Anthony Trollope’s book ‘Barchester Towers (made into a TV series in the 1980s) is a great description of the various kinds of clergy that there can be. The story centres on the diocese of Barchester, which has just enthroned a new bishop with a new Chaplain, Mr. Slope (Alan Rickman!) The novel goes on to describe the events surrounding the early days of the new bishop, who will have what preferment and who will marry the rich widow Mrs. Bold!
When there are changes in my thinking, I often go back to ‘Barchester’ and ask myself ‘Who am I now?’
First is the new bishop, Bishop Proudie. He is dominated by his wife such that the phrase she uses ‘The Bishop thinks, and I agree with him!’ has entered into the vernacular. He often has headaches and so gives the running of the diocese to his wife and chaplain. I can well understand the bishop’s indecision. Sometimes doing nothing is a good strategy, but sometimes bold decision making is required. Erwin Freedman, in his book ‘Failure of Nerve’ says that when people stop attending to people’s weaknesses (the ‘squeaky gate’ that gets most of the oil) and begin to call out the strength of others, they will be sure to be called ‘tyrants’ and ‘too hard.’ I have often berated myself for being too weak. I am glad that I am not a bishop, because the mistakes in decision making, or in not making decisions are magnified over a large area. It is the most lonely of vocations in the Church.
Bishop’s chaplain is Mr. Slope. He is ambitious and a ladies man. But the most interesting thing about him is that he wants to move the church forward. He says that ‘New times require new men ‘(sic). The Church is always struggling to ‘serve the present age’ and one of Mr. Slope’s good qualities is that he is trying to do just that. In doing so, however, he alienates the more ‘pastoral’ people, like the saintly Mr. Harding.
I have thought of myself like Mr. Slope. I have thought that it is important to have an idea for each place about what it needs to do meet the needs of proclaiming the Good News in our time. Both our new Bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury have put evangelism on our radar screen. The Church has, sometimes because society has moved on, and sometimes because the Church has not ‘moved on’, lost most of the people who were born after 1970. All of my ministry in congregations has been directed at asking the question ‘How can we engage with a new constituency, and how can we invite them on the pilgrimage of faith: the Easter Journey?”
Mr. Harding is the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital. He has 12 old men to look after, and mostly he sits with them, reads to them and plays and composes music for them. For this he receives a full stipend. He is truly a saintly man, but I often thought that care and saintliness alone were not going to be enough to fit the Church to meet the challenges of the present time. Mr. Harding is asked to conduct a Sunday School for the old men of Hiram’s Hospital. He cannot do it, and so resigns. While Mr. Harding is portrayed sympathetically, I have thought that his limitation was that he did not take responsibility, as a priest should, for the future of the congregation where he was placed.
The other character who interests me in the story is Dr. Vesy Stanhope. Dr. Stanhope is one of those clergy who was paid a great deal. This allowed him to live abroad, and out of his stipend pay a curate to do the actual work of the parish. Dr. Stanhope lived in Italy and collected butterflies while his curate did the work. Mr. Slope advises the Bishop to recall him from Italy. Lide Dr. Stanhope, as a priest there is really nothing much I am actually required to do, except turn upon Sundays. At times of great frustration with the job I have been tempted to ‘do a Stanhope’ and ‘take the money, and go butterfly collecting.’
Just as congregations who never face the challenges of their future are rarely brought face to face with their failure, except indirectly when the bishop amalgamates them with another congregation , so clergy who ‘take the money and go butterfly collecting’ can, if they are immune to complaint, stay where they are, and have a nice life. Some bishops regard them as an advantage because sometimes the failure of a congregation and the failure of a priest coincide. Then the bishop can send a ‘close down priest’ to a ‘close down congregation’ and two of the bishop’s problems are solved at once!
The genius of Trollope is that none of his characters represents the ‘perfect priest’. I find myself being like one and then the other in parts of my work. They are like the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. A regular visit to the ‘test’ will show change in personality over time. So a regular visit to Barcheser will tell me who I am being now.
As I get older I find that I am less interested in pursuing an agenda for change, and more interested in living a holy life. In this respect I am becoming less like Mr. Slope, and more like Mr. Harding. I have tried to be faithful to my calling for 34 years, and in some ways forced myself out of a natural reserve into extroversion in order to strike a few blows for the sake of making new Christians and offering a model for the future of the Church. This involves not ‘being liked’ and having my motives placed under suspicion by those who m I guess were threatened by such actions. Well in the Church at least, I can’t work that way any more. The cost to my vulnerable self is now too great.
Congregations often resist the wishes of clergy to make changes, saying ‘We are here for the long haul, you are here for a short while, and then go We are ultimately responsible for the future of the Church in this place!’ This is so. I’ve often thought though that congregations need help to have the needs of the Church for the present age put on their radar screens. That is how I have tried to be faithful. Now is the time to step back a little and create a space. Having responded to the issue for us of ‘becoming a missionary congregation’, now is the time for the congregation, or more specifically the Chaplaincy Council to take up the cudgels.
Being a Vesy Stanhope is never a realistic option, but stepping back and allowing the space to be filled by other energies can be a good thing. It is as if a model of leadership is changing as I get older from the ‘heroic’ model of being the first over the barricades to being more contemplative and prayerful. Here is a quote from Keith Lamdin’s book , citing Henri Nouwen that captures some of what I mean. ‘Nouwen sees the first temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread as a temptation to be relevant and competent. This is matched in today’s world by the desire to be successful, highly regarded and relevant. However, this desire seems to shield us from the deep anxiety about whether we are love. ‘I am telling you this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the furure is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.’ Nouwen goes on to remind us that the risen Jesus did not ask Peter whether he would grow the Church or bring people to faith or be successful, but whether he loved him.’ Contemplation keeps us home, rooted and safe, even when we are on the road moving from place to place.” (Keith Lamdin, ‘Finding your Leadership Style’ SPCK 1995 p.72.) That’s where I am up to.