Newspapers do not usually print anonymous letters but in one recent instance the 'Church Times' did. One can understand that the writer might not have wanted his Vicar to associate the sentiments expressed with him or her! Here is part of what was said.
“The Church of England operates a two-tiered society where clergy and their concerns take precedence over anyone else. This does not communicate an affirmation of the many volunteers who keep the Church of England going
The Church is in crisis over the future of its ministry. We are becoming an increasingly volunteer-led organisation, and it is imperative that the Church grasps the implications of this change in terms of pastoral support and inclusive affirmation of the laity . . . There is a lot of fawning and flattery over those who are ordained, as though their very status made them a cut above us all. Now that we are in crisis over ministry numbers, we cannot afford to maintain this attitude.
Peter tells us that we are all a holy priesthood and that we are all able to offer sacrifices acceptable to God (I Peter 2: 5).”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I didn't like the phrase about 'fawning and flattery'. But this was not because it isn't true, but because, to an extent, it is. Vicars are treated, most of the time, with a degree of respect which we have not earned. We aren't really all that different from a plumber or a train conductor. We are people doing a job, and if we get it right, that's no more than those making use of what we offer have a right to expect.
The more important point raised by the letter writer is that the church is now and will in the future be ever more run by volunteers. These will include volunteer (that is, unpaid) clergy but also all those who keep a parish running both when there is and when there isn't a Vicar – churchwardens, PCC members, organisers of events, choirs, children's workers and so on, and so on. Volunteer clergy I know include my former boss in Christian Aid, who runs a parish in Leeds, and the husband of the Rector of a church I served in Doncaster, who looks after a country parish in the gaps between a busy professional career. Maybe they are the people who deserve the praise, not those, like me, who have usually had the luxury of only one job at a time.
More than that, the church's hierarchy, or management structure, is very clergy orientated. Bishops, Archdeacons and Diocesan Officers relate, most of the time, only to clergy. They too need to accept that, if churches are to remain open and growing, it is the laity who will ensure this, not the fast disappearing band of full-time clergy. Management should not exactly ignore clergy but at least be aware of the requirement to relate to lay volunteers in the increasing number of cases where, for a long or a shorter period, a parish doesn't have a Vicar. And parishes, for their part, should realise that gaps are not interregnums in the old sense – a word which mean 'between reigns' – but a period (possibly even permanent) when they are in charge.
I don't know where the present crisis in numbers of clergy and money to pay them will lead. But I think it will either be towards a Church very different to the one we are used to or, sadly, to a stage where the C of E as we know it collapses. If all the effort is directed towards maintaining the existing structure, with fewer and fewer clergy, then the downside risks are very great.
So, as a first step, no fawning or flattery, please!
Janet Sinclair-Pinder has generously donated two yew trees for the graveyard. Yews have been associated with churchyards for very many centuries. One possible reason is that this is a tree that can live to a great age or even send down shoots which form new trees. So the yew can be a symbol of everlasting life or of resurrection. The new acquisitions have been planted one either side of the pathway into the new graveyard and were given to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The trees were provided at an advantageous price by Wentworth Garden Centre, who also sent two of their staff to assist in planting them – no mean task considering how heavy the trees were. So, many thanks to all involved. And let's hope the yews become well established and will still be there in several centuries' time.
With best wishes,