George Austin on the good, the bad and the difference

Forget the virtual church of the Diocese of Oxford, removing the need to attend Sunday worship; forget the Canterbury parishes’ free tickets for Mel Gibson’s The Passion, encouraging atheists to consider the relevance of the Cross. Forget even Roman Williams urging young people to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. One priest in the Diocese of York did it the old way.

On retirement he was given a five-year house-for-duty contract at a large downtown Victorian church in York, by then very much on its last legs. On his arrival there were about twenty regular worshippers, many of them elderly. Within six months this had trebled to an all-age 60, and by the time his contract came to an end it was a lively church that without him might have expected to be made redundant.

Now aged 72 he has taken on a country parish in a rural diocese and the same revival is happening there. He is not a charismatic figure; he employs no gimmicks; but people respond to him in a remarkable way. His secret (though it should not be a secret, since he simply does what a priest should do) is that he knows his people and is known by them.

He visits, encourages, teaching a faith containing ‘all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation’ – in fact everything that he promised to do when he was ordained, having always in mind the bishop’s exhortation from the BCP Ordinal on ‘how great a treasure’ had been committed to his charge.

The pastoral ministry is the heartbeat of the priestly life and it is a focus of what is meant to be at the heart of the life of all Christians, ordained or lay, bishop, priest, deacon, reader, and every lay person. Now that is a pretty obvious statement to make especially in New Directions, seeking as it does ‘to renew the Church in the historic faith.’

Whether it as obvious to the New Church of England is another matter, especially in the light of some recent experiences. On holiday last spring and staying with friends we were taken to their local church where the husband was organist. On the way I was told I was not going to be introduced as a retired archdeacon of York. ‘I want you to see them as they really are,’ his wife said.

It was a tiny and beautiful medieval church and the service was Morning Prayer (we had never before attended Sung Mattins together in our 42 years of marriage). We were exhorted on the notice sheet and invited verbally to ‘please stay for coffee after the service so we can welcome you.’ So we stayed.

By way of conversation, my wife commented to one the regulars, ‘It is warm enough to go outside’ and was ignored. I had already taken my drink outside and was chatting to a young couple with two small children, also visitors and staying with the father of one of them, a man who was a regular member of the congregation. I heard afterwards that his wife had died tragically only three weeks before. Not one member of the congregation came to speak to him.

A few weeks later, we were staying in a cathedral city to attend a ruby wedding celebration and as our hotel was only a short walk from the cathedral we went there to the Sung Eucharist. It happened to include five baptisms, and we were impressed by the relaxed atmosphere and by the way in which it was so welcoming to the visiting families. Once again we were encouraged to stay for coffee in the Chapter House after the service.

We chose a table against the wall and faced the regular congregation as they chatted in their familiar groups. For a while we might have been flies on the wall or crumbs on the floor, until eventually two people who thought they knew me came over to speak. They did, and it was good to renew old acquaintances. Still no one else noticed our existence.

We decided there was no point in staying, but as we went to leave I noticed one of the cathedral clergy at a table chatting with someone who was probably a mother with her daughter. I stood quietly by the table, just out of earshot, waiting to speak with him (particularly in fact to say how much we had enjoyed the baptism). I waited for nearly a minute and never once did he look up, even just to say ‘I won’t keep you a moment’ – or perhaps ‘Get lost, I’m busy.’

Maybe I am being over sensitive. But be that as it may, how would strangers feel on being greeted with the same cold indifference we experienced when we accepted a warm and welcoming invitation to coffee after the services? It is nothing new of course, and not out of the ordinary in many parts of the dear old CofE.

More serious, some recent experiences only serve to confirm the fear that maybe the Church in some places is losing its pastoral heart. Four senior church folk, lay and ordained and from widely different parts of the country, separately told me how each had suffered a variety of ills and distresses.

In each case they ended with words similar to these: ‘And would you believe it, no one from the diocese came to see me, no one offered me the slightest support?’

It wasn’t always so. Someone reminded me the other day that when the News of the World cruelly exposed Canon Brian Brindley some 15 years ago, Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford immediately jumped into his car and drove to Reading to give him pastoral support.

Whatever has happened since then? Have the some of the shepherds become hirelings who care nothing for the sheep entrusted to their care? Now I know that these are isolated examples and that thousands of clergy and lay folk could tell me how in similar circumstances the pastoral support they received could not have been bettered. I know too that visiting people in their homes is less easy than it was 25 years ago, with both mother and father fully employed.

With the problems of finance and the reduction in clergy numbers the pattern cannot be as it was in those days, and the Church must be ready and open to new methods. But in the end it is when the shepherd knows his sheep and is more than just a hireling that the Church is in the pastoral mode that ought to be its watchword.

But there is another aspect which is perhaps more serious, both in the long term and in the example it sets. When I was in my first curacy, a very faithful member of the congregation died and the funeral was certain to be well attended. The morning before it was to take place, I was in the vicar’s study for the weekly staff meeting when the phone rang.

It was a woman parishioner enquiring, as I realized from the conversation, at what time the funeral service was to be held. And I also knew that the vicar couldn’t stand the woman at the other end of the phone. ‘3.30 pm this afternoon,’ he told her. When he hung up, I said to him, ‘But the service is at 2 pm.’ ‘I know that,’ he replied crossly. ‘But I’m not having that woman in my church if I can help it’

I mention this because of two recent incidents. There was a report in one of the church weeklies that an archdeacon somewhere in the southern Province had stated that when there was a vacancy at a parish which had taken any of the Resolutions on women priests, there would only be a replacement on a house-for-duty basis. Imagine that: perhaps a thriving parish, yet the diocese would discriminate against it – quite contrary to the clear promises made when women priests were introduced that there would be no such discrimination and regardless of the effect this would have on the pastoral care of the people of that parish.

A few weeks ago, we were invited to lunch by friends who told us that the other guests would be a retired bishop and his wife – people who lived nearby and whom they knew we knew. Chatting to bishop I told him this story – adding two others. One tale was of a priest large, thriving orthodox parish whose bishop told him that he wouldn’t even appoint such a priest as rural dean.

Another was of a priest appointed to a non-parochial post without any Sunday responsibilities. His bishop asked him where he and his family would worship on Sundays and he mentioned a nearby orthodox parish that had passed all three Resolutions.

‘If you worship there,’ the bishop told him, ‘I will see to it that you never get another job in this diocese.’

When I had finished relating these deeply un-pastoral stories to my episcopal friend, a man with strong Catholic roots, he looked at me in astonishment. ‘Well, of course that is how things would be done!’ he commented, in a voice that really said, ‘How could you be so stupid as to expect appointments to be made in such circumstances?’

If bishops can act in ways which are so lacking in any pastoral sense, caring nothing for the priest simply following what he believes to be right – and anyway acting within what he had a right to expect were the pastoral guidelines agreed by the House of Bishops – nor for the effect on his family and the people under the pastoral care he is supposed to share with the bishop, then is it any wonder if such attitudes begin permeate the life of the Church of God?

Management, mission statements, sector ministries – all fine and sometimes even necessary to meet the needs both of a changed society and a changing ministerial style. We cannot stand still when facing a new challenge. But in the final analysis (which God alone will make), the only question to the Christian will be, ‘Did you know the sheep and did you care for them?