us to seek personal gain;
the demon that incites us to want to be worshipped;
the demon that incites us to be in control.
Desire for personal gain. This isn’t likely to affect you much, Robin, since, quite frankly, you’re already pretty long in the tooth—OAP soon—and anyway there’s nowhere for you to go. It would have afflicted me had I been ordained younger. I would have hankered after promotion of some sort, for that was part of who I was. But ordination at the age of 56 meant, thanks be to God, it was too late.
Desire to be worshipped, to be known, “look at me”. This afflicts so many clergy. They want to please people, they want to fix people—like you used to do when you were a GP. They don’t challenge bad behaviour. They can’t cope with being wrong. They certainly don’t admonish. As a result, they leave behind them a trail of dissatisfaction and resentment, for they never actually do what they say they will. I know such a bishop, now retired.
Rather than aiming to be worshipped, priests must cultivate an air of detachment. They can’t afford to be too friendly with any group of parishioners, for then they will be seen as being partial. This will be difficult for you, Robin, having being known in these churches for 30 years and more, but you must work at it. You need to have friends who have nothing to do with church or religion. They will ground you in reality rather than in the la-la land that the Church of England has become. My own experience is that it’s easier to be open with non-church people—and vice versa—than with many church people who have expectations of what the Vicar should be, and I don’t meet any of them, thank God.
Desire to be in control. This is a truly evil and pernicious beast. It leads you to think that you should fill your diary, that you are very important, that you should pursue success (see how all the demons merge into one another?). It leads you to underestimate the value of masterly inactivity, the solution to many problems in life as in medicine. After all, if what they say is true, this is God’s church, not yours, not mine, not even the wardens’, and no amount of flapping around like a demented hen will achieve anything of value. If in doubt, do nowt.
Embrace incompetence. Theological training prepared me for critical study of scripture and introduced me to the riches of speculative theology, but it did nothing for me liturgically (being an organist did that); it did nothing to prepare me for wedding legalities, building maintenance, fundraising, financial management, being an entrepreneur … the list is endless. It certainly did nothing to train me, or even interest me, in managing flower arrangers.
I am an incompetent priest. I stand at the altar celebrating the holy mysteries aware of my selfishness, hypocrisy, uselessness, fickleness, laziness, arrogance, and yet there I am, not ashamed but accepting of all this, just me. I may have 26 letters after my name, but not one of them means anything of value. A priest is a doorway between the terrestrial and the Divine. My imperfections gather up those of my people and point them to the Divine—and vice versa: made like him, like him we rise.
In words of, I think, Chesterton, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Indeed, Robin, if you don’t think you are rubbish at priesthood, then you haven’t properly understood it. A former Director of Ministry, now an Archdeacon, said “I used to tell ordinands that if they didn’t find a tension between the job they were asked to do and their personal integrity, they were brain-dead.” You are not brain dead. You will find that tension. It will hurt.
Finally, don’t be tempted to think that things are either right or wrong. Polarisation is hardly ever appropriate, not even in science, not in cosmology or particle physics, and not in pastoral ministry where either/or is actually both/and.
From Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right Flowers will never grow In the spring. The place where we are right Is hard and trampled Like a yard. But doubts and loves Dig up the world Like a mole, a plow. And a whisper will be heard in the place Where the ruined House once stood.
Priesthood is that ruined house in which is a wellspring of Divine grace.
Spurn success. Embrace incompetence. And may the Lord be with you.
“Can you help? We’re at the church—Irish family in a bit of bother”. Man, County Wicklow accent maybe.
They’ve got the wrong St Modwen’s, thought I: they need to ring the Catholics. “Which church?”
Not the wrong church, so. I make another assumption: they want money or accommodation. The first I can deal with, the second I can direct them elsewhere.
I suggest they ring YMCA and was just about to give yer man the number when:
“They can’t help” says he.
“What exactly do you need?” says I.
“Car’s broken down outside church.”
I laugh. “I can’t help either” I say. If they knew me they’d know that I can barely find the oil doodah.
Phone slammed down (or the equivalent for a mobile).
I know a fair number of Irish priests, not one of whom would have been able to help. Maybe I know the wrong sort.
“Is that Dr Monkhouse?” Man, posh accent, a bit smarmy. Hackles rise.
“I’m at the church and I’d like to see the monuments.”
St Modwen’s in the market place it transpires. A car trip necessary. I ask him if he expects me to drop what I’m doing to open the church for him (yes, I agree, it should be open all day, but don’t get me started on that).
“Well, I’ve come a long way.”
“You could have rung to arrange this” says I. No response. I tell him he’ll have to wait maybe 30 minutes or so.
Eventually I drive there.
Tall, a bit dishevelled, in his 60s I guess. Bohemian unkempt longish hair. At least he has some.
I am not welcoming.
“I wasn’t ordained to care about church monuments, you know, and I have better things to do on a Monday morning than this”. Like watching a film on Netflix – I’m always exhausted on a Monday. I didn’t say about Netflix—merely thought it.
“I’m sorry. I should have rung in advance.”
“Yes you should. I have no time for memorials. They’re all about the past—egocentric people with notions above themselves.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”
“When you’ve finished, let yourself out and shut the door behind you.”
Car mechanic? Expert on memorials? Neither topic covered in training.
Because of this, Susan returned from walking the dog to find the car not there, so that discombobulated her day.