E-mails have been sent around with a link to Was Philip North right? – five years on. The person running the Ordinariate Expats blog simply asks for opinions. In the exchange of e-mails, it is all taken as an affront to the Ordinariate. Such is not my intention in my own article of today, but rather to look more deeply as a priest who is totally non-stipendiary and without an established ministry (like a Church of England parish).
Philip North is Bishop of Burnley and represents the Forward in Faith optic, that of having nothing to do with female bishops. I won’t go into the controversy surrounding his consecration in York Minster last February. I wish him well in his ministry and assume the best in his intentions.
The important element in this discussion, for me, is the very reason and justification of the priesthood in a historic era that is not exactly favourable to churches and institutional Christianity.
I can well understand the idea of recognising that the Constantinian Church is on its last legs, but that one should try to keep going what can be kept going. If something is still there, why destroy it? If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it! For a clergyman who has had a career in the Church of England, depending on it for his livelihood and stability as a person and father of a family, it is natural that he would baulk at the prospect of going to the Ordinariate or becoming non-stipendiary. Life is hard, and I would not judge anyone for not throwing up everything he has – unless he is really convinced in his conscience that this is what God is calling him to do.
The perspective is completely different from me as an ACC priest. I am non-stipendiary and have nothing to lose by being a priest where I am. Outside my priestly character, my life is exactly that of the laity. I have no perks, no privileges. I share the common lot of humanity. I eke out a living as a translator. The work is very irregular and I have no prospects of a good pension.
Bishop North’s appeal to the pastoral dimension is cogent from his perspective. From mine, it would seem to be like a millionaire patting himself on the back for getting on in life without financial problems. However, the branch he is sitting on is getting shorter and shorter – for as long as the next saw cut is not between himself and the tree trunk…
It is the old dilemma between the Church as an enclave of the devout or the service offered to the people, however lukewarm they are in spiritual terms – the Church of the Martyrs and the Constantinian Church.
It is pastoral responsibility for communities rather than gathered congregations.
This would explain the tendency of many churches and clerics to turn their attention from spiritual and religious concerns to secular social and cultural work. They will spend £300,000 on a meeting to discuss environmental concerns. The same sum would buy and restore a modest church building for the ACC. Where is the common ground?
The Ordinariate is better off financially than we are in the ACC, even though they seem to share our “sociology” as groups of the devout and fully committed. Their clergy seem not to have to take secular employment. Some have their retirement pensions and others are paid something by their congregations and the RC hierarchy.
It would be rash to judge Bishop North for being a “mercenary”. I will not do so. However, I do note that his judgement on what justifies a priest and the Church is totally detached from the reality of most of us, and even that of his own Church – increasingly so.
What justification is there for priests, when all the secular concerns in our society have no need for the Church? The Welfare State surely suffices… The Church is no longer even the patron of culture and the arts. All the Church can do is communicate God and accompany mankind is his spiritual quest – nothing or very little else. There may be occasions when a priest is called on in some kind of humanitarian situation, and he would not refuse help, but such occasions are rare.
If being an Ordinariate priest “can offer priests only a diminished ministry, for the majority of us a part-time or voluntary ministry, and for all of us a ministry that lacks the opportunities, the depth and the riches of what we know at present. And for laypeople, I’m not sure what it offers at all“, then I cringe to think what the good Bishop would think of the extremely marginal ACC!
Living here in France, I never receive the slightest enquiry about my church services. I could try knocking on doors and peddling the “clockwork toys”, and would simply make myself unpopular in the village. I could imagine them saying, “If I don’t believe in the true (RC) church, why should I believe in yours?” We in the ACC only have a ministry to those who voluntarily and consciously make a decision to come to us. That is painful for the priest who has acquired as much in terms of professional knowledge and skills as a teacher, but whose services are simply unwelcome in our materialistic society.
Why be a priest? That is the existential question that comes through Bishop North’s arguments as well as the existence of us marginal clergy. It would be tempting to arrive at the conclusion that we should cease to be marginal: apply to the Roman Catholic Church, and if they won’t accept us as priests, go as laymen. But, then, there are the consequences to assume. Where do you worship? To what extent do you get involved? Would it not be best to go full circle and give up Christianity as something that is just not viable in our time and the changes our world is going through? To many of us, it would be a form of suicide.
My time in the RC Church taught me that priests do the Lord’s work in many ways, and not only in the classical parish situation. Many priests are teachers, some are Roman bureaucrats. Others are monks and others still lead contemplative lives without being formally monks attached to an abbey. I have seen priests cut off from any prospect of ministry or justification for their existence. They die – or they find God in the emptiness and hopelessness. That is my own situation. I fulfil the canonical requirements for being a priest in the Church – being under a Bishop who is himself in communion with a Provincial Synod and college of bishops. Apart from that, all I can do is say Mass and Office and write this blog. Apart from that, I work and go sailing, and do what I can to keep my wife happy.
I live in trepidation, wondering if I have buried my talents and if would be judged for being a bad servant. On the other hand, how can one make an investment of one, two or five Talents if the banks and Stock Exchange are closed? Or if I have nothing to invest? The agonised thinking becomes circular and has to stop somewhere.
We do need to rethink our vocation as priests if we are to remain faithful to the sacramental character within us. I believe I would be harshly judged for abandoning it. Few of us are called to parish life, and even fewer of us to formal monastic life. The best we can do is mix with ordinary people and try to be a “leaven in the desert” in the best way possible. We learn to cast clericalism aside to live the priesthood of Christ to the full in our souls and our lives. Such a notion truly brings us back to roots and basics.
Perhaps in such a way, we are of greater service to the people and the world than if we were Established Church clerics. That to me has become the justification and meaning of the priestly vocation.