George Austin reflects on clergy stress and considers the trials and tribulations of other faith communities
Stress can be the reward – or maybe the penalty – for faithfulness in religious belief and service, and those whose service is in a full-time ministry know this only too well. Suggest to any Church of England priest that there is always someone in the congregation who seems to have been called by God to be a thorn in the vicar’s flesh and it will produce a wry smile and knowing nod.
There can be little doubt too that clergy stress has increased over the years. Those of us who were ordained fifty or more years ago had the benefit of a longer period as a curate and usually in more than one parish, gleaning insights in each of what parochial life should be like for the priest. It was common to continue as a curate for as long as nine or ten years and the value of that training increased with each year and with each curacy. Clergy shortage has made that impossible today.
There is greater stress too in the measures affecting clergy discipline, the frequent removal of the parson’s freehold, clergy assessments and the rest, some of which give the parishioners (or sometimes the bishop) a greater opportunity to remove faithful – or awkward – clergy.
Stress can come too from the escalation of fundamentalism – not the long-existing fundamentalism of conservative evangelicals whose adherents were ready to live in the Church alongside those who disagreed with them. Now it is the all-powerful liberal fundamentalists who increase the stress on orthodox evangelicals and orthodox Catholics. Their ‘inclusiveness’ has the unspoken caveat ‘but only if you behave as if you agree with us.’
Fundamentalism is not of course confined to liberal Anglicans, and the terrorist threat to Western nations had its birth in Muslim fundamentalism rather than in the Islamic faith itself. This threat is not only to the West, for other religious groups, including more moderate Muslims, can feel its terrible effect.
That Swiss vote
For other religious faiths there are other causes of stress. What, for example, is the underlying cause of the recent vote in Switzerland to prevent the building of minarets in their towns and cities, and in what way will this pose a threat to Muslims in the future?
And what of our own doorstep? Or perhaps I should say ‘my own doorstep’, since we have recently moved south to be nearer our son as age takes its toll. It happens to be a place on the edge of north London with a large Jewish population, and we are the only Christians in the block of nine apartments where we live. I should add that the other residents there could not have given us a warmer welcome. Soon after we arrived here, I went to buy a wedding congratulations card and found that they will all bilingual – English and Hebrew.
Of course with Jews, one is never far from memories of the Holocaust. One resident, with a strong German accent, told me how he came over at the age of nine with the Kindertransport, leaving his mother behind. She died in a concentration camp, whereas in 1943 he joined the British army and served in the intelligence corps in Germany. It was he who in the recent Inter-Faith Week took me to a well-attended discussion meeting in a church hall a little further into London. I was the only person in a dog-collar and even the local vicar was absent.
A Council of Christians and Jews meeting in the parish where we live had a better representation with three Anglican priests, a Methodist minister and a Catholic nun. But that is the hopeful side of inter-faith relations.
Next door to us is the synagogue and, as I walked past on the Saturday when the Jewish New Year was being celebrated, there were six security guards outside and another eight across the road, all wearing fluorescent jackets (and skull caps). I asked one of them how necessary this was and he replied that it was not so much here as it would be in Golders Green.
We do not have that source of stress, but stress we Anglicans do have and have aplenty, stress which shows every sign of increasing in the coming months and years as the dominance of intolerant liberals grows stronger in what was formerly our gloriously tolerant Church.
But we were promised that to follow Christ means that we too have a cross to bear, and now its weight seems likely to increase more and more. But in the history of the Church throughout the world, persecution has in the end always brought its reward in the growth and success of the mission of Christ and his Church. In the end it is not we who will lose. ND