Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Happy incumbents

Reading Lesley's blog reminded me that I wanted to write something on this.

First a lengthy quotation from Rowan's remarks:

"On the humanity of priesthood and episcopacy, it does seem to me that, if we have an ordained ministry in the Church, and if part of the function of any ordained ministry is to help the Church be the Church, and if the Church truly is the Church when it is the human community that is Christ’s body among us (and you can add lots more ifs), then the ordained person — deacon, priest, or bishop — is not exempt from modelling the new humanity.

The ordained person does not just talk to other people about how they become better human beings or more effective parts of the Body of Christ. The ordained person is a part of the Body of Christ, and therefore in­volved in modelling the new human­ity.

So if we ask whether this or that form of ordained ministry models a humanity that looks full or joyful or renewed, maybe that is the crucial question. And frequently the answer is no, for men and for women.

When looking at challenges such as employment practice, work patterns, couples in ministry, and a whole range of issues, we might ask whether this human ministry looks as though it stands for an attractive, a trans­forming and transformed, new human­ity. Because if it doesn’t, we are actually not doing what we are sup­posed to do, and we are treating ordained ministry as if it were some­thing other than the life of the Body of Christ. So it is all right for a con­gregation to flourish and a priest to be crushed? I don’t think it is all right.

We all know how the pain and the cost of ordained ministry can feed the life of a community. And I think that is what St Paul is talking about in a great deal of 2 Corinthians.

But we can’t leave it there, because that both dehumanises and super-humanises the ordained ministry. It dehumanises because it says it doesn’t really matter what happens to these particular persons that God loves in Jesus Christ. That is dehumanising.

These particular persons in Jesus Christ, who have collars round their necks and various coloured shirts, are the ones who do the work for the Body of Christ, including the sacri­ficial suffering. And everybody else sort of freewheels on it."

Now two quotations from David Hare's 'Racing Demon', which I read a little while back and which (the play as a whole) has been haunting me:

+Southwark to an incumbent: "In any other job you'd have been fired years ago. You're a joke, Lionel. You stand in the centre of the parish like some great fat wobbly girl's blouse. Crying for humanity. And doing absolutely nothing at all... you are the reason the whole church is dying. Immobile. Wracked. Turned inward. Caught in a cycle of decline. Your personal integrity your only concern. Incapable of reaching out. A great vacillating pea-green half-set jelly... It truly offends me, the idea that people need authority, and every time they come to ask what does the church think then they are hit in the face by a spurt of lukewarm water from a rugby bladder. And I simply will not allow it to go on."

and especially this one, where the incumbent's experienced colleagues (Harry and Streaky) are discussing him with the new curate (Tony):
Harry: He's tired.
Tony: Yes. He's tired. Exactly. Lionel is tired because he gets no strength from the gospel. That's my whole point. He's tired because he isn't getting anything back.
Harry: (shaking his head, disbelieving) You can't say that. How dare you? You can't say that of any priest.
Tony: Of course I can say it.
Harry: Who are you to judge?
Tony: Have you seen him? Going down the street? In Brixton? His forehead is knotted. He gives off one message: 'Keep away. I carry the cares of the world.' It's true. People don't go near him. He reeks of personal failure. And anguish. Like so much of the church."

Now regular readers will be aware that this is a theme I have pondered a lot. A little while back I commented that I didn't know any happy incumbents and was taken to task for this. So I changed it to 'many' rather than 'any' - my rule of thumb being that you have to be a moderate evangelical called Tim in order to be a happy incumbent in the Church of England today (grin). As it happens, speaking personally, I'm in quite a happy place at the moment - I might even qualify as a happy incumbent, although it might also simply be that I've found a more comfortable position on my own personal cross - but the 'going around with a knotted forehead' would, I think, be a reasonably accurate description of me in the last few years! Not good, and I hope that I'm eliminating it.

The general problem remains, however. The nature of the ministry than a priest is called to, in the way that Rowan articulates, is - to generalise hugely - a ministry that will become rarer and rarer in the Church of England today, and that means that there is something profoundly wrong somewhere. So what is to be done? How are we to cultivate an ordained ministry that enables a witness to the full humanity that is the inheritance of every member of the Kingdom? I'm starting to wonder if it's possible, or whether there needs to be a massively more traumatic shift in the Church of England in order to enable it. As I said to one group the other day, the church on Mersea - understood as a community - has been gathered together for a good 1400 years, only the last 450 or so of which have been under the auspices of the Church of England. It may well be that the present institutional arrangements have to break down comprehensively before something new can be released.

What might that look like? Well how about these proposals as food for thought: the abolition of the parish system and parish boundaries, the abolition of parish share, leaving each congregation to pay for its own minister(s), the abolition of Church House and all the financial arrangements there, and the abolition (or, realistically, the massive simplification) of the faculty process. Most of the disagreements I've come across to such proposals take the form of saying 'the Church of England has to be in every place' (which is a good ideal that I support, although we ought to be realistic and say a) we don't achieve that now and b) why can't we be ecumenical about it and say, eg, 'here the Methodists are the Body of Christ' in this place?) or, what would happen to the poor churches that can't afford their own minister? Well that latter assumes that Christians don't wish to exercise Christian charity - a very telling assumption - and ignores the pre-20th century history of, for example, all the work done in the East End by the slum priests. This is not congregationalism - after all, the financial and faculty elements to be removed haven't been in place for very long - a hundred years, if that. What I'm advocating is a radical shift in power away from twentieth century centralisation and back towards the local autonomy that has, for most of our history, characterised the English church.

I just have a suspicion that, in the environment into which we are moving, with more and more incumbents having to stretch across large multi-parish benefices (see eg here - it is highly likely that the Mersea patch will be expanded by yet more parishes in the next few years), the institutional side needs to become much more streamlined and simplified. I think that would make for happier incumbents.

NB I'm aware that I haven't talked about the underlying spiritualities in this post - I think they are even more important, but one thing at a time, and for a flavour of what I think is needed to make incumbents happier, see this recent post. The larger point is about what it means to be a servant of institutional Christianity when both institutions and Christianity are generally regarded with scorn, scepticism and pity - but I'll talk more about that some other time.)


  1. In My Methodist Circuit (we have a different system, and I don't really know how yours works) we've gone from three Circuits and around ten ministers twenty years ago, to one Circuit and three ministers. It's been an enormous cultural shift, with laypeople having to do a lot of jobs that ministers used to do.

    For instance, there was one year when we didn't have a Christmas day service at my church because there wasn't a minister available. They used to run around like blue-arsed flies taking several services each on Christmas day, and that year they couldn't manage it all. I'd only been in Birmingham a year or so and didn't have much influence. Coming from a rural Circuit with twenty-four churches and two ministers, I felt it was ridiculous. For the last five or six years, I've been doing our Christmas service, and it works a lot better since we can do what we like.

    I think we need to become a lot more democratic and less hierarchical. Congregations do sometimes put absurd expectations on ministers, but there are also ministers who expect to award themselves far too much power, and get away with it by surrounding themselves with yes-people who they then worm into office. Either way, the situation does nothing but damage which can - as I know from experience - take many years to sort out. We end up with stressed-out ministers and collapsing congregations, but if we can just find a way of working that involves everyone, gives everyone a voice, and supports everyone, then there's no need for it. The big trouble is, so many churches are utterly disfunctional as communities.

  2. Ah Robert, your last sentence there identifies the root issue - but I'd also say that in many ways that is a symptom of other things having gone wrong, eg bad theology. I should also add that there is something invidious about complaining about the way a job is set up at the moment when so many people don't have a job at all...

  3. I'd love to be given the opportunity of taking on a run down church with little income and living only on the money it generated. The incentive to do the job well would be massive and I think the feelings of ownership and responsibility it would generate in the congregation would be healthy and would, God willing, lead to a bigger, more active, more happy membership.

  4. This post is solid gold (and yes, why won't anyone give MP a go...?)- thanks.

    My sabbatical 3 years ago (compulsory in Methodism) helped me to smile,and subsequently to say 'Yes' and 'No'. And get a life.

    I am still amazed at the numbers of ministers who work too hard, suffer from 'Messiah complex' and are consequently angry with their congregations as they don't obey them enough....

    Mind you- I am also amazed at my capacity not to practice what I blog...

  5. Mind you- I am also amazed at my capacity not to practice what I blog...

    St. Paul had exactly the same problem, Graham, so I wouldn't worry too much about it :-)

  6. Well how about these proposals as food for thought: the abolition of the parish system and parish boundaries, the abolition of parish share, leaving each congregation to pay for its own minister(s), the abolition of Church House and all the financial arrangements there, and the abolition (or, realistically, the massive simplification) of the faculty process.

    Well, we're part way toward that in the Diocese of Edmonton. We don't have parish boundaries or anything resembling the English 'parish system', each parish has to pay for its own minister unless it requests and can justify a support grant for the diocese, and I don't know what the faculty process is so I'm guessing we don't have it! We do however still have apportionment and assessment (what you call 'parish share') but it goes strictly to pay for extra-parish expenses (bishop, diocesan program, national church etc.).

    My observation? I still see colleagues walking around with those furrowed brows. My conclusion? Even more than the system, it's the theology of priesthood that's killing them. My personal observation? The less I believe and practice that theology, the happier I am and the more I'm set free to be a true pastor and evangelist, one minister among many in my corner of the Body of Christ.

  7. In the Episcopal Church in the US, we pay for our priests, too, and people choose to attend whatever church they like. Of course, I live in a small town with only one Episcopal Church, so if I were dissatisfied, I'd have to choose another denomination or drive about 20 miles away to the nearest Episcopal Church in the next town over, which, at my age, I would not anticipate with pleasure.

    What I'm advocating is a radical shift in power away from twentieth century centralisation and back towards the local autonomy that has, for most of our history, characterised the English church.

    Sam, I believe the shift will occur anyway, due to a lack of funds. Of course, the wise course would be to guide the running horse, rather than try to stop a runaway horse, but, all too often the church does not choose wisely.

    The shift will happen in the Episcopal Church, too, for the same reasons, diminishing income and fewer participants.

    It may well be that the present institutional arrangements have to break down comprehensively before something new can be released.

    Absolutely. It's coming. I don't see a rebirth without a death.

  8. I take all your points. I wonder, though, about the role of the laity in all this--they are, after all, the largest order in the Church. We had a Lay Chairs' meeting at Trinity House this evening, where, oddly enough, +Southwark spoke about his views on how to empower the laity and breathe new life into Deaneries. (He is not the same +Southwark as the one in the play, mind you). Strange that it's always the clergy who are speaking about empowering the laity, as if the clergy could wave an aspergillum at their congregation and poof! They've got the POWER! I shall give this particular aspect more thought.

    As an institution in England, the Church by law Established needs to be disestablished, become less parochial, and more focussed on being a community led by clergy and lay people together. The current model of territorial parishes is not working, since the Church is concentrating on consolidating parishes into ever larger units. My own parish at the Elephant split off from two parishes in the 1800s as new parishes were established to nurture the growing population south of the river. After the war, three of these parishes and a Conventional District were united into one parish, and it is likely that at the next change of incumbent we will be united with another parish yet again. This is driven at the moment by the fact that full-time clergy are expensive (around £50K in Southwark including pension and housing costs). However, the fact remains that smaller units, perhaps not headed by clergy, might be a good way to make it easier for neighbourhood churches to show the Gospel in their areas. We are going the other way entirely.

    As for faculties, while it's complicated at the moment, and some simplification along the de minimis lines might be a good thing, the faculty system is often used as a weapon either by the laity against a clergyperson who is trying to revamp the church building, or by clergy against laity who in the clergyperson's opinion are not sufficiently "with it" in terms of how a church building ought to be ordered. Making it less of a weapon and more of a tool that encourages laity and clergy to work together towards a goal is something that might be desirable (although how to do that is beyond me).

    The next few years will be interesting. I'm going to try to hold on for the ride, but it'll be bumpy.


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