Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dulce et decorum est, pro ecclesia mori

So: another priest is being subjected to harassment from the noble and honourable legions of the printed media as a result of the discretions of a friend on Facebook. The allegation is that, as a result of these written disclosures, the priest is "unfit to serve the church at all in the opinion of many Doncaster residents". Well, good opinion, is, of course, the determining criterion for suitability for ministry. There is a deep issue here, which I want to try and tease out - not least because I too, have been blessed in the past by the tender ministrations of our legacy media.

There is something about being an ordained minister which can be captured in the phrase 'the dignity of the office'. Obviously this can be abused - I'm sure we're all familiar enough with the genus of pompous ass for the point not to need belabouring - but where that dignity is recklessly disregarded then the institution of the church is led into disrepute. This is, truly, a bad thing. What I want to explore for now, though, is what actually counts as godly dignity in an environment such as ours. After all, alongside the verse from 1 Timothy we must also assess the tradition of the prophets, culminating in our Lord Himself, in which the most direct and offensive language was deployed to tear down the dignity of offices, for the simple reason that those offices had ceased to serve the living God.

Take the present debate about women bishops legislation. How I wish we had people with philosophical training in positions of leadership in the church! Not for arcane expertise but simply for the ability to follow through the implications of a train of thought or a decision. What we see now is the necessary consequence of the short-term expediency deployed to get the original women-priests measure through. The more compromises that we reach for political purposes - without regard for the underlying principles - the more awful a mess we lead the church into. In this situation, Bishop Alan, for example, might be rightly accused of lacking collegiality with his fellow bishops through his forthright comments - and yet, he is also channeling some righteous rage at the follies that have led us into this situation. Which is more fitting for the dignity of his office - colluding with an inability to have real conversations, or speaking honestly? It is this inability to get real that is the root problem here - as with my brother priest in Doncaster. The idea that a clergyman might swear, might be exhausted or occasionally feel hatred for his work - this is to glimpse an unsettling truth, and preserving contrary illusions does not advance the Kingdom. I am reminded of a wonderful scene in the outstandingly good film Moneyball, which I watched the other night, and which led me to ponder all sorts of things about the church: "You guys are talking the same old nonsense... We've got to think differently."

If we are to truly preserve the divine dignity of the ordained office, does not a respect for truth have to figure somewhere along the line? Sadly, where the church has fallen so far from its divinely ordained purposes, all that is left is an ecclesiastical Game of Thrones, with ++Rowan having played the role of Ned Stark. What is needed is an understanding that 'you win or you die', and to succeed in that process we need integrity and honour and an understanding of the dignity of the office - coupled with an acceptance that blood must sometimes be shed. In other words, we need leadership that has an Old Testament Heart, not a Smallbone. Our leadership has been prepared to wound but not to kill, and as a result we have spent twenty years in further interminable argument, and the divisions have simply become more and more entrenched. We are bleeding to death, pummelled by the secularist and materialist cultural imperatives, denuded of our faith and our joy. This is the consequence of not recognising the fallen nature of our world and its implications for the church. Does the church actually want to live?

And just in case the full reference of my title is missed, let me state explicitly that I am channeling Wilfred Owen, not Horace; and, to be true, just a little bit of Mark Antony in my opening paragraph.


  1. 'And sure, he is an honourable man'. More and more, Elizaphanian, I look forward to starting the day with one of your posts. We share some of the same exasperation about the Church, though we might propose different solutions.

    How did we ever get into this pickle? In comparison the 1950s and 1960s seem to have been untroubled times in the life of the Church of England. I know this may partly be explained by the fact that I only saw it as a punter at that point, whereas I have had cause to think much more deeply recently about the Church's underpinnings.
    (I do remember the earthquake caused when Bishop John Robinson in 'Honest to God' pointed out that God was not a bearded old man sitting on a cloud. What a sweet controversy, in retrospect!)

    Every time we dig, we only seem to succeed in making the hole deeper. Extricating ourselves therefore of course gets harder and harder.

    My main hope at the moment is vested in the next Archbishop of Canterbury. I was hoping for someone with commonsense, but perhaps you feel the need for a butcher (or a Samson rather than a Samuel as you previously suggested)

  2. Just following on from Laura's comment. Surely one aspect of the Priesthood is to be 'radical' in the context of being human enough to have human emotions and occasional blips.

    Priests are not super-human and I have heard a Priest swear, more than once. One Catholic Priest I knew years ago, blasphemed constantly. He said that since the mass was now in the vernacular, why shouldn't he use the language he heard every day surrounding him?

    If we have a misty eyed view of the priesthood, what justice do we do to those whose vocation makes them give up everything for a self-sacrificial life. Certainly, they are representative of the church and people expect them to be different, but surely not superhuman.

    I remember reading of John Major as PM describing those who were plotting against his leadership as a load of 'illegitimate's' if someone who is in a public facing leadership role demonstrates his humanity and frustration, why should a priest be cast in the role of a saintly superhuman.

    Hopefully the Reverend Canon would have had a brief conversation with his Bishop(s) as there are two involved, apologised (which he has done) and be asked to be more discrete. Any over action would be a total over-reaction and would just hold the church up for more ridicule than it has already attracted.

  3. We should indeed accept that priests are human too; but leaders are also seen as examples, so it's normal for people to expect higher standards. I don't worry so much about the institution of the church being brought into disrepute (para 2) as the gospel (Paul) or the kingdom of God (Jesus) being brought into disrepute - those are defensible.


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