Thursday, 7 September 2017

Stepping Back a Bit

Well, that was an ill-tempered rant the other day. I don’t mean to be self-indulgent, but sometimes giving a picture of what goes on in a not-very-extraordinary parish has to include some of my frustrations. I don’t think that particular piece was very reflective or helpful, admittedly, and since then have been able to spot some aspects of the context.

Firstly, it strikes me that the especially problematic people I work with are the ones I made contact with before I became rather more guarded and self-protected about such dealings, and once that’s begun it’s not possible to reorder the boundaries of the relationships involved. As happens quite a lot, I don’t recall any specific discussion of how to manage this kind of thing throughout my training, either at college, in the circumstances of my title parish, or the additional coaching the diocese provides. It would, perhaps, assist.

Secondly, I suspect I suffer from problematic models of pastoral ministry. When I was on my way from my sending parish to college, the vicar bought me a copy of George Herbert’s The Countrey Parson which of course contains some lovely and idealistic words about being a priest in 17th-century Wiltshire: some of Saint George’s insights are timeless, but some aren’t, and I’m not the only clergyperson to complain about their view of the world being skewed by ‘George Herbert Syndrome’. If you come from the Evangelical end of the spectrum all your clerical heroes will be missionaries, but if you’re an Anglo-Catholic they are pastors. We have the feast day of one coming up on the 9th, Fr Charles Lowder, who worked himself into an early grave amidst the grinding poverty of Victorian Wapping, and I’m currently reading the autobiography of another, Fr Bernard Walke of St Hilary. Saints these men were, but the world they inhabited was profoundly different from ours. Lowder, and priests like him, were often literally the only professionals in the areas they lived, the only contact the poor had with official society, the only representatives of the services they desperately needed: the parish priest was all there was. Even in the very different context of rural Cornwall, Fr Walke had destitute ex-servicemen turning up on his doorstep to see whether he could find them work, and the truth was that in that place, at that time, he was indeed the best-placed person to do so, because he would have known anyone who might have been in a position to help. Now, the statutory bodies have quite rightly absorbed all that sort of work and the cases that end up with clergy are usually ones who fall outside the standard boxes of officialdom, the mad and sad and those who can’t be helped with any ease. I complained the other day about how hard it is to get those statutory bodies to open up to us, but why should they? The pastoral battlefield is their territory, now, and we clergy are the interlopers, even though the cases we deal with are largely the intractable ones they can’t help, the casualties lying in no-man’s-land.

Finally, were I part of a big church in which work and relationships are regulated in a much more professional manner, in which clergy largely work from an office and in which there are teams of pastoral and other workers with clear lines of responsibility, these frustrations again wouldn’t arise in the same way. Care of people would be the task of the church, not just of the priest, and that’s a more healthy situation anyway. Furthermore, professionalisation (or pseudo-professionalisation) of care provides a psychological means of shoring up self-protective boundaries. A doctor or community psychiatric nurse, for instance, can legitimately say 'doing X isn't part of my job, you need to talk to Y', and within bigger church systems the same dynamic operates, defending the workers within the system as well as, theoretically, ensuring greater competence and efficiency. (The difficulty is that a priest can rarely say 'X isn't part of my job', as the boundaries of their 'job' aren't clear: they are nothing more, nor less, than a publicly identified Christian, and what lies outside that?)

Of course part of the problem, too, lies with me personally, my own irritability and lack of serenity and faith, and that aspect, at least, falls to me to sort out.


  1. Valuable insights here. There aren't enough Ys, of course...I think you under-estimate the value of your rant, for those of us who have little first-hand knowledge of the realities you work amidst. As for priests being interlopers - statutory bodies should surely open up to you. It can't be right that their self-protective boundaries should be the frontier for your over-work, in a field for which you were not properly prepared. I guess the difficulty is that in some contexts compassion works instantaneously or not at all. Visitng a relation in hopsital, I found him still fuming after he heard a nurse say to a patient "I don't empty bedpans,I'm a qualified nurse with a degree."

  2. I hope it is all helpful in some way, just to illuminate the way things work. I take your point about immediate response: I heard a nurse talking on the radio the day I wrote the post about having to call the Council pest control office to visit a patient, and arrange a time for that visit when she would be there. 'It's not a nurse's job, but there's nobody else to do it', she said. I would argue that qualifications precisely qualify someone *to do* particular work, rather than *exclude* them from doing other tasks. Most people can empty bed pans with a tolerable degree of competence, and some positions give you a general rather than a specific responsibility. At my first museum job I got in one morning to find the curator wearing a pair of marigolds and carrying a plunger to unblog the public loo whose state the cleaner had 'unaccountably missed'. He was surely overqualified for that task, but it came within his general responsibility of ensuring that visitors had as pleasant an experience as possible. He could have told me to do it, mind.

  3. I think that your "rant" was useful for those of us who are not clergy to better understand the lives of those who are. Please don't stop.