An unresolved conundrum in the Church
I have noticed that when clergy of my generation meet together, there is often a nostalgic sigh and the cry along the lines of ‘things in the church were not like that in our day!’ We reminisce about the strict training given to young clergy (many of us did start young in those days!) and the way that we all did two periods of training under an incumbent. Much has changed and it could be said that the priorities of clergy today are often very different. The 60 -70 hour weeks have (thankfully) vanished and visiting parishioners in their own homes seems to have become a forgotten activity. The working day began at 7.30 or 8 and apart from a meal times and snatched breaks, went on till 10 pm, after the evening meetings had finished. As a curate I did have a fixed day-off, but the evening of that day was moveable at short notice so that I could never enrol for a choir or an evening class.
This preamble brings in the discussion of two words that are in the title. Anglican clergy of my day were concerned that their work tasks could be subsumed in the word ‘ministry’. Ministry covered the pastoral care of young and old, the leading of worship and the teaching that went with it. Somehow the church carried on through this kind of faithful attention to people’s needs, in and out of their homes. The Vicar or the curate might take one or two funerals every week and the so-called ‘occasional offices’ would take up a lot of time. But over a period, even in quite large parishes, you found that the networks of contacts that you had built up, through the funerals of people you had buried and the babies you had baptised, was quite extensive. I myself, in the days when my parishes were only 1200 homes, would attempt at Christmas to knock on every door with a card. This was quite an investment of time but it paid pastoral dividends. The greatest of these was that no one in those parishes ever was totally unknown when it came to taking a funeral. It is surprising how much information you pick up on the doorstep in a five or ten minute conversation. Bereaved people were always appreciative of the fact that I had known something of their relative while he/she was still alive.
The word ‘mission’ sums quite a different emphasis in the task of the clergy. It suggests that the main priority of the clergy’s work is to evangelise and ‘save’ the ‘lost’ and bring them into the worshiping congregation. My memory of working full-time was that mission and ministry in fact worked seamlessly together. In my last English parish, there always seemed to be a cluster of adult confirmation candidates alongside the far more challenging group of teenagers, whose parents wanted them to be ‘done.’ The new arrivals seemed to balance the number who died and the congregation maintained a equilibrium of around 90 worshipping souls at the main service on Sundays. The point is that clergy of my background believed that you did ministry, the mission side of things took care of itself.
What seems to be happening today is that an emphasis on mission seems to be undermining some of the old pastoral priorities. I had a shock when a single mother reported to me that her local clergyman had said to her, when seeking support, ‘I don’t do pastoral.’ I interpreted that to mean that the only thing he was interested in as a clergyman was evangelising. By not doing ‘pastoral’ he was saying that the bread and butter of parochial ministry, the comforting the sick, the support of the lonely, the helping the confused and bereaved was no longer part of his job. I would not suggest for a moment that these things are not going on in churches up and down the land, but something has nevertheless changed in the way that the church is perceived by the people of the communities where it is placed. There no longer seems to be the sense that the church plays a full part in the community. There is a sense that the church is far more concerned about its own inner affairs than serving this community. I was recently asked to help support an urban parish for nine months while the Vicar went on maternity leave. In the first week I was asked to do a funeral. After that there was silence in that direction. It may be that the local undertakers had a cosy relationship with a retired clergyman to cover all the funerals or maybe the funerals were being performed by lay (secular) celebrants. These people do a good job but it is sad if such large numbers of people are opting out of Christian burial because the message has gone out that the only times that the church cares for you is when you are a soul to be saved.
This question of finding a balance between mission and ministry is of relevance to our topic because the absence of pastoral care towards people inside and outside the church who need it is a serious matter. In some parishes locally there is a sense that the clergy no longer care for the elderly, the poor and the ‘shut-ins’ . All the energy goes into trying to attract the young with a range of activities which include ‘seeker-sensitive’ services. In one particular church I know, two thirds of the traditional congregation left after a mission-focused Vicar arrived, to be replaced in part by a new group of individuals whose loyalty appears to be fickle at best. The stories of individual betrayal, as the things that gave comfort and solace over decades are abandoned, are hard to catalogue. I do occasional work in our local hospital as bank chaplain and I know how much some people appreciate simple acts of ministry like a prayer or a bible reading when facing the possibility of death ahead of them. If they cannot find these things from the priest or even from lay visitors because the emphasis has gone to mission at all costs, then that is, in a way, a form of desertion by the church. Ignoring the real needs of people by Christian leaders is, to my mind, a form of abuse.
As I write this I am reminded of the passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus talks about the disciples who will be recognised in the coming age. They are the ones who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and visited the sick and the imprisoned. Surely these are the signs that we are required to give of our Christian witness. Such behaviour, the gentle reaching out to people in their need, will give glory to God and to his church.