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Connecting the prose and the passion

08 July 2016

Philip Welsh considers books that offer advice to the clergy

Clergy in a Complex Age: Responses to the guidelines for the professional conduct of the clergy

Jamie Harrison and Robert Innes, editors

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LAST year, the Church of England issued Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, an extensive revision of the 2003 original, not least in the areas of safeguarding, and online communication. As a statement of basic expectations, the Guidelines set broad exhortations to good practice in sometimes uneasy proximity to specific injunctions about bad behaviour — at one point they commend active participation in deanery and diocesan life, and in the next line tell clergy who are arrested (not, presumably, for failure to attend chapter) that they must report this to the bishop within 28 days.

Clergy in a Complex Age presents essays by ten contributors (many with a Durham connection) on themes loosely grouped around the Guidelines (here reprinted). The essays are emphatically not commentaries on the Guidelines, and, indeed, in some cases do not refer to them at all, but, rather, take aspects of the Guidelines as prompts for short, non-technical reflections on aspects of professional ministry.

Paula Gooder begins with a welcome reminder that “the best answer to the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ is most likely to be, ‘The last thing you expect’”. She draws out several shrewd pastoral principles from the behaviour of Jesus in the Gospels. John Pritchard writes about “the slippery word ‘spirituality’”, and his wise and attractive advice will be familiar to those who know The Life and Work of a Priest. He insists (in an echo of Simone Weil) that “At the heart of ministry is attentiveness.”

Robert Innes, aco-editor, shares aspects of his personal story in a chapter about vocation, and points out that, though other professionals are also committed to maintaining standards, “clergy have the added burden that they must declare week by week a faith in which they themselves must be living and growing.”

Paul Butler’s contribution on safeguarding includes a helpful summary of the current position on the confidentiality of sacramental confession; recognises that safeguarding is a wider issue than child protection; and touches on the under-discussed area of managing attraction. The other co-editor, Jamie Harrison, addresses the challenge and opportunity of bearing public witness to the faith. His brief warning about “inappropriate methods, such as deception and coercion”, might usefully prompt fuller discussion about the signs of abusive religion that we are given here..

Russ Parker’s outline of the ministry of blessing offsets more functional approaches to ministry, a theme that recalls the neglected Elaine Ramshaw’s contention 30 years ago: “If pastors are poor at blessing, it is often because they are ill at ease with ritual authority.”

Stephen Cherry’s thought-provoking chapter on leadership takes issue with W. H. Vanstone’s influential analysis of Christian love — “Vanstone’s Christ on the cross is not the model for ordained ministry” — and challenges the hegemony of “servant-leadership” as the only model of pastoral authority (in the process, bravely contradicting Guideline 6.1).

Kate Bruce argues persuasively for the central part of the imagination to play, largely rearranging passages from her recent book on preaching and imagination; and Magdalen Smith offers sensible advice on balancing public and private lives. David Walker outlines the types of professional support which are available to the clergy, and notes that “The culture of a diocese can also have some bearing on clergy well-being.”

In the concluding section, the editors draw on their experience of the healthcare profession. Innes helpfully explores what makes for the essential precondition of trust. Harrison, against a medical background, affirms the positive aspect of professional guidelines, even though “one could argue that good practitioners don’t need guidelines, and poor ones won’t follow them.”

He quotes E. M. Forster’s over-used words, “Only connect”, to commend this book, which necessarily offers snapshot reflections across a wide range of major issues, as a realistic way into the Guidelines. The fuller version of Forster’s words would, in fact, illuminate why it matters to hold together in one volume the formality of the Guidelines and the dynamic of vocation: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.”

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