I confide that I, alongside a growing cohort, know quite a lot about the difficulties and challenges of being a parish priest today. Experiencing the pain and vulnerability of various people, both within the church and from those on the outside, is part of the priestly calling. This is a demanding task – absorbing the angst and unprocessed anger of individuals, even communities.
During my time as a curate I was privy to an ongoing dispute between a group known as ‘traditionalists’ and an opposing set called ‘liberals.’ The cause of this bitter disagreement was the ordination of women, keeping the Church in the manner that it has been accustomed, or not, as the case may be. This was a particularly bloody affair, the previous Rector resigned, the previous two curates before me had marched over the Tiber into Rome. So, I was prone to much horseplay – “can we entice the new curate into our corner?” The new curate did not want to take sides. I was caught in the middle of a horrible schism which was dividing the church and separating people that I was beginning to know and walk alongside.
My first incumbency threw me into another cauldron in which the church was bitterly divided, this time as a result of the murder of the previous, much loved priest. He had been murdered in the vicarage. The circumstances were shrouded in mystery and obscurity. Some parishioners believed one truth, the others another. What was known to all was that Fr. David had been killed and his murderer killed himself days later. My role was to act as a pacifier and support for those caught up in the trauma of the death of their spiritual leader, teacher and friend. I was taken on “to heal that place.” The parish slowly, tentatively began to live and love again. But it nearly killed me!
My experience here in Oxford is somewhat less dramatic but nonetheless, still populated with tragedies and challenges albeit more mundane. The priest, like a GP or even an MP, provides a community with an opportunity to voice concern, even fear (as well as some of the more joyous things of life). Part of the role is to absorb pain. A good deal of this ‘pain’ results from anger – an emotion which surfaces from unexplored events of the past, unresolved disputes, all of which can be projected on to the priest.
A prime example of this type of projected behaviour arrived on my computer this morning. It is the appalling case of a priest in the St Alban’s Diocese who is being threatened with legal action by a member of her congregation. The crime is the installation of a set of chairs and a table for the children’s corner in church. The parishioner states that it is unsightly and requires a faculty of jurisdiction (legal permission from the Chancellor of the Diocese). One wonders what lies behind this attack? It is certainly not a high calling. The despondent parishioner is reported to have said:
“I hope the Church authorities now wake up to the seriousness of what has taken place here and that appropriate disciplinary penalties and public censure will swiftly follow.”
When fractures like this arise in the Christian community we should recall Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). Some 200 years after Christ, a bishop from North Africa called Tertullian, argued that the Christian life as taught in Scripture and practiced in the church was morally superior than any other way of living. He coined the phrase: “Look… how they love one another!” When we do not behave as Christ intended, when we allow our high theology and ideals to be diminished by anger and hurt, we injure the face of Christ. This Lent, I wonder if we can re-appraise the way we speak, act and relate with one another and realise that we are witnesses to a greater love.