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My son Mark is a priest in the Diocese of Durham. We talk often on Skype. He is getting his feet wet as a priest in the Church of England. He is doing his doctorate at Durham University, but in exchange for a free vicarage, he helps out in a group of former mining parishes. I was born and baptised in a similar setting, although further “south” -not a word to my relatives -in Yorkshire.

Mark is experiencing to a greater degree than we are here, the church in retreat. Matthew Arnold’s prediction that the tide of faith seems to be going out seems all too true.Arnold forgot that tides come in too.

Mark is experiencing the “distance” there is between clergy and population and incidentally, the  gulf between plans for survival churned out by those in the industry of “church development” and the experiences and desires of ordinary people having a pint in the working mens club. I won’t dwell too much today on the demands that clergy spend their time looking after the gathered few, or programmes designed to entice others to join the ranks of the few. I am reminded of the Beyond the Fringe skit in which an eager RAF pilot asks his superior if he may join “The Few”. The answer comes, “Sorry, there are too many.”

That may be part of the problem. There remain too many of the few left in parishes who may indulge in the public life of the church, to permit us all to come to grips with reality. Conventions and Synods meet and pass resolutions. Committees abound, churning out proposals. Marketing schemes are borrowed from the sort of people who got us into the financial crisis of last year. Liturgy is proposed as evangelism and thus must be tinkered with to make it more accessible and attractive.

No, I am not going to mutter about these things which disturb my gray hairs. The latest assault on the model of parish priest has been clothed in an attack on George Herbert, whose little book, The Country Parson”, it is alleged, created the pattern of priestly life which has now become irrelevant. I challenge that notion.

Herbert didn’t propose and exemplify a model of priestly life in which clergy spent their time looking after those who come to church, running from committee, to meeting, to counselling session, to goodness knows what. Herbert has nothing to say of a “professional” model of priesthood, bound by evaluations, retirement ages, and all the trappings we have imported from the secular world.  Why grumble about clergy taking early retirement and fleeing from vestry meetings to the golf club when we have turned vocation into profession?

If the Ordinal is right in demanding that clergy pattern their lives as an example to the flock of Christ, surely the concept that when we get tired of it, or have thirty years in the pension scheme, or have reached seventy-two, we retire suggests to the laity that the Christian life is also something one may lay down at a convenient moment?  Is vocation for keeps?

I suggest that it is precisely because we have turned vocation into profession, and imprisoned clergy in the church plant, that we have lost our sense of mission and identity. What goes on in the church has become our chief concern. I suggest that the matter of human sexuality is much more an “in house” concern than one which excites and engages the general public. I suggest that arguments about ceremonial or the language of worship is an “in house” obsession and one which would bore an ex miner or a worker at Walmart to death.

Whenever I meet people who suggest that there are people out there, wherever “there” may be, who would enjoy our tradition, or our worship, if only we could get them through the door, I cringe. We are where we are because we have concentrated on recruiting like-minded people, whose causes and desires become a substitute for Christian faith and practice.

George Herbert’s Parson had the liberty to get to know “the village”. There is a paradigm here for “mutual ministry”.  It is time we sent clergy and people back into the community to listen, to learn and to engage. I suggest that it is precisely because our clergy and laity are so interested in “church” that they seem to others to be people who are obsessed with an arcane hobby, like butterfly collecting or the identification of various species of bats. In short it is time we engaged “the village” again, whether it is an urban, suburban or rural “village” or even a cyber “village.”

St. Paul spent over two years in one community, waiting, listening, engaging, before he broke through. He hired a “lecture hall.”  Perhaps we need to hire space in shopping malls, set up our coffee carts, plonk the priest and some lay people down, please dressed as a priest and not in disguise, not to advertise St. Titus the Tasteful’s bill of fare, but to listen, to learn, to embrace and to begin the task of reclaiming the parish.

3 Responses

  1. You wrote, “I suggest that it is precisely because we have turned vocation into profession, and imprisoned clergy in the church plant, that we have lost our sense of mission and identity. What goes on in the church has become our chief concern.” I couldn’t agree more. Too often, congregations and even denominations become societies unto themselves, overly concerned with internal dissent and institutional self-preservation, and not concerned enough with what is happening in the wider community and world.

    In many ways, I think the church would be better off with bi-vocational pastors who also worked in “secular” jobs. This would lessen members’ expectations that they don’t need to evangelize, or visit the hospitalized or homebound, or pray with people because “that’s the pastor’s job.” It would also open the eyes of those pastors who either never knew or have forgotten what most workers face on a daily basis – things like lack of control over their own schedules, going to work sick because there are no paid sick days, only getting one week of vacation a year, and trying to make ends meet on a relatively low hourly wage or salary that does not include a housing or car allowance.

    Perhaps more importantly, it would bring pastor and people (both church members and others) together in places other than church events, and give them shared experiences beyond worship and committee meetings to discuss. It would give pastors more opportunities to do as you suggest at the end of your post: “to listen, to learn, to embrace, and to begin the task of reclaiming the parish.”

    My guess is that bi-vocational pastors will become more common out of financial necessity, as fewer parishes have the resources to afford full-time pastors. Many will bemoan this change and see it as further evidence of the church’s decline, but it might be exactly what the church needs to rediscover its mission and live it out more fully. I hope and pray that will be the case.

  2. I spent a couple of years at Durham studying theology, and at one time, for pastoral practice, visited three parishes in mining villages, which were about to be subsumed into a new town (Washington). Civil government was abolished, and taken over by a “development corporation”, and so the local people felt, and were, disempowered. And the church did the same. The archdeacon was pestering the parish with its requirements for a new kitchen to cope with the expected influx of people, and the parish council said “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”, and said if the new people came to church, perhaps they would want a say on the kitchen facilities too. The Archdeacon didn’t like that idea.

  3. Dear Tony,
    I have written my own follow up to your reflection and linked it back to yours. I hope it helps as I loved your piece and it has made me reflect more on my own ministry as well as, hopefully, be more objective. My reflection is at http://missionmeanderings.wordpress.com/
    Blessings dear brother

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