George Austin on wrong priorities
There is one bright light on the horizon, the importance of which is perhaps greater than it first seems: Archbishop David Hope has said he wishes to return to parish life for a few years before he finally retires. Those of us who have worked with him have often heard him say this and so it was not unexpected. But now he has made it public – even if the press were at odds with each other about when it would happen. What the media missed, perhaps understandably, was that this is really a highly symbolic decision.
For here is an archbishop, no less, acting on the belief not only that that the priesthood is a vocation to serve but also that the parochial ministry in the end is where souls are saved and the people brought to God. Here is the front line, the trenches, where life is stressful and where the troops fighting on the ground, lay and clergy alike, need to feel that their senior officers know what it is about, believe it to be important, and support them in all that they do.
Two events at the November Synod, as reported in the Church Times, give cause for concern. The first is in the abandonment of episcopal responsibility in the matter of remarriage after divorce. Of course there is always the dilemma for the Church in that scripture is quite clear that this should not happen, while at the same time the whole purpose of the Good News is that when we sin God gives us a second chance. I have always believed that because some marriages simply die, a method should be found whereby those two clear demands could be satisfactorily balanced in the way forward, yet without compromising either biblical principle.
Instead, Synod simply rejected scripture and in effect legislated for remarriage on demand, under the pretence of strict but totally unenforceable requirements; unenforceable because no parish priest could say ‘Yes’ to one couple then ‘No’ to another. A bishop of course could, but the generals chose instead to let the troops on the ground fight for gospel truth with guns that had been spiked. Not only was this a shameful action, but also it has set a dangerous precedent by which scripture, for the first time, has been rejected by synodical edict.
The second decision was in the matter of clergy stipends. With declining congregations, it is a tribute to the dedication and self-sacrifice of so many that the present financial crisis has not come to a head before now. When the Reverend Simon Killwick brought in an amendment in the Stipends debate to abandon the aspiration to bring clergy stipends to £20,000 pa, those who would receive it (the House of Clergy) and those who have to pay for it (the House of Laity) agreed. So how was the amendment lost? Because one House, the Bishops, were apparently so far from understanding life on the front line that they voted it out by a margin of 80%.
How odd (or perhaps it isn’t if it is true that those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad) that at the very moment the Church of England faces a financial crisis, the bishops want to increase the stipend bill, and just when both congregation and clergy numbers appear to going into freefall, so many clergy are being withdrawn from the front-line battle.
That is the wider problem, and it is having a seriously detrimental effect on parishes at a time of falling clergy numbers. I have commented before on the weekly Gazette page in the Church Times, where the freehold is continuously and deliberately eroded (without of course being replaced by proper employment safeguards, so that the employers get the best of both worlds and the employees the worst).
Staff of Life?
Alongside that in the Gazette is the appointment of a growing body of ‘staff officers’, to continue the military analogy, at the expense of front line troops. Some years ago while visiting a Swedish Lutheran priest, I was taken to visit other clergy in the local area. Now their office then was also the local registry, paid for by the state, and each priest looked hungrily at the equipment in his neighbour’s office and it was for some of them clearly a matter of honour to catch up.
This seems to be the case with dioceses. ‘I have an adviser in children’s ecumenism.’ ‘What a good idea! I must have one. But I do have chaplains to all the supermarkets.’ ‘How jolly! I’ll bring that to my staff meeting.’ I recall a priest telling me he was moving dioceses to a tough downtown parish of 10,000 population, but that the bishop didn’t think it was a full-time post. So he was to be adviser in race relations – an important issue in a multi-racial diocese.
I knew he was an able man and something of a scholar, and said, ‘But I didn’t know that was one of your interests.’ ‘Oh, it isn’t,’ he replied, ‘and in fact I’ve absolutely no experience of it. But the bishop says I’ll soon pick it up.’ That could be echoed in many similar appointments, and probably it is only the Church of England who would appoint someone to an advisory post who was totally ignorant of its content. But I suppose it looks good in the diocesan handbook.
But it does lead to a growing impression that there is an attitude that regards the work of the parish priest as not much of a job, that there are better things he could be doing with his time. Now that is not to denigrate the work of sector ministers. (And by sector ministers I do not mean such posts as chaplaincies to schools, hospitals, prisons and the like, who are really parochial ministers with a different kind of parish). Advisers on the various aspects of church and world are important extras, building up the understanding and expertise of clergy and laity in the parishes. But they are extras and may be a luxury we cannot now afford at the expense of the parochial ministry.
Or have I somehow missed the point of the priesthood? Am I wrong to believe that to increase stipends and headquarters staff at the moment when our finances are in crisis and congregations are declining is evidence of a serious death wish? And, to return to the matter of remarriage decisions, has the Synod also decided that we abandon parts of our armoury of scripture because the weapons of the world are stronger than the weapons of God. Curiouser and curiouser.
George Austin is a retired Archdeacon.