Francis Gardom considers what success should mean in church terms
A mot juste is a word or expression which neatly sums up what it refers to. It ‘puts it in a nutshell’, as we say. A senior member of Forward in Faith was talking with an archdeacon of the opposite integrity some little while before the General Synod voted for a One-Clause Measure with a Code of Practice. The gist of their conversation was as follows, though the last statement is verbatim.
FiF member: ‘It seems to us as though you’d like to make us quit the Church of England.’
Archdeacon: ‘Yes, that’s right.’
FiF Member: ‘But why is that?’
Archdeacon: ‘Because you’ve been too successful.’
This mot juste speaks volumes, does it not? It provides the strongest possible indication that our opponents, like that archdeacon, know, however instinctively and irrationally, that they have got it wrong.
Let us agree that ‘success’ in church terms can be measured in various different ways: counting bums-on-seats is, as we are often reminded, only one such measure of ‘success’. The parish priest who comes into a parish torn apart by rivalry or the scandalous behaviour of his predecessor, and manages to restore harmony and concord, may not see the reward of his labours reflected in the average Sunday attendance. But he will, nonetheless, have been equally successful, in a sense that St Paul would have applauded if had achieved the same thing in his Corinthian church with all its factions and fornications.
But when, if ever, was the desire to be rid of a priest, let alone a thousand or more such priests, justified on the grounds of being ‘too successful’? The instinct at the root of this can only be envy – one of the ‘cold-blooded’ sins, in Dorothy Savers’ memorable phrase. It has been said that the person a priest fears most isn’t the bishop, but his own successor: the one who comes after him and ‘succeeds’ where he, in his own eyes, has ‘failed’. Of course, a priest’s personal indolence or disillusionment may underlie such failure. But it may equally stem from something for which he could not be held responsible. Perhaps pressure was put upon him to accept that living, but he found himself a ‘square peg in a round hole’; or his parishioners may have that well-known death-wish that everything should remain ‘just like it has always been’. But, faults apart, the Christ-like attitude on his part towards his successor should surely be one of rejoicing that the latter has succeeded in ‘turning things round’.
The test of time
The word ‘succeed’ has two meanings. It means ‘bringing the task one has been set to real maturity’ – like ripening fruit. But it also means being part of a chain which stretches from the past through the present into the future. One’s successor and predecessor, no less than oneself, play a critical part in that chain. Success-ion (not least the Apostolic variety) equally derives from the word ‘success’ and is essential to someone becoming really success-ful.
The Church of England is preoccupied with inventing a new religion – not that it will be ‘new’ in any sense, since its components date back many centuries. But new religions, beside their theological fault-lines, never remain new for very long. People quickly tire of them.
Contrast this with the faith we are striving to safeguard. Yes, it is old, but that is not our reason for upholding it. We uphold it because it is true, not because it is old – and because it is true, it has stood the test of time and therefore is, in terms of its age, old. Our success, which so appalled that archdeacon, stems from believing something that is true: it is old because it is true, not vice versa. The distinction is a critical one which has totally eluded the likes of that archdeacon.
No wonder they want to be rid of us: we have something that they haven’t!