Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Vicar is dead.....Long live the Vicar!

On return from holiday I had lots to deal with, a pile of mail that was nearly as tall as me, various calls to respond to, and an update on all that had been going on in my absence. All good, or rather everything went well, though it had been extremely busy and very well covered by my colleagues.

In the week since I've got back though I have had a number of conversations where people have expressed disappointment that 'The Vicar' didn't do X or Y, or that Clergy haven't visited certain folk - despite the fact that I know I have extremely competent colleagues and very good lay pastoral visitors from all of the Churches who have handled things as well, if not better, than I ever could. It boils down to the erroneous belief that things are somehow more 'kosher' if a man (preferably a man in many cases, but that's another issue which I am not going to rant about today) with a 'dog collar' does it, be it opening fetes, visiting people or services in the Church.

The Church, if it is going to survive, must get beyond this idea that faith is done on their behalf by a person in a dog-collar! It's not unique to the C of E, but is prevalent in our structures and history, including the very job title - Vicar comes from 'Vicarious', which does mean 'on behalf of' - though the history of that title can wait for another time...

It is, though, both impractical and theologically lacking to expect one man or woman to 'be' and to 'do' the work of the Church. The Bible is quite clear that the body has many members, not just one, and that the only head of the Church is Jesus, not a bloke in a funny shirt who wears dresses on Sundays (or a woman in a funny shirt who may well wear dresses every day).

The problem we have in the Church of England is that the parish system has worked so well! By this I mean that there is, particularly in rural areas, quite a strong feeling of belonging to a parish, and a sense of ownership of the local church - even if someone never goes in to the building or joins in the life of the Christian community. The myth of 'every parish had a Vicar' (which apparently was never the case, though there were many many more Clergy full time in the Church of England with fewer Churches to cover between them) has hampered the ministry of the Church in recent decades as so many people still expect 'their' church to work with the same model of one man (and it was a man) doing everything 'Churchy' for one village.

Purely in practical terms this is an impossibility, there are seven full time ministry positions for thirty six parishes spread out over a very large and not always very accessible area in this Deanery. That number of ministers is likely to halve in the next four years, and by the time I retire (still twenty five or so years away, God willing) there may well be only one Stipendiary Priest for the Deanery. We hope this will go hand in hand with an increase in voluntary and self supporting ministers (both lay and ordained) but the days of one Vicar, one Parish are long gone (if they were ever here) and are unlikely to come again.

But the idea that there is only one 'religious expert' in a place and s/he should have all responsibility for teaching, pastoring, leading and administering the life of the church is a nonsense from the start. It denies the giftedness of many Christian people and the shared vocation of the people of God to mission and service. It locates 'spiritual power' and the exercise of power and authority in one person who is, ultimately, defined by their education and the way they dress rather than sharing that spiritual authority to live and proclaim the gospel in the power of the Spirit between all the believers in any community. It's a flawed model, the Church of England particularly needs to move beyond it very quickly and to move towards 'every member ministry' in a decisive way and to share a new way of working that allows those called to specific ministry within the church, whether ordained, licensed or 'authorised' to exercise that ministry as part of the whole body, rather than as a special individual that just happens to have a body of people attached to them.

Our struggle, again perhaps mostly in rural contexts, is that the perception both within and beyond the church is that things only have proper religious kudos if the Vicar or a member of the 'ordained class' are involved. It is this generation of ministers that will have to change this mindset and move people beyond a narrow understand of what both 'Church' and 'ministry are'.

But it is so easy to fall into the trap of trying to live up to people's expectations - hence the title! I catch myself trying to do visiting which is more than adequately done my other members of the Parishes. I tend to take control over services where I could hand over much more of what goes on to other people in the local fellowship (though this is sometimes because those originally charged with certain tasks don't turn up...and even the most resilient worship leader can end up with trust issues having been let down a few times!). This model of ministry will be hard work initially, it involves training, resourcing, supporting people in their expressions of ministry, it involves letting go of some of the power that Clergy have had in the past, in involves taking risks as people discover their gifts, and discover what they're not gifted at (sometimes very publicly), it involves communication, organisation and even a level of conversion - to a new mindset and a new way of being Church. It's 'easier' for many ministers (including myself) to seek to prop up the failing models of ministry and to fall into a maintenance mode which actually is more like a downwards spiral; trying to live up to false expectations, trying to do work which others could do perfect well, trying to hold on to things 'as they were' and failing to move forward as the body of Christ in our shared calling and vocation.


Kathryn said...

Thank you Alastair...a great snapshot of the issues & of the way forward. Now to try and model it...

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

And sadly, it is far from a new issue - it has always been the case that "the church didn't visit me" means the vicar didn't, even if half the congregation had been!

And, even more sadly, some vicars buy into this model and insist on micro-managing the life of the church, which is very far from good for the health of the congregation and of the parish in general.

Song in my Heart said...

I'd love to contribute more. I'm settling into a role as organist, and it isn't only that other people won't grant me the authority to minister in other ways (or indeed recognise the role I do have; I am, of course, "just the organist" and must therefore make musical decisions that keep the entire congregation happy all the time ;) especially any non-musician, non-theologians) but that I lack the confidence.

I don't really feel my understanding of theology is sufficient even for my current duties, but all the part-time training I can find clashes with my other work and is in any case more than I can afford.

quilly said...

I think the church I am with now does a really good job of this. If home visits are a critical care issue (likely to be on-going) the Pastor makes the first call and takes with him one or two ministry volunteers, whom he explains will be his representatives when he isn't free to visit in person. The volunteers are specially trained. They keep notes on their visits which they turn in to the pastor. Pastor has a monthly meeting with this volunteer staff to go over questions & concerns and share updates, progress, etc.

Our pastor doesn't have quite as many people to minister as you do, but he has a vast amount of territory and since we live in an archipelago, weather, travel time and travel venues are also an issue so the folks in this church have been doing this for around 150 years (we just had a birthday bash) and people are just used to it.

Nick said...

I read this one after the most recent post. I have to confess that there is a small part of me that is quietly waiting for an entire generation to die... because in my rural area it is largely those folk who are holding the doors firmly shut.

It's wrong and I know it is... but I just find it so selfish that there is no negotiation on how the church can evolve because certain people want to maintain a near extinct overly romanticised status quo.

I am with perhaps two or three exceptions, now the youngest regular worshipper at my church. Yet there is an insistence that services are put on at a family unfriendly time, and that a rigid structure must be adhered to. There must be two modern and two ancient songs (unless those of us who are more open concede to having older songs because they are more in keeping with the theme of the service), and we can never depart from a set worship pattern.

That said when I'm preaching, I do always try and urge the service leader to move a song into place just after my talky bit. I hate the idea of having the creed straight after a talk (which is how the service is usually structured), I really do believe there's a need to provide reflection either through music, song or prayer after a sermon. I believe God uses the residual heat in the silence that follows, to help finish off the cooking.

Timothy Titus said...

It is a long time since I read anything which led me to reply "I agree with every word", but, "I agree with every word"! Well done. This is precisely the message I've been trying to get across. I recently had to cope with an 80-year old retired Lay Reader writing to the Bishop to complain that I was allowing a lay person (shock horror) to engage in pastoral visiting. The Bishop replied by pointing out that the lay person concerned is commissioned as a pastoral visitor!!! I recently had another young man in my congregation commissioned as a lay Toddlers' Pastor, as he has great skills with pre-school age kids. It's great, but there are complaints from some because - wait for it - the Rector should do the church things.

I try to be patient, but (reference Nick, commenting just before me) my Secretary has less patience, and simply says "I wish this generation would die out, so that we can take the Kingdom forward". To be fair, much as I disagree and try to follow a different model, my Secretary has a good point.

Until "Every Member Ministry" is a univeral catchphrase of the Church of England, it is all going to be an uphill struggle.