THIS stark question was put to me recently: When administering the sacraments is not transforming people, and all you see — at least, on the surface — is further decline, what do you do?
Perhaps one of the most moving explorations of sacramental ministry and its efficacy has been Jimmy McGovern’s recent BBC1 series Broken (Media, 9 June 2017, Comment, 7 July 2017). Set in a northern town, it presents the turmoil of interior life, and the spiritual and social effectiveness, of Fr Michael Kerrigan, a Roman Catholic priest.
The finely observed storylines invite us to see beneath the surface and to assess what constitutes decline, and whether the language of success or failure can ever make sense in our assessment of this ministry.
The TV series is certainly well worth watching. But there is something missing, or at least under-represented, from the central character in that series. It is something that I have seen and admired in priests who have inspired me — and it is not easy to define.
I CAN think of a Church of England priest, also in a northern diocese, whose ministry was remarkable in a series of parishes that became substantially and unremittingly more marginalised, complex, and unresponsive.
There was human vitality, a confidence in Christian faith and in the Church, and an attractive, unself-conscious humility that made this person seem very ordinary, and therefore authentic and compelling in priestly ministry.
The phrase “administering the sacraments” is problematic as a description of priestly ministry. It sounds so bureaucratic, as though these ordinances were another form of Universal Credit that does not really meet people’s needs.
Fundamental to the whole notion of the sacraments, and the way in which they are celebrated, is the delight, joy, and awe of an encounter with Jesus, who shows us God. These encounters are also circumscribed in ways that we do not always find it easy to accommodate today.
They are a gift, not our own invention, and they do not belong exclusively to the Church of England. They challenge our 21st-century preoccupations as much as they shape our material and spiritual life. They live by symbol and metaphor, and resist superficial accommodation. They demand time, patience, and the exercise of our mind and our will in the processes of obedience and mystery.
We live in an increasingly regulated society, and this has, not surprisingly, infected the institutional life of the Church. An emphasis on clearly defined programmes, strategies, teaching modules, and growth targets can seem, all too easily, to become the criteria that define a successful apostolic life.
These criteria might have good intentions based on solid statistical foundations. But they can mislead us if they are the only acceptable standards against which we measure ministerial and congregational performance. And, if applied without understanding or spiritual wisdom, these criteria can lead to a dysfunctional sacramental mentality that expects efficient administration to achieve the targets we have set.
The northern priest of whom I spoke spent a lifetime celebrating the sacraments because they were a vehicle for communicating the love of God which transcended personality or fashion. These ordinances were given so as to articulate the mystery of eternity in the context and idiom of today.
It was a profound conviction of this power, and an imaginative, disciplined communication of it, that made the sacramental life so effective in sustaining evangelistic and pastoral mission, through congregations that do not easily register, in the culture of success, the quality of their engagement with the local community, identification with its culture, or the tenacity with which they sustain their Christian presence and witness.
“TRANSFORMING people” is a phrase that also opens up for us some important issues. In terms of Christian faith, we begin with recognition that the work of transformation is ultimately God’s work, not ours. We co-operate; we do not determine. Nor are we the sole arbiters of success: “Your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6.4,6).
This work of transformation is an essentially social ministry. The Ordinal of the Church of England is insistent that priests minister “among the people to whom they are sent”. That sense of engagement with every dimension of a local community came out with extraordinary force in Broken.
It was also a feature of the Anglican priest I have been speaking about. This was a pastor whose skills were not honed through textbooks or courses: they flowed from the human instinct for understanding people and the Christian instinct for loving them.
If books and reading came into the development of this skill, it was more through biographies and the newspaper. But the appetite for understanding was wide-ranging. A day off or holiday, for example, was enlivened by conversation with other travellers, fascination with shops, markets, and local history, together with investigation of religious and cultural life. And it didn’t matter whether the destination was Whitley Bay or Tuscany.
LA PRODUCTIONS LTDSean Bean as Fr Michael Kerrigan in the BBC1 drama Broken
The task of transforming people was not something done to others: it was undertaken with an enquiring mind. It was informed by faith in Jesus Christ, the call to ordination and the grace that sustained that call, and a strong sense of identity with the human condition.
It could be tempting to set the explosion of contemporary social media in opposition to the processes of traditional pastoral ministry. My impression is that this would miss the point.
The task of transformation by grace and faith in Jesus Christ is essentially social. It is nurtured in the context of the community of faith, and touches every aspect of life from which that community is drawn. The task of understanding, loving, and sanctifying these networks of relationship is central to the priestly calling.
One of the strongest images of Jesus which emerge from the Gospels places him and the 12 disciples in company with others. The capacity to be in company with others, within and — most pressingly — outside the life of the Church is an essential Christian and ministerial skill.
Something that deserves greater recognition in our present discussion in the Church of England about lay ministry is the skill of being with others in the workplace, and the wisdom derived from it. This is a fundamental source of information about our social context which should inform apostolic witness and the articulation of Christian faith.
The danger for those whose lives are almost completely bound up with the church community (a warning to members of the General Synod, for example) is that it can limit the opportunity for companionship with others whose experience of life, not touched by faith, invites our deeper understanding of how faith might be communicated and shared with them.
FINALLY, how do we live with the burden of “further decline”?
The most important response here is to assert that decline is not inevitable. But nor should we believe that an awakening of faith and growth of church membership will be the result of our own efforts. We are called to be responsive, imaginative, and faithful stewards who serve God’s purposes. It is all God’s work.
We also live, however, in a context of cynical indifference and general unease with institutional life. We bear the responsibility for exemplifying a divine and human institution. It reveals the unmistakable signs of human sinfulness, which cause us shame and can undermine our confidence.
The priest I have been describing was attentive to all this. Confidence in the Church was not a form of escapism, however: it was an expression of gratitude and love.
We know that conflicts exist within the Church, and they are painful, like the other expressions of human sinfulness that mark its life. But it is a mark of wonderful, martyr-like defiance to assert our common love for the Church, our thankfulness to God for its mediation, as the body of Christ, of mercy and holiness, and our agility and eagerness in identifying the work and beauty of God’s grace in all its members.
These are characteristics of ministerial attitude that can sustain a priest’s realism in faith and hope and love in the context of “further decline”.
In many dioceses, the summer is when we celebrate the gift of ordination as deacon and priest. We rightly place high expectations before the candidates, requiring to know their mind and purpose in receiving the treasure of Christ’s flock, entrusted to them.
We also know that sustaining the life of the Church, enabling the Holy Spirit to bring growth and depth to those we serve, is a demanding vocation. This realisation compels us who are ordained to ask humbly for the prayers of those we serve. It also demands the highest levels of care in how we identify and prepare those on whom we lay the weight of this calling.
And, for those who are ordained, we must also be responsive and effective in ensuring a working culture that will withstand ossification and the loss of the human vitality from which the exercise of diaconal and priestly ministry must draw. And perhaps the ultimate test of achieving this comes at the point of retirement.
My esteem for the northern priest whom I found so iconic prompts me to ask the following question, of myself, as of others. When the post of incumbent, or some other senior post, has been laid down, will there still be visible in me a human being, a compelling witness of grace working through sacramental life, and someone at ease among people?
If there is not, then perhaps we, the institution of the Church, will bear some responsibility for having failed those whom we have identified and set aside for ordination. For this ministry, a “treasure in clay jars” (2 Corinthians 4.7), is entrusted to us so that we who serve might also be saved by its power and, with those whom we serve, be brought to the fullness of life in all its glory and perfection.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.