A moral dilemma in parochial life

ONE OF THE MORE entertaining elements of theological training was the moral case seminar, in which a complex moral situation was described, complete with a whole array of extra, often lurid details, to which a reasoned moral solution had to be found. We often sought to elaborate them further, to make them still more fantastic and incredible. In the ordinary world, moral cases come from the media, only in this case the process is reversed – the details fall away and the moral dilemma is sharpened and simplified.

I do not know the Revd Peter / Carole and I have never met the Rt Revd Barry Rogerson, but like many others I have been genuinely shocked by the bishop’s apparent decision. That a woman can become a priest without any selection procedure is beyond my competence to comment on, but that a minister should stay in his/her parish after so fundamental a change does appear to be contrary to the requirements of trust. The change from being a man to becoming a woman is a fundamental change, and was certainly presented as such by the players in this particular drama.

A CofE priest or deacon has a ministry of enormous privilege. We have access to all sorts of individuals in a huge range of circumstances. We are allowed to see and hear people at times of great trouble, sorrow, need, sickness and many other adversities. This is not because we are nice individuals but as the result of history, and the position we have been given in our communities.

There is an element of expectation. I know that when people are confessing their sins or pouring out their troubles to me they do so to a priest, but they are also speaking to me, and not unnaturally they present and explain their confidences in terms of what they perceive. Women, quite naturally and entirely properly, present the details of their personal life in a manner very different than if I were a woman. I am speaking here of moments not only in the confessional, but of all types of visits and encounters, and especially with those who do not know me from inside the church. Although we keep all such details confidential, I am well aware that members of this parish, whether church-goers or not, confide, share or confess different things to me as a man than they do to my wife as a woman and a deacon, and that has never worried us in our ministry.

There is an expectation, and it is on that expectation that the trust necessary for so much of our ministry is based. Those who have confided details of their lives to me have, I sincerely hope, done so knowing who I am: that was part of the basis on which they gave their trust and sought God’s mercy. If therefore I were to say, “I am not a man, but a woman, but I am still your priest,” I honestly believe that many would feel betrayed, and that such a sense of betrayal would not be unreasonable.

A fundamental change in myself requires that I change my ministry and move to another parish. That the church-goers may know me sufficiently to come to terms with the change is not a counter-argument. The ‘cure of souls’, shared with the bishop, is wider. The reasonable demands of other people’s expectations is important, even if they have no vote. I would be happy to add so trifling an idea as ‘courtesy’ – it is on such gentle social virtues that the element of trust is built.

If the modern managerial church is apparently acting unprofessionally we must (as traditionalists) rework the element of priestly trust in terms that can be understood by others. There are themes which must be more fully taught – expectation, trust, integrity. NT