Spare a thought for the Rev Andy Thewlis, Anglican vicar of Burbage in Wiltshire, who will not be spending Christmas in his parish this year. After sending out a strongly worded missive to his congregation, upbraiding them for, among other things, “grumbling” and “actively sabotaging his ministry”, and having then issued a retraction, Mr Thewlis has been sent on a three month sabbatical by his bishop, after what was termed “an emergency meeting”. Goodness knows what the real story is, but something has clearly gone wrong in Burbage.
Over at the Guardian, the Rev Liam Beadle has some wise and illuminating commentary on this sad episode. He makes the surely correct point that while few vicars ever write to their congregations in the terms which Mr Thewlis used, many have at some time or another felt like doing so.
None of this comes to me as a surprise, for while there are differences, life in Catholic parishes can be similar. Clergy morale is a delicate plant, and it is no secret that at present it is not as high as it might be. Of course, no one likes a complainer, and those who feel put upon in parish ministry, as Mr Thewlis has found, are not popular when they make their views known. But even so, it is important to ask why clergy morale is the way it is, and why it can sometimes hit rock bottom.
A parish is like a garden: there is always something to do in it; it requires maintenance and management, though this to be effective, needs to be invisible to the naked eye; one must remember that the parish/garden is a delicate ecosystem. Dramatic interventions are best avoided.
Once upon a time, a parish priest had an army of helpers to call upon, or more accurately to rely on: he didn’t have to call on them to do things, these things just got done by the silent, efficient and reliable helpers. Now, with changing social circumstances, and above all with longer working hours for all, and with far more women working than before, the pool of helpers on which the priest can rely is much decreased. This is a challenge. It can lead to an increase in friction between parishioners, as fewer hands take on more roles.
Moreover, being a delicate ecosystem, a finely balanced community, it only takes a few people to change the mood music. In a parish where several hundred go to Mass, just two or three people can set the tone in the parish if they choose to do so. The majority of parishioners may barely notice it, but a small group can effectively steer the core parishioners in one direction or another, and this can make things difficult for a parish priest.
Sometimes a parish priest is happy to let one dominant group steer things; but he may want to challenge this, and if trouble spills over, the diocesan authorities often become involved. It is at this point that things can go seriously wrong: for the way the diocesan authorities try to resolve the dispute will make all the difference. It is at this point that we should remember why it is that we have bishops in the first place. They are meant to exercise oversight, which is a vital ministry in the Church. This oversight is meant to be constant, of course, and not just when things go wrong. Calling the Bishop in is not meant to be analogous to dialling 999.
One further point that Mr Beale makes is that the parish clergy are meant to be theologians (so too are Bishops). He writes:
“One of the things that is sometimes forgotten is that vicars are (or should be) theologians. It isn’t good enough for the vicar simply to have his or her opinions about God and the world. Theology is a serious academic discipline. So what the vicar says about God has to be doctrinally defensible. But it also has to be kind and accessible. Sometimes that seems like a tall order, which means tired clergy either retreat into well-worn platitudes or become regarded as ivory-tower intellectuals in a society increasingly suspicious of experts. It is exciting to be a person of study and prayer in a community, pointing to God and the possibility of new creation in an often weary world. It is also incredibly draining, and sometimes the pressure becomes a bit too much.”
Given that it is the priest’s job to talk about God, it must indeed be very draining when he finds that the congregation wants to talk about something less elevated, such as flower arranging. The saddest thing about parish infighting is that it is sign that the parish has lost its way. Rather like the Children of Israel in the desert, instead of longing for the Promised Land, and wanting to make progress towards it, they are instead complaining about the food, cursing Moses and wanting to return to Egypt. Indeed, Moses is the archetype of every pastor – frequently exasperated by the congregation he leads, but brave and forward-looking, and relying on people he can trust to help him in his task.
In the end, as with Moses, so with the parish priest of today: let the People of God reflect not on the ideal pastor that they do not have, but the actual one they do have; and rather than rolling up to the presbytery with the opening words: “I have to tell you, I am not very happy with the flower arranging” (or whatever), why not try a different approach and ring his doorbell and say: “Father, is there anything at all I can do to help you and the parish?” Go on, you might make his Christmas!