Clergy, in most cases, don’t need much kicking to stay down. They are pretty good at knowing how far they fall short of the standards they would like to achieve but their job is generally considered impossible.
According to Michael Ramsey, someone who would hardly have shone in today’s managerial churchspeak, the priest’s job is to represent: to represent the world to God, and to represent God to the world. Such a job description is essential, but it does go against the ‘we are wonderful’ zeitgeist of church planting, self-reference and congratulation.
It is inevitable that the publicity over clergy and buildings being described as limiting factors by someone who has already nailed his ecclesiastical sectarian colours to the mast of the good old ship CofE will be seen as another kick to an already battered profession.
As others have pointed out, this stems from the confused (and some claim blessed) nature of comprehensiveness that the Church of England seeks to enflesh: those who believe contrary aspects of doctrine quietly grumping at each other in love and pain. The church has tried for centuries to reconcile the irreconcilable and being a limiting factor is just another arrow in the quiver to shoot from the bow of controversy.
The main problem is ecclesiology. Lots of paradigms have been painted and will continue to be etched on a canvas that some would say is already overstretched.
It was over twenty years ago that I was asked by a bishop to be the Director of Ordinands and Vocations Advisor to an area of London. In that relatively short time I witnessed what I can only describe as a programme of putting forward people who had been coached to say things that they did not believe to allow them to go through the process of consideration for training for the priesthood.
Please take note of that word, priesthood. Time and again, it became clear to me that these people did not really believe in either ordination or have softer loyalty to religious tolerance, but owed allegiance to a sectional and partisan approach that defined the breadth of God’s love. This was usually revealed in discussions about Biblical interpretation, sexual identity, authority and the purpose of the church itself.
This took place at a time of burgeoning power between two groups who described themselves as evangelical: one which may made claims about the Bible that were beyond fundamentalist, and another that had a particular expression of charismatic gifts. Both had their own system of apprenticeships, inculturation and preparation for dealing with officers like me whose job it was to discern suitability for the ordained ministry. More than once I suspected that these would-be candidates did not really believe in ordination but were prepared to do anything to get into what soon was no longer said—‘the best boat to fish from’.
Another peculiarity was having to provide the same process for another sectarian group, ‘traditional’ catholics. These candidates were often older men whom the church had earlier discerned were not really suitable for priesthood or young men who had a particular predilection for church accoutrements and vesture that seemed frozen in time. Both were united in their rejection of women serving in the church as equal colleagues. Again, they went through the processes and, often despite my clearly expressed reservations, the bishop responsible for this splinter group, would send these candidates to selection conferences which, more often than not, agreed with my summation, only for the purple shirt wearer to overturn the decision and ordain them anyway. More than once I said both publicly and privately, ‘Why bother with this farce?’
Admittedly I am not isolated from these issues. I am a liberal catholic who has also been part of ‘sectarian’ group, The Society of Catholic Priests, for 25 years. Not surprisingly, after a while I thought serving the church in this way was not either the best use of my time and talents, such as they are, or good for my blood pressure. I opted to serve as a limiting factor to a broken congregation who had the stewardship of a crumbling plant in what was then a difficult area of London. Things change and, to no-one’s surprise, ‘successful’ churches wanted to move into the area when the demographic started an upward financial shift. Plants have sprung up.
That the church now finds itself pushing at the seams of a garment that so many wearers clearly are not suited to is hardly surprising. And in all this, we need more churches that show the diversity of the world which reflects the breadth of God’s love. How to get around this? Oh gosh, let’s get rid of discerned, trained and deployed clergy and free the gifts of everyone to do as they wish.
The Church of England has its ongoing catastrophes of safeguarding, institutional racism and, as I have pointed out before, entrenched protectionism of privilege—has a bishop ever faced a Clergy Discipline Measure?
The growing planting church movements are invariably male led, authoritarian and self-referential. Don’t be fooled by the lack of dog collars. These ‘ordinary’ blokes just love to be in charge and that’s why they want it to grow in their own image.
How did we get here? Historians will be best placed to analyse this but I would suggest one aspect of the crumbling ecclesial structures can be understood through the lens of Trotskyite entryism. Entryism, to quote the Oxford Reference website, is a ‘term given to the tactic pursued by extremist parties of gaining power through covertly entering more moderate, electorally successful, parties. Within those parties they maintain a distinct organization while publicly denying the existence of a ‘party within the party’.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his magisterial Silence, A Christian History, says, ‘It is a melancholy truth about the human race that groups who have suffered oppression are inclined to forget the experience, once given the chance of power.’ Church politics are not estranged from power struggles. Just look at what has gone on to protect certain people in high places, its failures in providing a safe environment to the vulnerable and to deny racial justice in terms of finance. So let’s set sail under the canvas of a ‘mixed economy’.
I know from personal experience that ‘leaders’ of plants and some movements show disregard for institutional governance, with bishops and authorities pandering to them for who knows why. Some of them have even climbed up the pole of ‘preferment’. One told a startled chapter meeting that he was worried by the lack of women in their leadership team, so they ensured the wives of the ordained attended staff meetings. You can imagine the reaction when I questioned this saying, ‘I was unaware that sleeping with the vicar is now a part of discernment for public ministry.’
You reap what you sow. There is an existential crisis in the church which, in its wisdom or madness, selected, trained, deployed and has pensioned me and others to serves in its ordained ranks. I look with pride and discomfort on what I have done.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that many movements within the Church of England claim they are not churches within a church, despite having their own customs, structures, conferences and politics. It is part of the warp and weft of diversity. But there comes a time when a fabric will not stretch further. Maybe it is up to the fashionistas of church politics to decide what they wear.
Have I been successful? Perhaps. Have I failed? Certainly. But on a daily basis I have sought to pray and serve the world which God has made, sometimes within my comfort bubble but, more often than not, outside of it. No wonder I, like many of my colleagues, feel I might have let the side down. Yet still, day by day, I pray to the God I believe is bigger than the restrictions I and others place on love, acceptance and wonder.
As Gerard Manley Hopkins put it:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: