Michael Smith considers a subtle shift in the perception of the place of the parish clergy

[This article originally appeared in PARSON AND PARISH, the journal of the English Clergy Association, of which Michael Smith is the Editor]

ENJOYING HIMSELF though he were, Runcie was beginning to feel restless. It was not that he doubted the importance of parish work in the life of the church but he was missing the intellectual challenge of the university. His energy, abilities and tremendous capacity for hard work were not being stretched to the full by the daily round of the parish. (Margaret Duggan: Runcie: The Making of an Archbishop (1983), 104)

One is unable to comment on the accuracy of this interpretation of Lord Runcie’s motives at this point in his career. It may or may not be true. Yet the way that it is phrased seems to be a slap in the face for every parish clergyman of the Church. It implies that parochial work does not stretch a man of first rate ability. Energy and tremendous capacity for hard work can find their fulfilment only in some other form of ministry. Parochial work imposes fewer demands. Does this infer that it need be entrusted only to the second and third rate clergyman who would not be suitable for anything else?

I am sure that, offered the invitation to comment, the author would reject indignantly any such interpretation of her words. The sole object of her remark was the Archbishop; it has nothing to do with the parish clergy. Yet, I submit that it is doubtful if her remark could have taken the form it does if it had been penned twenty years earlier. Then, to be a parish clergyman was the norm. It was the form of ministry which took first place and anyone who entered any other form was reckoned not to be a proper clergyman. Full time chaplains and teachers were tolerated but they were not expected to spend their working lives in such positions: sooner or later, they were expected to return to the parish ministry whence they came. In doing so they were paying no compliment to the parish clergy. They were, simply, reverting to the norm. A Church nurtured in the homily and questions of the Ordinal attached to the Book of Common Prayer could never have any other understanding of what the ordained ministry was all about.

Archdeacons, diocesan directors of education, even some university lecturers, were expected to hold parochial appointments at the same time as they discharged their other duties. It was not unusual for suffragan bishops to continue as parish priests because, unless they were appointed to a residentiary canonry in a cathedral, how else were they going to be paid? The decision by the Church Commissioners to find the stipends of all suffragan bishops was one taken not so many years ago. Suffragan bishops often welcomed this arrangement. As one former Bishop of Warrington put it: ‘It was very important for me to continue as an incumbent. It keeps me close to the ground.’

There is much truth in that observation. A priest’s pastoral awareness soon loses its edge if he is not obliged to meet with his people regularly. Only in a constant interaction with his parishioners is he reminded how people feel and learns how they are reacting to proposals for change or to developments in the Church at large. It takes time for a relationship of trust to develop so that people will be prepared to tell the priest what they really think and feel and it needs regular contact in order to maintain it. A similar blunting of awareness can happen in schools. Good headteachers struggle hard to ensure that some part of their working week is spent teaching. They know that they need to have that immediate contact with pupils in a classroom situation and that if they lose it they are in danger of forgetting what teaching is really all about. The same can be said of the pastoral work of the priest. A priest who is forced to spend his working day talking only to other priests, or to that select band of laity who serve on diocesan boards and committees, or to that small percentage who attend adult study or training groups is in danger of forgetting what pastoring is all about.

There was a time when the then who devoted their entire ministry to their parishes were respected and honoured. One of the heroes of the Catholic Wing of the Church was Father Lincoln Wainwright of St. Peter’s, London Docks, who, in all his years there, never spent a single night out of his parish. Thirty years ago it would have been inconceivable to appoint any one as an archdeacon who had not accumulated many years of experience in the parochial ministry and for a bishop not to have had some years of experience as a parish priest was regarded as a serious handicap in his future ministry as a bishop. How could he be a true pastor if he had no experience of the life most of his clergy led? Biographers of academics who were consecrated bishops often felt their subject lacked parochial experience but went on to say that in this case it did not prevent him for doing a good job. The notion that the daily round of parish life could not tax the ability, energy and hard work of the ablest men would not have been considered.

Everyone needs to be motivated. The love of Our Lord, ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory’ was all that Father Wainwright needed. Men of lesser spiritual depth need something extra: they require one of the incentives that move those of coarser clay. Money, power and status are the three powerful motives; idealism seldom lasts a lifetime as the careers of political idealists demonstrates only too well. Money, power and status are the coinage of recognition. The terms ‘power’ and ‘status’ in this context need some explanation. Power need not include administrative or legal authority; an acknowledged measure of influence will serve as well. Status need not include social distinction, but it does encompass a clear sense of one’s role and place in the scheme of things. Now I would argue that one can forego one of these, or even two, but not all three. A need for recognition is a need one ignores at one’s peril. If a psychologist wants to draw attention to basic human needs this need for recognition is the one which often heads the list.

There is no point in magnifying the office of the laity or in bestowing public marks of approbation on those engaged in sector ministries of the result is to diminish the status of the parochial clergy and lower their morale. Yet strong and persistent anecdotal evidence suggests that this is precisely what has been allowed to happen.

There seems to be little doubt how this state of affairs came about. The so called ‘social gospel’, which led many clergy out of the parochial ministry and into posts as housing directors, social workers and jobs in the Media, was one factor. The implementation of the Robbins Report on higher and further education, which opened up new posts in colleges and universities for which the clergy could apply, was a second. The creation of new, and hitherto unheard of, full-time posts in diocesan administration, the so-called ‘sector ministries’, has also played a part in devaluing the parish ministry. These other forms of ministry seemed more exciting, more relevant, also let is be recorded, better paid!

Members of sector ministries have both the opportunity and incentive to develop their own network and camaraderie. Its effect on appointments to the higher positions in the Church is often rumoured but with what truth it is not really possible to establish. However, as any historian knows, it is not so much what is true as what people think is true that determines the reactions. What such a belief can do is to create the impression that the elite are to be found in the sector ministry and I personally have endured the embarrassment of overhearing conversations between sector ministers in which the parochial clergy are treated as inferior beings!

Positive steps need to be taken in order to redress this state of affairs. It would be good to see Foundations with money make annual awards only to parish clergy who have served in that ministry for a fixed minimum number of years out of recognition, not of their financial need (which goes without saying), but of their faithfulness and competence in that ministry.

What if the Archbishop of Canterbury were to award Lambeth degrees to those clergy who ‘miss the intellectual challenge of the university’ but who have chosen to abide in their parishes and mortify their personal ambitions, as they promise to do every Maundy Thursday in the course of the renewal of their priestly vows? There was a time, after all, when Lambeth D.D.s were awarded to the newly consecrated on the grounds that they had not had the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the academic field, a practice, which, it is rumoured, came to an end when Austin Farrar mischievously enquired: When was the Archbishop going to award Lambeth V.C.s to those bishops who had not had the opportunity to distinguish themselves on the field of battle! Certainly, every sector minister should be made aware of the primacy of the parochial ministry by making it a condition of his license that he or she be attached to a parish with the clear understanding that Sunday duty there takes precedence over his or her favourite weekend conference.

If needs must, then let honorary canonries be bestowed like confetti on long serving parish clergy or, perhaps, recreate the title of archpriest for them. Anything! So that it helps to revive and maintain the dignity and value of the parish clergy. Let it be remembered that talk is cheap. The occasional verbal pat on the head has the power to convince.

As Professor Adrian Hastings remarks in his biography of Lord Runcie, the Archbishop was only too well aware of the need for leadership among the ordinary members of the Church. It is a delusion to imagine that the laity, however well educated or committed, will ever take the place of the parish priest in the leadership of the parish – indeed the more committed laity do not want to see it happen. There is still that mysterious spiritual phenomenon called ‘vocation’. The laity know full well that they have not been called by God in the same way as has the ordained minister. No number of slogans like ‘the priesthood of al believers’ or the ‘mission of the baptised’ no matter how often repeated is going to convince them otherwise.

The weekly grind of the parish is, and always has been, a taxing burden which the clergy should precisely because the responsibility belongs to them by virtue of their ordination and they cannot escape it. The old ordinal has the bishop deliver a homily to the candidates immediately after reading of John 10 on the Good Shepherd. In it the bishop talks of ‘providing for the Lord’s family’, of ‘seeking for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad’ and of bringing ‘all such as are or shall be committed to your charge to that ripeness and perfection of age in Christ’. All this is described as ‘doing so weighty a work’. The weight attached to that work does not appear to be the same today as it was forty years ago. It is time to adjust the scales and make sure that it is. For if the Church of England is not to become a sect; if the parish system is still valued then the full-time parish priest is indispensable and this need be said loudly, clearly – and effectively.

Michael Smith is editor of PARSON & PARISH, the journal of the English Clergy Association. This article originally appeared as an editorial in that journal.