Saturday, 30 March 2013

'Leaping the Vicarage Wall' - a book to ponder

Back in the 1980s, I was good friends with Gordon and Ronni Lamont, a couple I got to know through helping on the CYFA Arts Workshop which then formed part of the CPAS summer camps scheme.
Sadly, we drifted apart over the years (something I’ve been rather prone to) and so it was only through the vaguest of grapevine rumours I heard Ronni had become ordained as one of the first women priests.
In a similarly vague fashion, I discovered more recently that she has now left parish ministry. More concretely, I also found out she’d written a book about it, and out of curiosity I decided to buy it. Partly this was out of interest in an old friend, partly because, given my own hesitation about women’s ordination, I am curious to read about the experience of women in Anglican parochial ministry.
Leaping the Vicarage Wall, the story of Ronni’s entry into, experience within and exit from, parochial ministry is a book that should be read and pondered by many – especially anyone thinking about ordained ministry or involved in selection, training and oversight. (A similar book I also intend to review some time is A Clergy Husband’s Survival Guide.)
Unfortunately, it is not terribly well written! There are numerous ‘typos’ that a good editor should have spotted. Sometimes there are inaccuracies (a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure is not called ‘a measure’, p113). And Ronni’s sentence structure is sometimes awkward (up to and including missing out a verb.) This is a shame, but it does not detract from the significance of a book which addresses something that receives far too little analysis and consideration – the stresses and impact of parish life on clergy and their families.
Part of the problem, as Ronni identifies, is that there are three quite different expectations involved in parish ministry. First, obviously, is the expectation of the minister. Typically, this begins with great idealism about serving God and serving others. Secondly, however, is the expectation of the congregation and parishioners, which can vary a great deal depending on the local history. And thirdly there is the expectation of the ‘hierarchy’ – the bishops and archdeacons – manifested through structures which whilst often described in terms of ‘support’ may actually result in extra ‘demands’.
Someone who feels called to ordination is bound to have high ideals about what this will involve. These ideals may even be heightened by the selection process. Typically, for example, one has to give an account of the way priesthood is perceived to be ‘special’. And if you get over all the hurdles and through the hoops, you are bound to feel, in some sense, ‘chosen’.
The trouble is, you can’t know what the job is like until you’re actually in it. And as Ronni identifies, this brings unique, and often unforseen, pressures. Not least is the fact that you are indeed perceived as ‘special’ but certainly not in the way that a Diocesan Director of Ordinands is looking for.
You live in a special house. In some areas this will make you a special target, for vagrants, for beggars and even for thieves. When I was in Sparkbrook during the time I best knew Gordon and Ronni, the biggest pressure I faced in my ministry was the ring of the doorbell of my enormous, isolated, expensive-to-heat and mostly 1960s glass (hence easy to break into) vicarage, signalling the presence of a vagrant looking for ‘a cup of tea and a sandwich’. When you’re in the middle of trying to prepare a sermon or do some piece of administration, this is not a welcome break.
You also wear special clothes. Or in my case, you learned only to wear special clothes in some circumstances because there are people who will zoom in on a dog-collar, hand outstretched for money. Many clergy experience the quite different reactions they get from people when they are out of or in ‘uniform’. On the plus side, I once got a free Mars Bar from a sweet counter from a woman who insisted I didn’t need to pay. On the minus side, you can be halfway through a conversation and realize the reason someone is talking to you ‘strangely’ is you do/don’t have your collar on.
You also have a special role in the community. In other words, as Ronni observes, everyone knows who you are, so that even a trip to the corner shop becomes a kind of ‘parish visit’ – to say nothing of the care you have to exercise regarding what you buy when you get there. (Remember the Adrian Mole line about the vicar buying luxury toilet paper instead of saving on the cheap stuff to give to the poor?)
As a ‘vicar’, you and your family undoubtedly live in something of a goldfish bowl. (In my case in Sparkbrook, almost literally.) And nothing can prepare you for that experience. The answer is to develop a tough skin, but this takes time and not everyone (and certainly not everyone’s spouse and children) has a natural capacity for that.
Then there is the job itself. And as Ronni identifies, this is not always a straightforward subject. For a start, just exactly what are we supposed to do?
Think, for a moment, how many churches have drawn up a vision or mission statement. Ronni even includes one in her book. Can you imagine, though, if every branch of Tesco did that? Undoubtedly Tesco has a vision, but its not up to each branch to work out what it is. In the Church of England, however, that is virtually what happens.
And when you’ve drawn up your vision statement, how do you measure your progress? The thing with general ‘pastoral’ work is that it never ends. And the more you succeed numerically, the more there is of it to do.
One of the things I experienced early in ministry (back in the 1970s), and something which comes across in Ronni’s book, is the draining effect of this lack of clarity about goals and methods. As an organization, the Church of England doesn’t really tell you what to do, and it doesn’t really tell you how to do it. Ronni’s book has a section on theological training, but you get the impression the ‘theology’ bit didn’t really count for very much. What she really felt the lack of was direction in how to cope.
Personally, I feel my own experience of parish ministry in the ’70s and ’80s would have been greatly enhanced by better theological education that was more consciously related to the outcomes of pastoral ministry. Thankfully I feel I am now in that position. But I was certainly not ready for parish life either when I left college in 1976 or when I took up my post as a priest-in-charge in 1981.
And like Ronni, I certainly experienced all the difficulties of boundaries and identity that she describes. Indeed it was a great relief, in 1983, to go into ‘sector’ ministry as a college chaplain, to live in an anonymous house like everyone else, and to be able to detach myself from the role of a clergyman. For the first six months, however, I felt I was simply rediscovering who ‘I’ was – as opposed to the persona forced on me by parish life.
Ronni’s book particularly interested me as presenting a more ‘middle of the road’ viewpoint of parish ministry. I have no proof to back this up, but it does seem to me that evangelical clergy as a whole are in a somewhat better position to deal with some of the difficulties she encountered. Ronni clearly found the structures of clergy Chapter and CMD (post-ordination training) somewhat lacking. For example, she describes the atmosphere of Chapter as ‘competitive’. I am not sure what she means by this, but it obviously wasn’t a good thing.
Evangelicals, and particularly those who belong to bodies like New Wine or Reform do, I think, have a sense of collective identity that can be helpful and a network of events that can provide meaningful input and ‘respite’. I simply do not know whether the same is true for those who would class themselves as more ‘middle of the road’ – but surely it would be helpful if the Church did some research to find out.
When you are faced by constant demands, by people who do not see the Christian life, and therefore Christian ministry, in the same terms as you, by a hierarchy that offers benign advice whilst constantly reducing the supply of staff (and expecting full payment of the quota assessment they impose on you), by social isolation and public scrutiny, and all the time trying to live out your faith and fashion the lives of “you and yours ... after the rule and doctrine of Christ, that ye may be wholesome and godly examples and patterns for the people to follow”, the surprise is not that some leave the job but that so many stay.
Yet as Ronni observes, some of those who stay do so because they have nowhere else to go. They may have kept their faith – in fact ‘loss of faith’ seems to be a rare reason for quitting – but they may certainly have run out of steam.
So I commend Ronni’s book, even though I wish it had been written differently. You may be reading this as a minister and thinking ‘that’s not me’. But it is a lot of people, and as a member of the Anglican clergy, it would be helpful for you to know that.
And if it is you, don’t feel too bad about it. Maybe you are a square peg in a round hole – there is no shame in that. One of the turning points in my life came when, sitting in the vicarage in Sparkbrook, my eye was caught by Romans 12:6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (RSV).
I had thought that God had called me to this particular job, despite many people telling me it was not a good idea, because God calls you through feelings and signs, even to do things you don’t seem cut out for. This was what happened in the books I’d read. But I was desperately unhappy and hanging on by a thread.
Suddenly I had this sense of revelation. According to the passage, you should use the gifts God had given you. So the right job would be one where you could do that. But according to what I’d learned, the right job had nothing to do with your gifts. You went where your feelings led you. Now I found myself thinking, either my view was right, or the Bible was right. And it was blindingly obvious which!
At that moment I realized that (a) I ought to find a job which matched my interests and abilities and (b) it was OK to leave.
Ronni has now found a place where she can thrive. With a bit more careful thought about Romans 12, perhaps others could do the same.
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  1. Thank you, John for such a thoughtful, compassionate and sympathetic review of Ronni's book. The issues are old friends, but I dream of and pray for a Church which has a stronger and more honest / less romantic-heroic vision of ministry as a shared realty based on giftedness expressed in community.

  2. John,
    Can you fill us in on where you went from parish ministry?

  3. Hi Mark, it's all in Crockford, but basically a long stint as Chaplain to what became the University of East London, then Associate Minister to St John's in Stratford E London, then Associate Minister to the United Benefice of Henham and Elsenham with Ugley - where I still am.

  4. OK - thanks John.
    Do I take it this was all non-stipendiary work?
    I'm not C of E (although I was baptised C of E), not even Anglican (anymore), so I'm just trying to work out how you managed this - fulfilling your sense of what your call was/is while contending with the practicalities of earning a living. I've sometimes thought of the possibilities of non-stipendiary ministry.
    Have read your blog for years, btw, and was chuffed to see you have a link to some of my research, even if it is in the "odd links" category ;o)