I left the Church of England 34 years ago for my badly-advised swim over the bit of river that flows through Martigny and Riddes in French-speaking Switerland. Ony five years later did I actually go to that country, but no longer having anything to do with the Society of St Pius X and further to the north-east in Fribourg.
Had I remained and been anything other than an organist and choirmaster, I might have been sitting through the most boring meetings human beings can devise in their little games of power and influence. Looking out of the window on a rainy day, one might have seen drops falling from a leaf on a tree again and again as the speaker drones on and on about nothing. Indeed, I picked my title for today from a book of Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist.
Just this morning, a kind soul gave me a heads-up on an article on clergy recruitment in the Church of England – I know just the vicar for my parish church. Pity he’s fictional. The article quotes The Spectator:
For cheap laughs you should look at the situations vacant column of the Church Times — pages of jobs for Anglican clergy. The language, with its dreary emphasis on compliance and its neglect of individualism, may help to explain why the Church of England has become the Labour party at prayer.
Number one word in these adverts is ‘team’. Applicants need to be ‘team players’. Other hot words: ‘passionate’, ‘change’, ‘management’ and ‘skills’. A couple of weeks ago the Diocese of Lichfield needed a ‘team rector’ near Tamworth — ‘a visionary, imaginative and inspirational team leader, passionate for evangelism and discipleship, with experience of managing change and able to enjoy modern styles of worship’. ‘Managing’ change may be a euphemism for ‘enforcing’ it.
The Diocese of Oxford, plainly feeling the Cross to be insufficient, illustrated its job ads with a multicoloured baby-bricks corporate logo saying ‘Living Faith’. The subtext might as well be, ‘Don’t come here if you are looking for grown-up worship.’ Oxford was looking for a rural mission dean — ‘an effective communicator who understands the complexities of envisioning traditional structures’. After reading that several times I still haven’t a clue what it means. Meanwhile, Chelmsford’s archdeacon was seeking a priest-in-charge for the Southend area — ‘a strong collaborative and compassionate leader who can grow mission and outreach’. The use of ‘grow’ as a transitive verb for anything other than fruit and veg always worries me. The Southend job will include ‘nurturing and discipling all in the church for every member ministry’. You may wonder if the Archdeacon of Chelmsford is an ‘effective communicator’. Is English even his first language?
The article goes on, by way of contrast, to describe the kind of priest who ministered to souls during the war and the situation of extreme adversity.
In France, we call this kind of stuff langue de bois, wooden tongue. I came across quite a lot of this pseudo-intellectualism in the RC Church in France. My old “pastoral theology” courses at Fribourg with Fr Marc Donzé consisted of the same kind of language. No one can understand it. The very concept of language is distorted. To me and many others, this kind of behaviour indicates a struggle for power and influence by very insecure and inadequate persons hiding behind words and organisations. It is the very definition of bureaucracy. In the Church, it is cancerous.
Perhaps this is something we can reflect on this Holy Week, as we consider human wickedness in general. I belong to an organised Church and am on the Bishop’s Council of Advice. We have ordinary routine things to discuss like money and who does what. Mercifully, those things only take the time that is really necessary. Beyond that, it becomes more human and spontaneous between people who know and trust each other. What a blessing! The smallness of our Church keeps us simple and teaches us humility.
We can all make efforts with language and the use of words, expressing ourselves transparently and in a way that people can understand us. Above all, we need to use our time for work and play, or for time together in family intimacy or friendliness with people we know. Manual work is very useful, as it is to contemplative monks. You need both prayer and work – ora et labora. It’s strange how both those Latin words contain ora!
It is truly tragic to see the Churches and churches we knew and loved, which were a part of our lives, have lost their salty taste and are only good to be discarded, abandoned and forgotten. Materialism also gets to the end of its tether and the future becomes uncertain. We face the spectre of faith without reason or experience.
May our little Churches continue in their witness and prophetic ministry!