Rodney Schofield examines an unsolved – and intractable – mystery of clerical life.
THROUGHOUT THE course of my ministry, in attending receptions after baptisms, weddings or funerals, people often seem to have asked: What happens when a vicar wants to move? It may be that they’re trying to tell me something! I have to explain though that they’re addressing the wrong person, as it has happened to me only 3 times so far, and the circumstances were so varied that generalisations are difficult. I suspect however that many other clergy would say the same, endorsing the outsider’s view that God moves is a mysterious way as much in the running of his church as in achieving any greater wonders.
My theological college did not attempt to unravel this mystery. Today it is rumoured that would-be curates are armed with a check-list of vital considerations as they venture forth to meet prospective training incumbents. Some may even have plotted the course of their careers within the church, where each move is designed to build up an impressive CV. They are aided and abetted by the growing chorus of voices clamouring for proper “career structures” in the church, and by the common view that some parishes are more “important” than others, some jobs “bigger” than others, some posts “more significant” than others. Read about it in the church press, for example, when an advertisement appears for a new incumbent – an “important appointment” it may well read. Or notice how a novelist like Joanna Trollope, not to mention her illustrious forebear, relies upon the ambition of “minor” clerics to generate dramatic interest. One wonders if this is predominantly an Anglican phenomenon – my impression is that Methodist ministers and Roman Catholic priests are more content to focus on the work in hand, rather than have one eye on possible “promotion”.
Perhaps this Anglican worldliness is bound up with the differentials of our pay structure, surely long overdue for reform, if not complete abolition. It will be interesting to see whether moves towards unity with the Methodist Church will bring about any heart-searching over our own practices of deployment, remuneration and oversight. From my nonconformist upbringing (for which I am deeply grateful), I cannot imagine our Methodist brothers and sisters being at ease with the trappings of grandeur bestowed on those whose office is to be “servants of the servants of God”. St. Stephen’s House, and the Catholic tradition in our own church, is right to emphasise the unsurpassable honour simply of being a priest, whatever the context in which that ministry is exercised.
A few years ago the question was however put to me at a ministry review, ‘Do you think you’re ready for a move?’ After being – by present day comparisons – quite a long time in one appointment, the question was not unreasonable. But my immediate response was to ask for clarification. On what criteria is the answer to be based? Here little guidance seemed to be available. I raised the subject at a clergy chapter meeting, and gleaned the general feeling that boredom and frustration are the main signals, although a change in personal circumstances may also be a factor. For those without the freehold the question scarcely arises, as any appointment is likely to be for a specific length of time. A survey of the diocesan directory revealed that many clergy, even without this restriction, move on after 5 or 6 years anyway. There is probably little difference now between the average length of stay of Methodist ministers, originally intended to be itinerant, and their Anglican counterparts, by tradition pastorally rooted.
It may well be true that in the early years of someone’s ministry as a parish priest (and likewise as a diocesan bishop) there is an extra possibility of making effective new initiatives. People may well be looking for change, for a new stimulus, for a person with different ideas or at least a different face. There is therefore a certain missionary potential in a new appointment. In the longer term, in a volatile society, this needs to be balanced by stability and continuity. Faithfulness is not exactly the keynote of the modern marriage, nor is permanence a feature that looms large in popular culture. We live in a world of transitoriness, where there is surely much to be said for the clergy being “a sign of contradiction”, a symbol of God’s enduring love and care for his people. To emphasise one’s own “ministerial development” is to set oneself apart from the many people for whom alternative jobs, housing, opportunities simply do not exist. The incarnational approach, surely a linchpin of our Anglican ethos, needs to be learnt afresh today. We could well ponder Bishop Feaver’s words when he instituted a new incumbent in the diocese of Peterborough: “He’ll marry you and christen your children and bury you. I don’t expect to be back here again myself.” I don’t think any of us took him literally, but we certainly took the point!
Notwithstanding this pressing need for greater rootedness, the time may come to move on – for the good of the church, locally and further afield. What arrangements are then in place to help? Presumably the choice is between an offer being made and one being sought. In the former case patronage of some sort is being exercised, so one is bound to ask how widely the patron, whether a bishop, a corporate body or a private individual, is able to consult, and the field of choice available to him. He will want to find a person whose character and abilities are sufficiently well known to him. There will probably be some background papers and references made available – but do these give an adequate picture of the candidate’s spirituality, preaching, pastoral care, leadership etc. as experienced in the parochial context, or do they only summarise the fleeting impressions made on other occasions, such as at synod meetings or on diocesan committees? A comparison with free church practice is instructive: the elders or stewards of the appointing church will almost always visit a candidate’s church and hear him preach and talk to some of his congregation. In itself, this may not be wholly adequate, but at least it is relevant first-hand information. The suspicion remains in the Church of England that anecdotal evidence predominates, and that cultivating the right acquaintances or espousing the right opinions is the canny thing to do.
Alternatively a post may be advertised in the church press. This may express a deliberate move towards a more democratic policy, or it may reflect the desire of a particular PCC to have a wider field of candidates. It may also be the only option remaining when all else has failed! The wording of any advertisement is therefore likely to be as choice as that preferred by, let us say, an estate agent – “enthusiastic, energetic priest ready for a challenge” being the equivalent of “property with distinct possibilities in interesting location”. Over the years I have sometimes sent off for the details, and can vouch for a complete absence of consistency in what is preferred. A Which? report on the dioceses would make fascinating reading. There are some which achieve an excellent standard of presentation, but others conveniently forget to mention some of the more revealing details of numbers, finance or property which tell their own story and to some extent serve as a litmus test of the spiritual vitality and mission orientation of a place. Although parishes are very different from each other, is it not possible for a standard format to be devised, as happens with the “parish profiles” that are prepared at an earlier stage for intending new deacons? Chaplaincy advertisements are just as varied, and contain possibly even more pitfalls for the unwary. Try out a few simple tests: “Do they know what they expect of the chaplain – is it what they’re saying here?” “Are they being upfront about pay and conditions, and about accommodation?” Too many chaplains known to me have felt their role has been misunderstood. Perhaps a good number of other priests are in that position too, which would suggest far more critical scrutiny of advertisements and job profiles needs to take place.
Anyone responding to an advertisement must realise that he is now in the market place, competing with perhaps 20 or 30 other priests. Is this jostling appropriate for a person ordained to a ministry of service? Is self-promotion a desirable quality in someone called to model their life upon Christ? Conversely one might ask whether an honest selfappraisal “warts and all” would be as effective in a clergy job application as the glossing of the truth. Can one admit to failure or vulnerability, or is “achievement” (real or pretended) the name of the game? One does hear of parishes which have hand-picked their man (or woman) after lengthy short-listing and interview procedures, only to be sadly disillusioned six months later, or needing to look for another incumbent just a couple of years further on. Perhaps choosing by lot, as in the replacement of Judas Iscariot, has something to be said for it after all. At least there was the readiness to put the outcome into God’s hands, trusting in his providence, where today we seem more determined to shape our own destiny, or that of our parish. I am reminded of the contrast between Pooh Bear, the lovable dreamy poet of sorts, who “let things come to him”, and Rabbit, the go-getting organisational animal, of whom A.A.Milne wrote “he never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them”. What kind of priest, what kind of church, are we hoping to be?
It must never be forgotten that for every job applicant who is “successful” there are a large number who are disappointed. There does seem to be an enormous discrepancy in the church between the consideration afforded to these rejected people and those who at a much earlier stage are disappointed in their non-recommendation at a Bishops’ selection conference. For the latter there is a closely worked code of practice, with the offer of counselling at different stages. For the former there is very little at all. Even the envelope bearing the sad tidings is likely to have been posted 2nd class, thus arriving days after the successful candidate has been informed. The church has much to learn from the world of LEAs where careful debriefing is available as a matter of course to all candidates who have sought a post. When a friend of mine, turned down for a city parish in London, asked for some clarification – was it on account of his age, his experience, his churchmanship, his academic background … ? – he eventually extracted the enlightening comment that he was not shortlisted because “some of the other candidates were better”.
Better for what? better in whose eyes? we might go on and ask, along with all those other searching questions about “success” and “failure”. I often remind candidates for ordination that ours is a church whose typical place of worship focuses not primarily upon the pulpit, as in many a free church building where the performance of the minister may be considered critical, but upon the altar where the priest is but an icon of Christ himself. “We proclaim not ourselves, but Christ crucified.” Was our Lord a success or a failure? Surely it was his faithfulness to God’s purposes of love which marked him out. The sort of worldly estimates which might emanate from an ambitious business organisation rather miss the point. I once asked Bishop Feaver what he thought really counted in a parish priest. Was it the liveliness of worship? the numerical or financial strength of the congregation? the vibrancy of its structures and activities? “In those it’s often the luck of the draw” he said. “What I like to remember most of all are the people – the individuals – I’ve been alongside, and may have helped in some small way.” Of course that’s not the whole of the picture, but it sets in context some of our pretensions about what is important and what isn’t. In Jesus’ eyes the issue is not what is important, but who. And his answer? The least of these my brothers and sisters.
Rodney Schofield is Rector of West Monckton and Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Bath and Wells.