IT IS not always the best of priests who steps in, possibly at a crisis, and says something that sets someone on the path to baptism and/or confirmation, or brings them back to church. And — before letters roll in — it may not, of course, be a priest at all. But in reality it often still is.
The clergy have gone on about lay evangelism — do you remember the vicar in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (published in 1952) who is always urging his people to take the opportunity of “saying a word”? — since before I can remember.
And it is true that society has changed: few of us in the Church of England now are Mr, Miss, or Mrs to our fellow churchgoers. As people open up more readily to relative strangers, and even write about themselves on social media, it doesn’t always have to be an authority figure in a cassock who is given permission to get below the surface to the heart of the matter.
Indeed, some people may feel more at ease with a lay Christian, not least in view of recent scandals.
I often find, however, that it doesn’t much matter what you say as one of the laity, as long as you are not nasty; for what people often want is the significance accorded to them by the listening ear of a priest, even if the talk is small.
This is, I think, especially true “on the wrong side of tracks”, as a Catholic priest whom I knew used to describe his preferred milieu. It is where the parishes of the most definitely Catholic tradition still tend to be. That has been a strength and an opportunity, but it has not made life easy, and, given changing populations, has wiped out some famous Catholic “shrines” altogether.
Another change, of course, is in the rest of the Church of England. Those Barbara Pym-type parishes with incense and birettas used to be part of a much wider and predominant band of high churchmanship. It included plenty of clergy who dressed more like Sidney Chambers than like Father Brown, but quietly shared many of the assumptions of a “Chichester” Catholic with all his trimmings.
They were big on pastoral care and, of course, the eucharist; and I wonder whether for decades many of us did not live with the lingering influence of Martin Thornton’s Pastoral Theology: A reorientation (1956). This said that the heart of parish priesthood was ascetical direction, not teaching or evangelism, and that the congregation was a “faithful remnant” exercising a “vicarious spirituality” on behalf of the parishioners. The parish communion, timed so that communicants could still be fasting, accorded well with this idea, but fortunately transcends it and (timing apart) is perhaps the most widely received of the Catholic revival’s gifts to the C of E.
It was noticeable how quietly the recent jubilees of Thornton’s noble, austere, but possibly backfiring manifesto passed in comparison with those of John Robinson’s Honest to God and Nick Stacey’s Observer article about his “failure” as a parish priest to turbo-charge church growth in Woolwich (1963). Yet these ideas, too, have left their mark on churches in the Catholic tradition.
These and other South Bank folk (Prism) did help to make us less stuffy and superior, and reminded us about the world and its needs again. They also got us all into the habit of judging the Church against the Kingdom, which, owing to disagreement among the judges, has had well-known consequences for Catholic unity and a knock-on effect, one way or another, in parish after parish.
It was, indeed, to liberal causes that the Church Union, which one of my childhood vicars chaired, saw some of its highest hopes depart. It has looked for some time as if the pendulum needed to swing back a bit.
But perhaps it has hit us in the eye. With a curl of the lip, the clergy used to say that such and such a Catholic parish was “very eclectic”. You don’t hear about that so much now that eclectic Evangelical churches are centre stage.
And I recall Kenneth Leech’s anxieties about the inward-looking tenor of an otherwise flourishing congregation when he was serving in the Catholic heartland of Hoxton. But how many people in today’s “successful” congregations are interested in what happens elsewhere — unless there is an opportunity to take it over?
When bishops say, as they do, that they don’t appoint chaplains to congregations, Catholic lay people’s hearts can sink, too, at what that may mean if taken too literally. A church door is an exit as well as an entrance, and if a priest’s heart is elsewhere, and if it is not with the people and in the worship, it shows. Mission isn’t projects: it’s the mass and all the stuff that flows (or should flow) from it.
On the other side, when there are blogs and Facebook posts from the clergy about what they wear, or whether one of them is indulging in “heresy”, we may wonder whether the best thing for mission, Catholic or otherwise, would be for the clergy to go offline, slot the collar back in, and do some visiting. They might be put right about a thing or two, and, if the housebound cannot be asked to do much, they may still be able to pray for the parish’s mission.