From time to time I get angry about the depiction of clergy and Christians in the media. It seems that there is a sort of unspoken agreement that whenever it is possible to portray clergy as nice but ineffectual, or powerful but bigoted, or sexually corrupt, or always running late in crumpled surplices, or if they are sympathetically portrayed (as, for example, in Ballykissangel) the fact of a person’s being a priest is merely a backdrop to other themes, like a love interest. So the story becomes just another soap opera.
The same is true for lay Christians. They are always ‘dorky’ and wanting to ‘talk about Jesus’ at the most inappropriate moments, in a way that has no bearing at all on the significance of Jesus for the whole world.
No one would dare portray Islam in such a way. This is in part because behind every portrayal of Islam is the threat of violence, as Salman Rushdie and later the cartoonists in Scandinavia have found out. It is true that the vast, vast majority of Muslims are not like this, but the fact that a few are means that the religion is taken seriously: for the violence. This is also true for parts of Christianity. Do you remember the people who have been killed outside abortion clinics in the US? This has been done by Christians. The use of violence has changed the whole debate about abortion in the US.
I suppose it is no surprise that an entity, now quite foreign to many, is viewed only in terms that can be understood by the viewers. Everyone understands village life, love, and friendship. So in depictions of clergy, the story is not about being a priest, but about love and sex and friendship and village life. It is like ‘Eastenders’ in a different frame.
And everyone understands violence.
Everyone also understands ‘doing good.’ The Church is sometimes depicted as ‘doing good deeds’, or being involved in moral campaigns. Sometimes these moral campaigns are approved of, and sometimes not. But either way, again, people understand the need for some sort of ‘morality’ and so can understand the Church’s being involved in morality.
But the elephant in the room that no one is talking about is God, and the question of how God comes to us today. Just as it was (and is to many) outrageous that God, the Word who created the universe should become flesh in the form of a baby to begin with, so it is outrageous to many that there are people who have been set aside (clergy) to remind everyone else about God’s claims upon them. The same is true of the Church as a whole. The idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ tells us that it is all the believers, taken as a whole, who also represent Christ’s claims on the world.
The difficulty lies in the idea that these claims come in the form of fallible human beings. It is one thing to see divinity in the form of a Buddhist monk who dresses strangely and is somehow always separate from the world. And it is one thing to make fun of clergy and portray them as ‘just human’ like you and me (or corrupt: not like you and me! But worse!). And it is one thing to see God as like a great parent or policeman in the sky, laying down laws for us to follow, so that God’s representatives are mostly about telling us how we should live (which no one likes). It is another thing all together to see that ‘God was in Christ..’ (the criminal who was crucified) ‘…reconciling the World to himself’, and that because of this, ‘Christ’ comes to us in the form of other people who are fallible. But their humanity is not the reason to say ‘these people can not represent God for us’ unless ‘god’ is some entity above us in the sky. But this is not so. Since Jesus, it is our humanity, or bodily existence that is the vehicle for God’s presence, with all that being ‘bodies’ entails.
Even when there are people whom others respect, like Authors (I am thinking here of Graham Greene who wrote about God’s presence in fallible human beings in ‘The Power and the Glory’), the press will talk about his being a ‘Catholic’ rather than a ‘Christian’. Being a ‘Catholic’ conveys a participation in a whole series of rites and a series of beliefs which may not have anything to do with God or Jesus. It is as if ‘The Catholic Church’ is some kind of enterprise unto itself, without the knowledge that the Catholic Church is also ‘Church’: That is Body of Christ.
That is why Christianity is fundamentally a sacramental religion. The way in which God comes to us is in the form of matter. (Bread and wine, being plunged into water). The most important words that I say in the Eucharist each Sunday are ‘in these Holy Mysteries we come near to the uttermost depths of God.’
This is the reality and the claim that all the rest of the public perception of religion wants to deny, yet which we stand Sunday by Sunday affirming.
But even in the Church, this reality is a bit too searing to cope with for very long.
I keep getting reminded of some things I have said which run counter to my representative function as Priest. If I am honest with myself, some of this is because I too back away from the vocation, and hide behind the role of humourist. It is sometimes easier to accept that I am ‘just Paul’ and not ‘Paul, Priest’. That’s what the vestments do. They help to transform my consciousness for that of ‘everyday Paul’ into ‘Paul who is someone representing the presence of ‘God with us’’. Those denominations that do not have vestments call their clergy ‘pastor’ which is fine as far as it goes, but this description speaks of the relationship between a shepherd and the sheep: not of God to humanity.
This same difficulty in dealing with God as ‘close’ and ‘making claims’ on us is also expressed by lay people too. How many times have you heard some one say ‘well, I’m not sure about God, but I come because I love the music.’ As if the music was not written in praise of God, or the words were not written so that we could praise God.
Sometimes there is also a kind of ‘anti-clericalism’ in the Church which serves the same purpose. It is not that there aren’t bad clergy who abuse their position and the laity. It is just very hard to see ‘Christ’ in people who also have to empty the garbage bins! But the heart of the Christian religion is just that! Perhaps that’s what is hard for us all to live with. Christ challenges our picture of God! And if it comes down to it, we’d rather have our own thank you vey much.