Vicar heal thyself

Francis Gardom looks at Sara Savage’s recent essay on clergy stress and the need to be nice and finds her analysis and advice sound and practical

Physician, heal thyself This proverb, quoted by Jesus, must surely be one of the oldest of jokes. Sick doctors, bankrupt accountants, burnt-out fire stations and bent policemen are all-of-a-piece with clergy whose lives (or parishes, or marriages) fall apart. Clergy widely believe such things ‘ought not to happen’ – to anyone who believes in a God with power to heal and save. Yet happen they do.

Sara Savages contribution, ‘On the analysts couch: psychological perspectives on congregation and clergy’, to the recent series of essays The Future of the Parish System [Church House, £12-99] should be read by clergy and those they serve. She is a psychologist and Senior Researcher at Cambridge.

She begins by reminding us of the positive aspects of parochial ministry: the parish church is at once a ‘landmark and a ‘sacred place’; it professes to be ‘for’, not just those who choose to use it, but everyone living in a particular location; its links with local schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions can reach out to those who would otherwise never darken its doors; many churches are treasuries of art, music, architecture and liturgy whose artefacts are not only ‘on display’ but in everyday use; it is seldom invasive – it does not trespass into the private lives of people further than they wish; and, perhaps most valuable, it is administered by clergy who are aware that they are unlikely to be a spectacular success as the world would understand it.

There are exceptions to these generalizations; nevertheless the parish provides a framework in which much good may be done, and potential harm mitigated by the checks and balances of the parish system.

Resistance to change

However, all these positives are, by nature, complex. Their downside is not so much when they are absent, but when they are pursued exclusively or in the wrong way. Thus, that ‘tradition’ which a parish church strives to uphold may indeed concern something integral to the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’; but its importance can equally, over time, make it a do-or-die issue: any liturgical change, even a single hymn-tune, becomes the ground for civil war, although the number of pew-people who could accurately summarize the dif-

ferences between Richard Hooker’s and Thomas Aquinas’ doctrines of the Eucharist could be counted on the fingers of two feet.

‘We would rather let the church die than change,’ they cry. Yet without change there can be no development – as teenagers discover. Adolescence brings both an addiction and a reluctance towards embracing change. They desperately want to be treated as adults, but find the

history suggests that it is not the ‘nicest’ people who have had the greatest influence

responsibility it entails distasteful. So with churches: a deep-felt longing for contemporary relevance, which necessitates change, competes in their hearts with a sense of corporate heritage, which demands conservation.

‘The need for niceness’

Beside such virtues-turned-to-vice, in any society both tastes and preferences exist which are fundamentally misguided. Sara Savage deals at length with what she terms ‘the need of niceness,’ whereby the niceness of church people from the incumbent upwards (or downwards according to your viewpoint) is regarded as a sine qua non of all parochial ministry. She says, ‘While nastiness is clearly unproductive, the norm of niceness can tie churches up in knots.’

In an age which regards Relationships as the be- and end-all of human intercourse, it is inevitable that clergy who naturally possess the facility for ‘being nice’ will enjoy a great deal more sympathy (and therefore cooperation from their laity) than those who lack it.

Yet history suggests that it is not the ‘nicest’ people who have had the greatest influence for good on the societies with which they have been associated. Successful head teachers, political leaders, matrons, admirals and fathers (both biological and spiritual) have always had a streak of the hard-nosed disciplinarian about them. In recent times, the gradual

but widespread erosion of such people from positions of leadership, not least amongst clergy, and their replacement by what psychologists term passive dependants, have established Christians’ niceness as being the supreme virtue.

Misguided aims

‘Passive dependant’ does not suggest itself as a term describing such varied Christian heroes as Fr Dolling, Bishop Ryle, Dr Pusey, the Wesleys or George Whitefield. Each saw himself as a contender for, or soldier of, Christ. Whilst hindsight suggests they may have got some priorities wrong, none of them supposed that niceness was the supreme Christian virtue.

This latter-day pursuit of niceness has attenuated the ministry both of parish clergy and laity. To quote Sara Savage again, ‘Everyone [to do with the Church] has to be on good behaviour. This erosion of the freedom to be an authentic self undermines the springs of spiritual and psychological well-being. A religious performance is then substituted, particularly if less-than-conscious erroneous beliefs are operating among the clergy: 1.1 must be successful in everything I do. 2. Everyone must accept me. 3. Everyone must love me. 4. If I make a mistake I am a total failure. 5. If I disagree with someone they won’t like me. 6. My value as a person depends on how other people view me.’

It is obvious where this leads. Conflict must be avoided, and hard decisions compromised to make them acceptable. ‘Difficult’ people must be treated with kid gloves. The result is stress, leading to disillusionment, as both clergy and laity start to realize that they have become neither what God, nor they, intended themselves to be.

Sara Savage ends with some sound advice. ‘Stop clinging to the positives. Let them float on the water. What can survive, will survive. Face into the negatives. Develop the means to deal with them; use the resources that exist. Trust the process of change. Change is necessary and will occur whether it is welcomed or not. To welcome change is to trust that the Church has been, and will continue to be, a wise householder bringing out treasures both old and new’

Sound advice indeed, but how difficult to apply consistently in practice! \ND\

2017-09-29T13:53:58+00:00 March 2007 Articles|