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Good vicars

10 January 2014

THERE is a prayer that runs: "Almighty God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: mercifully hear the supplications of us thy servants, and grant unto this parish all things that are needful for its spiritual welfare. Strengthen and confirm the faithful; visit and relieve the sick and afflicted; turn and soften the wicked; rouse the careless; recover the fallen; restore the penitent; remove all hindrances to the advancement of thy truth; bring all to be of one heart and one mind within the fold of thy holy Church; to the honour and glory of thy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord."

This prayer says nothing of the earthly agencies by which the work is to be done. Its theology is, for that reason, well suited to the contemporary Church. In the past half-century, Anglicans have laid aside many rigid demarcations in favour of an often creative, sometimes ecclesiologically confused, allocation of ministerial tasks. And this prayer is particularly relevant to the discussion sparked by the Archbishop of Canterbury's remark on the Today programme; for, whatever we may think of his wisdom in making such a direct link between growth and the quality of an individual priest's ministry, it has put the emphasis where it belongs: on high expectations in parish life.

Expectations must be high. The work is the Lord's work. It has been said that they can be unrealistic: a parish advertises for a new incumbent, and someone suggests that it is asking for an archangel. But it is far more dangerous to set expectations too low. No parent wants a school to say: "We mustn't expect much of your child." No churchwarden wants an incumbent whose shoulder-shrugging response to a parish's challenges is "But what can I do?" As in any profession, there are clerics who are driven, and for whom the present discussion seems to be yet another burden added to an onerous ministry; they will know of colleagues who are far from being so conscientious, although they may believe themselves to be.

There is, too, sometimes the mismatched priest - a growing problem when there is a shortage of priests. Not every priest whose appointment is a disaster has treated the parish as a perch or a playpen; but the personality and the theology may be a poor fit. There are plenty of parish representatives who live to regret not exercising their veto. A priestly paragon may still find growth elusive; the parish that can grow under an unsuitable priest is a rarity. It is not unheard of for a parish priest to speak ill of his or her lay people; and, when difficulties arise, they may sometimes be to blame. But the fact remains that the intractability of human nature goes with the territory, and the good priest has to know how to make allowances. It is for this reason that we began our leading article with a prayer.

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