In the mythology of successful Church of England ministry, success is measured corporately and individually. Corporately, it is based on numbers and income. Big attendance + Big money raised = Big priest.
Individually it is measured by jobs held. The higher into the hierarchy one goes, so says the myth, the shinier and more special that clergy person must be. After all, you don’t get onto the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral by using my post meeting catchphrase “could you send me an email reminding me what I said I’d do because I’ll have forgotten by the time I get home”.
So when those stellar clergy get into the news it makes a good story.
Headlines can make for exciting national debates But down here in the small time ministry of the bog standard CofE clergyperson, there is more on our minds than the hassles of our brighter and shinier colleagues in London.
For thousands of clergy like me, an occupation of our church yard takes the form of kids on the roof (or metal thieves), kids (or drug users) using the church yard and all the hiding places church architecture provides as smoking or shooting dens. Protests take the form of calling you a f****** w***** as you tell them to go away or call in the police to remove them (no riot shields just a fed up beat bobby who wants to help). So far our connections with world capitalism have gone uncommented upon.
We meet the world at our front doors. A couple of years ago the door bell went. I opened it and was greeted by a man who said, “I’m glad you’re home vicar, I think I might be possessed.” “Of course you’re not. You’re probably just a schizophrenic, come in and let’s get you in touch with your doctor”.
When the knock comes at the vicarage door you hope it will be Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses but alas, it is usually a request for money, a sandwich, a room, help with a mental illness or someone telling you their marriage has broken down. Sometimes people come to the door to tell you what a crap vicar you are and why they are leaving your church, though they usually do that by email now.
After reading the headlines of our decline I started listing all the good stuff an adequate local church does to love its neighbours like God loves us. As I got going I had some really good stuff written down. But when I read it my list looked shrill and defensive:
“Look at us! Look how important we are! Look at the relevance! Appreciate us! Please!”
In truth, we don’t need to feel defensive or a have a PR strategy because St Paul’s has found itself in hot water it can’t deal with competently. For all the saintly and sage writing from clerics and non-clerics alike, there is another truth that London-centric commentators and the media miss: the church is not shaken to its foundations. It has been and always will be the highly compromised institution you would expect from broken sinners looking for mercy and redemption.
Local churches all over the country have been caring for and welcoming the poor, the bereaved, the sick , the lonely, the marginalised, mentally ill, abused, confused and depressed long before they seemed to be officially discovered by the rest of the world after the last election. And shock of shocks, we welcome the rich and the comfortable, the sinners, the doubters and those who just want some peace. It isn’t always a happy productive enterprise, free of human foibles. But it is grounded in real life and real people.
The only piece of advice I would give the chapter of St Paul’s is good advice my training incumbent gave me when I stumbled into a bit of a churchy cat fight in my early days. “You never win a public fight, so don’t get into one. It undoes all the good no one will take the time to praise you for.”
So while in London the church is apparently being brought to its knees, out here in the provinces we’ll just get on doing what we do best. Trying to be faithful. Trying to be loving. Hoping that people will get a glimpse of God while we do it. Shake on. The foundations are deep and very hard to shatter.