by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury
I tell a story against myself. When I was a young naval officer, I recall the first time the ship I served in docked in a military harbour. Keen to be acknowledged as an Officer, I recall leaving the ship on some sort of made-up errand and went looking for someone to salute me for the first time. Eventually I saw a young naval rating heading down a side road and I took a detour towards him, simply so that I could be saluted.
It’s not a particularly edifying story, but it does illuminate a concern for status and acknowledgment in my young self. The insecurities of youth, perhaps.
Well, almost. As part of my duties as one of the six Officers of the General Synod, I have the privilege in taking part in some big ecclesiastical occasions. Just occasionally, I catch myself feeling a little self-important. The big processions with their subtle hierarchies, the loud organ music telling everyone present that something important is going on, full cathedrals of expectant worshippers – it’s difficult not to be seduced into occasionally thinking it’s all about you. If I’m usually near the front of the procession (the subtle hierarchy telling me I’m not quite as important as the people behind me), pity the poor dean, bishop or archbishop at the back with all the weight of that expectation and projection.
“I have seen afresh the insanity of clericalism and of a deferential culture and how we have to struggle against that.” These were some of the most pointed remarks of Archbishop Justin, in his evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) last month. It’s difficult not to agree with him. Without naming names, some of the clergy giving evidence to that important Inquiry demonstrated from their own mouths how separate and elitist the clerical profession can become. We do well to remember the remedy offered to clericalism by Pope Francis that is the call to service and mercy. Criticising the clergy, “Clericalism”, he said, “leads to the functionalisation of the laity, treating them as ‘errand boys [or girls]’” He calls for a renewed commitment of the clergy to serving the people of God, showing mercy, helping ordinary baptised people live their faith in everyday situations. “It’s never the shepherd who tells the laity what they have to do or say in public life, they know it well or even better than us.”
Clericalism inverts the God-given order of the baptismal covenant. Through it the People of God come to think their job is to support the clergy doing the work of God, rather than the clergy enabling the whole church to fulfill its baptismal calling.
But there is another side to the coin. The obverse side is the way in which the people of God treat the clergy in a way that only feeds into such unhealthy clericalism (I have a personal dislike for the word ‘laity’, for which see the provocatively-titled R. Paul Stephens’ The Abolition of the Laity). Whatever the source of clericalism, its presence is not confined to the clergy. The unnamed ‘elders’ of 1 Samuel 8 press the prophet Samuel, “give us a king to govern us.” Despite the warnings of the Lord against such a course of action – “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day” – the elders press for a king. The parallel is not exact but the effect is strikingly similar. Just as the Lord warns the elders of the dangers of kingship, so today we have become urgently aware of the impediment to mission that comes when a call to service becomes a caste with clerical status. Even those whose ecclesial tradition sit light to concepts of ‘priesthood’ can easily create an equally deferential culture around the role of the ‘leader’. The cult of the leader is clericalism’s bastard child.
I was touched by an email I received from a member of my PCC the other day, in the context of a disagreement between us. Having set out her stall to me about why she thought I was wrong, she sent a second email saying, “Simon, do you have any idea how wonderfully rewarding and refreshing it is to be able to have a genuine conversation with clergy (you!) who doesn’t consider me as automatically lesser or second-rate just because I don’t have a Revd title.” Having told a story against myself at the beginning, permit me this little moment of gratitude. I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that I treat everyone quite as well as she feels I do her. But I work on it as a priority in ministerial development.
But I take no ease on this matter. I’m currently chairing a national working group on clergy well-being and we can see the danger that clericalism is not just to the church but to the minister herself. If IICSA can do something life-giving for the church (as well, naturally, to the survivor), it will be to remind us that one of the fruits of our repentance from the sins of child abuse and institutional failure, one of the gifts of the ‘world’ to the church will be to challenge us to deal with the cult of the cleric and the culture of deference. This is an urgent task for the whole church.
How can you play your part?