A recent piece of research shows that trust in the clergy has declined markedly in recent years, as this magazine reports. Though the clergy are far more trusted than politicians and journalists, they lag behind nurses and doctors.
The survey should not come as a surprise to anyone, but one might like to give a little thought to why this is the case.
Once, the clergy were often the only highly educated men in their communities, and thus their words would have counted for much. Now, they are just one of many professions, one set among many qualified people.
Social change has led to a decline in clergy status, which would have happened anyway, but this has undoubtedly been accentuated by self-inflicted wounds, in particular, that of the child abuse scandal, and the attendant cover-up. This cannot be stressed enough: the scandal did grave damage to the credibility of the Church. Because priests and bishops lied to cover up the misdemeanours of some, this created the impression that all clergy were quite prepared to be less than truthful if it suited their own ends. The child abuse scandal gave credence to the charge of hypocrisy, which sounds the death knell of respect for the clergy.
Because the clergy are the ambassadors not just for the Church but also for God, the decline in faith has also damaged their credibility. If God is now seen by so many as either false or worse, malign, then the clergy take on the mantle of the snake oil salesmen of old. It is very interesting to note that those who defend the clergy often do so in these terms: “The Catholic church has many strengths, including in its humanitarian work – after all, it has representatives across the planet, and for all the bad apples we’ve become increasingly aware of, there are many good men and women working tirelessly to improve the living conditions of people who live in challenged situations.” (Thus Joanna Moorhead writing recently in the Guardian.)
In other words, the Catholic Church is to be valued for the work that any NGO can do, and not because it proclaims timeless truths about God and about humanity. Pity the poor priest, forced to prove his worth and justify his existence by his social work, rather than by his religious functions, which are seen as innately worthless in an unbelieving world.
Also, people in Britain may not trust the clergy because England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are different cases) is historically an anti-clerical country. You can never like or trust the people you have wronged, and the inheritors of the Reformation tradition can never quite forgive themselves for their persecution of the faithful priests in Tudor and Stuart times, or their despoliation of the monasteries. Neither do they like the Anglican clergy very much, still less the nonconformists, who are mercilessly pilloried in, for example, the works of Dickens. The bitter dregs of the Reformation live on in these residual dislikes. Sometimes the dislike is masked, but it only needs the slightest excuse to reveal itself, and it has had plenty of those of late.
Finally, lest we end on a negative note, what can the clergy do about this loss of trust? I have only got one suggestion, and that is to ditch the clergy-speak, put away the parsonical accent, in other words get rid of the sort of discourse that is so prevalent both in the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. I do not mean the content of the discourse, but its manner of delivery. Priests and bishops need to speak to their fellow human beings on a level playing field, using a tone and a language everyone can understand. They have got to sound honest rather than robotic. How do you do that? Well, by being honest – and we all surely know what honesty sounds like.