Tuesday, 22 July 2008
I was ordained in my late twenties and became an assistant in a large city parish. When I had served the customary three years I had the expected interview with my Bishop. Alan Pyatt, walking out of church with me one morning put his immense arm around my shoulders and said, "My boy, I'd like you to consider the Parish of Waihao Downs." That was it. There wasn't much to consider. The real meaning of his words, as anyone serving in the church in the late 1970s would have known, was, "My boy you're going to Waihao Downs. Pack your bags." So I followed the only course open to me. I went home and got out an atlas to find out where Waihao Downs was, and I packed my bags.
What followed, for Clemency and me, for infant Nick and for Bridget, who was born there, was the most wonderful few years, spent in 1000 square miles of the sort of country I have photographed above, and amongst gracious, spiritual, practical, alive people: the sort of people a city boy like me would never otherwise have encountered. The bishop knew best. Or rather, the church, acting in the person of the bishop called me and I had enough faith in that call to unquestioningly follow, to my very, very, great benefit. Things are done differently nowadays. No bishop would take the risk, even if s/he were able of trying to boss their clergy about like that. Instead there are appointing committees. There are CVs to be submitted and interviews to be undertaken. Sometimes there are Myers Briggs tests or interviews with counsellors. Always there will be a police check. For one job application I recently undertook there was a video interview. For one I declined to be part of there was a sort of gladiatorial bear pit where candidates competed against one another before the "calling" committee. It's all a lot more precise, I suppose, but the precision has come at a huge cost: our church has all but completely lost the sense of call.
Ordination is not a job it's a lifestyle. I can't imagine doing anything else, and the rewards of living with, building and encouranging a community of faith are incomparable. But if you treat the vocation of ministry as a job, with set tasks and rewards, then it simply doesn't stack up. The hours are long and the pay is wretched. In our church, "promotion" means more work and responsibility for the same money. You are always living on the sharp end of other people's expectations, projections and triangulations. The only way of living such a life happily is to do it out of a sense of call: God asks this of me, and because I am asked I will do it. But now, by and large, we have stopped calling. So we seldom talk of the rewards of living a life that we are uniquely fitted for; instead we argue ceaselessly about rights and privileges.We don't challenge people with gifting themselves to service; instead we invite them to submit a CV and apply for a job. If we make the short list, and then the holy grail of appointment, we are asked to sign contracts and job descriptions and goodness knows what before we even think about getting down to building a community of faith in a particular location.
To me it's a symptom of the malaise of the church. We have, in this instance, stopped acting from a time honoured basis in spirituality and have instead opted for methods of appointment borrowed from the society around us. Here is great danger for the church: we lose our sense of God and we lose our very sense of self. I have disliked this creeping secularism in the church for a long time. I have resisted, where possible, invitations to submit an application for particular posts. On those occasions when I have been persuaded, against my better judgment, to go along with this charade of treating the call of God as though it was an application to become an executive of Shell Oil, I have regretted it. So, never again. One of the results of this period of illness and blessedness which I have just gone through is a sharpening of spiritual sensibilities and a clarification of where my future in the church might lie. I know I can't change the church
"Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God,
brothers we are treading where we've always trod.
We are all divided, many factions we,
squabbling over doctrine, hope and charity."
The church is intractable. The systems we have evolved all have as their basic raison d'etre the continuation of the organisation and it's protection from radical change. I can do, however, the one thing open to me. I can change myself. I can refuse to play the games that are sapping away the lifeblood of the church. Today I made a symbolic gesture for myself. I burned the last copies of my CV and deleted all traces of it from my computer. I hope in the future I will go where God calls, but I am not going to apply for anything again. I'm blessed that I am in a position to do this, being vicar in a community where I am quite content to stay for the next decade or so. After all, I am called to be here.