… it is true, and not just cynicism, that an automated priest with a perpetual grin on his face, everlastingly wandering around the parish and automatically “mouthing” what would be only quite a small repertoire of platitudes, would meet the vast majority of needs.
Nick Stacey, Who Cares, (1971)

By the beginning of the 1960s with the publication of the Paul Report1, it had become clear that the stresses and strains of ministry were beginning to have an unendurable effect on the clergy of the Church of England. Part of Paul’s examination of the state of the Church was the first serious, statistically valid, polling of the activities and morale of its clergy. Almost 1,000 questionnaires were processed in the summer of 1962 to become the statistical groundwork of Paul’s recommendations. Thirty two questions were asked, ranging from the simple, numerical (Easter communicants, full time staff and so on), to the complex, attitudinal (“Are you able to secure a period of relaxation each day?”, “Do you have too little to do?”)2. Paul allowed space for the clergy to elaborate on these questions if they wished, and he reproduced some of their comments in the body of his report. They make heart-breaking reading, even after forty five years. Example 30: A town incumbent, who believes his to be a “glorious parish”:

‘The parish will quite literally kill me one day and I am quite prepared for this… am in a chronic state of perspiration (so people will not approach me) and am so desperately tired… Oh how desperately I need a holiday, or if not that, just a bit of interest on the part of anyone in the utterly impossible task with which I am confronted.’3

Again, a town incumbent (Example 33):

‘The time sheet shows an average week of 70 hours. When special events come round such as Lent, Christmas, Harvest, Confirmation, etc., this has to be stepped up to 80/90. It is not that one is unwilling to work these long hours, as the whole of one’s life is dedicated, but the effect is disastrous. One feels a sense of being held fast in a machine that grinds endlessly on. Hobbies are impossible. Family life is neglected and worse still one becomes uninteresting and dull to other people. This feeling is made worse here by this unhappy parish. As my predecessor has said, he “never knew what the crucifixion really meant until he came to Y…”’4

And, to show that overwork is not the only cause of poor morale, Paul took into consideration those who felt themselves to be under-worked:

‘It is questionable whether it is right to have a resident incumbent in many of these places. A man can easily lose heart when Sunday after Sunday he is ministering to less than six people at any one service…’

‘… after you are instituted they leave you alone… A small living is a pleasant enough life if you are content to simply plod on and minister to the needs of your flock, and spend the rest of your life in the garden or reading. However, if you are young and active— after a few years in such a parish you realise that there is really little else you can do and you begin to chafe at the bit. The problem then arrives, what are you to do? The only thing you can do is to see your bishop, and tell him that you would like to move so that you will not stagnate. He simply promises to bear your case in mind, and there the matter rests.’5

When I was first ordained I had a burning desire to rectify the Church of England. When friends (materialist lawyers and accountants all) asked me why I wanted to be ordained, I said that it was too important a job to be left to the people who were already doing it (honestly!). I saw the elderly and the retired priests in my title parish, and, being the Cotswolds, there were a lot of them, and I thought to myself, “You are the ones. It was on your watch that the ship sailed into the rocks. It was while you were sat on the committees and synods and councils that the Church of England drifted and failed. What have you to teach me?” Many years on from then, and looking at the books and journals and newspapers of the early 1960s, when the elderly and retired priests were as young and fired up as I was, I can see how they wrestled with the same problems I saw facing me and my time. I even recognised some of their names in the radical journals of the day. And I realised that it was not the men, it was the structures that stagnated and stifled all that talent and energy. Some even recognised the distinction between people and structures at the time. Michael Hare Duke, later to be Bishop of St Andrews, wrote in Prism in November 1964:

The present structure of the Church of England allows no way out of this intolerable situation. Hence the many pleas for administrative reforms; for groups of priests to work together, for a “rediscovery” of the role of the laity. However, it is not simply the machinery which must be changed. The pattern is deeply embedded in our whole theology of the ministry, which takes for granted a hierarchical, almost paternalist, pattern.6

Since Paul’s survey an immense amount of work has been done on the structure of the Church of England: most of his sixty two recommendations have been put into place, with the greatest and most intractable, the replacement of the freehold, with a leasehold (in Paul’s words) or Common Tenure (in General Synod’s words), grinding its way through General Synod as I write. One would think then, with the healing of the structural iniquities of the Church of England, the burdens of isolation and marginality so vividly described by Paul would have also healed. Not so, for as we saw throughout the previous chapter, the stresses and strains upon the clergy are not just the result of badly organized working conditions (although these persist). The clergy are in a bad way because of deeper, more existential problems. As it was put so vividly to me on a chapter retreat, “Even if I clear all the paperwork from my desk, there are still five thousand people out there who need visiting.”

The depth of the problem can be seen in two works of pastoral psychology of recent years; The Cracked Pot (2002)7 by Yvonne Warren and a chapter, ‘On the analyst’s couch’ by Sara Savage in The Future of the Parish System (2006)8. Both works are based upon practitioner’s experience: in Warren’s case, the result of a survey she undertook of a representative sample of clergy in two dioceses in the Church of England between 1996 and 2000; Savage is Senior Researcher in the Psychology and Religion Research Programme at Cambridge University. These women know what they are talking about.

Both acknowledge and celebrate the great benefits found in the parish system of the Church of England. Clergy consistently report high job satisfaction in comparison with other professions, occupations or trades, and Savage and Warren celebrate this in the lives of the clergy they meet. Savage in particular recognises that the parish as a human institution has much to commend it by developing healthy social and psychological processes: the parish church as a building is a landmark ‘owned’ by all in a neighbourhood; occasional offices are an opportunity for outreach and service; the normative, low-key, Anglican church culture is in tune with the mood of a “privacy-loving culture”, allowing introverts the protection to be part of a larger body; the system of church governance in the Church of England minimises instances of pastoral, sexual or religious abuse; even the Church’s breadth of theological opinion and praxis is a strength, speaking of “a diverse, organic and supple community”9.

However, she also recognises that each one of her six social/psychological strengths also comes with an underside, and that “the burdensome costs of the positive features are borne mainly by the clergy”. Thus, a sacred landmark for all the people in a locality can spill over into a vicarious religion: “My parish church (or my vicar) will do my religion for me”. Not for nothing are clergy universally referred to as “vicars”. The sense of connection to a building can be very focussed, with an inability to see beyond the bricks and mortar of a particular place, and the sense of ownership can go back generations, without any apparent intermediary connection between parishioner and church10. Even the gathered churches, to which people may travel many miles to attend, are not immune from a form of this ownership. In the gathered churches, noted for great children’s work, or a particular worship style, or a particularly gifted preacher and so on), the sense of ownership attaches to the “stream” represented by the church community: “If another church nearby (perhaps of a different denomination) is seen as a better exemplar of the ‘stream’, then church hopping readily occurs… members demand much from their church involvement and, as consumers, will go elsewhere if their desire for a transformed personal life and a caring community go unmet.”11 We have seen an example of this in Skye Jethani’s experiences.

The ‘fuzzy boundaries’ of most church communities within the Church of England allow for the timid and the uncertain to “taste and see” without feeling overwhelmed by doctrinal or practical commitments. But the same fuzzy boundaries also allow the previously committed to slip away, through physical removal to another home, or emotional removal following a life milestone, such as a serious illness or a death in the family.

Church communities also share, inevitably, in the behavioural and value norms of the society in which they are to be found. What appears to be the ethos of a community at worship (discipleship, service, spiritual pilgrimage), can very quickly, after the service is over and the coffee is served, fall into “traditional British cultural norms”. For anyone who takes the ethos of worship at its plain value will find this ‘culture-switch’ difficult to take: “the more innovative or religiously intense parishioners often give up and go elsewhere. Within the soft embrace of an acquiescing majority, a great deal of social loafing can occur.”12 It is the responsibility of the clergy, sometimes explicitly stated, more often implicitly realised, to prevent this sinking into an unthinking replication of the values of a wider society.

And so on. Savage very properly pays tribute to the positives of the parish community, and very realistically acknowledges that the heavy cost of maintaining this open generosity often falls upon the clergy. But the parish as a community also has its out and out negative aspects. Here we enter the inner sanctums of what I call the Cult of Nice.

Savage enumerates seven factors at work in the Cult of Nice. First, the Church remains, at its core, a Hierarchical society, with layers of social accumulation and historical resonances. A hierarchy is a set of rules allocating people to fixed roles; but no set of rules is flexible enough to encompass the full range of peoples’ abilities and needs, and so people learn to ‘play’ the hierarchy in order to accommodate these needs. This ‘playing’ is expressed by “status seeking, fawning, bullying, passivity, blaming others, fearing criticism and gossiping”13. There is, then, a gap between a worldly culture in which identity and status are mutable, contingent upon choice and wealth, and a church in which the “Body of Christ” metaphor applies fixity to who we are and where we are allowed to be. Across the gap are straddled the clergy, themselves players in the game of subverting hierarchy (for they too are formed in the milieu of “portfolio identities”), but also umpires of the old rules. Occasionally the Church attempts to wriggle itself out of the hierarchical model, but with very little success. Two examples: a senior priest I once worked for was completely convinced by the need to develop collaborative forms of ministry, within the large clergy team of the parish, and between clergy and laity. He was so convinced of this, that when I (always mischievously) introduced him as “my boss”, he would object “No! No! We’re colleagues.” One day we were both to attend a meeting exploring the possibility of a new chaplaincy with a secular organization. My boss/colleague was late for the meeting, and when he arrived I introduced him to the others as “my colleague”. “Hallo,” he smoothly added, “I’m the Vicar of Y; Justin is my colleague”. There was just the faintest emphasis on the possessive. Collegiality in a hierarchical organization is an irregularly declining verb: “I am the Bishop of X; you are the Vicar of Y; he is our colleague.”

The second example: there is a fashion now, following the example set by the Archbishop of York, for the liturgical ceremony marking the arrival of a new bishop into a diocese to be called an “inauguration”14, rather than an “enthronement”. But no amount of insisting on this use will remove the echo of “enthronement” from peoples’ memories. Just as Towler and Coxon said, in relation to a distinctive clergy dress (link), to discard an enthronement evades the problem posed by a hierarchical church, it doesn’t address it.

This is not a new phenomenon. One of Paul’s correspondents said:

… let the bishop be the bishop. Let the reorganization, or whatever it is that the present move is seeking, be a setting free of the bishops from all the numerous committees, financial bodies, and supervisory administrative duties that at present make it quite impossible for them to be Fathers-in-God to their clergy.15

Warren’s survey of her clergy’s relationship with their bishops shows this anxiety, even more deeply wrapped in psychological maladaption. Again and again for her interviewees the role of the bishop was seen as a father figure, not just Father-in-God, but father-in-psyche. Bishops were absent fathers, to men who had experienced absent fathers as children. Because of this transference of childhood needs into adult relationships, guilt was a major motivating factor in most of her respondents’ lives:

Guilt is often a major preoccupation for clergy. They feel that they have ‘let God down’, and others also, and that they can ‘never get it right’ or do enough.16

Sometimes, a priest’s childhood was filled with an inadequate father, and Warren reports the adult priest being as a result “sad, hurting man”. One priest experienced his bishop as a judgmental father; the pastoral relationship was complicated by the fact that he was twice divorced, and anything other than unalloyed approval would have appeared to him as a rejecting judgement. Often there appeared to be a dynamic of rebelling against an authoritarian parent:

Though some of the clergy described themselves as rebels, none of those interviewed appeared to act adversely against the authority of the bishop or the Church. Some were quite vocal in voicing dissent from their bishop’s pronouncements but without engaging directly in anarchy. All appeared to value and need the parameters the Church sets, and also to advocate such a stance within their own parishes.17
I think this is a very trusting interpretation of the priests’ attitudes and actions. Martyn Percy has a more realistic analysis of rebellion, following the work of James C. Scott. In the face of perceived authoritarian or distant structures, then petty acts of resistance become a “hidden transcript”, or a message, showing the impossibility of the situation:

Small acts of resistance may begin to accumulate and occur when clergy feel that they are no longer themselves; that they have become ‘lost’ in the expectations, demands, projections, desires and routines of others. There may never need to be a decisive moment when this point has been reached— the Rubicon crossed, as it were. It is more like the steady accumulation of snowflakes; eventually, something gives.18

Allowing “something to give”, taking pastoral risks in other words, is a whole extra factor in the Cult of Nice (see below).

Percy adds a useful viewpoint on the functioning of bishops from the position of the exercise of power19. There are three modes in which a bishop may exercise the power that he has, or is perceived to have. First, power may be Monarchical, in which the bishop operates either by divine diktat or aloofness. This is not an abrogation of power, although it might feel like it (“why do we never get a direction from him?”), but rather is the exercise of power through not exercising it. Like the Queen, whose constitutional authority is mostly expressed in its potential rather than its actual exercise, a monarchical bishop’s power is not entangled in the divisive or the contentious. It is a form of traditional authority, in which the office not the person is the locus of power. Second, power may be Executive, through which the bishop acts as a hands-on manager, making key strategic decisions, and operating within a model derived from business or education. This is a form of rationalized authority, and its characteristics are reviews, mission statements and strategic appraisals. It is a curious fact that this mode, seemingly the norm today, did not exist before the 1970s. It requires a secretariat, and until the late 1960s, “a diocesan office was often not much more than an archdeacon with a typewriter, the Bishop’s chaplain and a legal secretary.”20 Third, power is Distributive, in which the main expression is through facilitation, relating one part of organization to another. In this model power becomes “enabling capacities and its generative reticulation (i.e. the energy derived from and through networking, making connections, etc.)”21. It is a form of charismatic authority, in which the ability to make this reticulation depends upon the gifts and personality of the individual, and not just the position he may hold. We shall come across this idea again, in a slightly different form, in a later post.

The social jostling that comes in managing a hierarchical society is managed in the Church of England by a liberal dose of Niceness. Giles Fraser, with his usual penchant for rhetorical flourish characterised its clerical manifestation in this way:

There was a time when the country vicar was a staple of the English dramatis personae. This tea-drinking, gentle eccentric, with his polished shoes and kindly manners, represented a type of religion that didn’t make nonreligious people uncomfortable. He wouldn’t break into an existential sweat or press you against a wall to ask if you were saved, still less launch crusades from the pulpit or plant roadside bombs in the name of some higher power.22

So niceness is not a new thing: Nicolas Stacey had diagnosed the pernicious influence of the Cult of Nice, as we saw in the quotation at the head of this chapter. His image of the grinning, inane automaton of a parson is a haunting one, especially to any minister who has gone round the supermarket smiling at all the other shoppers so as not to offend an unfamiliar parishioner (“I saw that vicar who took Dad’s funeral last year in Asda, and do you know, he cut me dead! That’s the last time I’m going to his church!”— until the day they are brought into church in the box themselves). Clergy are expected to be nice; it “softens the impact of hierarchy, while preserving it.”23 Niceness is the way to manage volunteers, and especially volunteers mostly made up of the retired or those at home with children. For niceness attempts to take the sting out of disagreement, and remove the possibility of conflict. Niceness oils the cranking mechanisms of hierarchy in a non-hierarchical society. Niceness allows the validity of everybody’s opinion and everybody’s behaviour. There is no opinion too obtuse or behaviour too outrageous that cannot be comprehended with a good degree of niceness. If we could all sit down with a nice cup of tea, I am sure that we could sort this out.

It doesn’t always work. The Church Times hit an unexpected raw nerve in 2005 when it asked for examples of rudeness in church life. The editor was swamped by the response: the curate told by a member of the congregation “Don’t you start talking about Jesus to me in here!”; the vicar told off for encouraging new families to attend; worshippers tipped out from pews because the place “belonged” to someone else, children told to “shut up!”. The collected incivilities were published under the heading “Going to church? Wear your thickest skin”24.

Every parish priest can testify to similar experiences, where the conventions of niceness and gentle irreligion don’t actually manage the cracks in the social/psychological ecology of the parish. In my first parish I was told of a woman who hadn’t been to church for thirty years because she fell out with the curate over the flower rota; I was once criticised for my grammar in the announcements at the beginning of the eucharist (“I am so disappointed with you; I thought you were an educated man”). A woman once returned a parish mailing with a refusal to read it as she had been ill for a month and the parish priest hadn’t been to visit her: she was a twice-yearly worshipper in church, and hadn’t, as far as I could tell, missed one of her visits.

Church life is, as we all know, on one level, the life of a voluntary organization. Voluntary organizations are made up, unsurprisingly, by volunteers, who, by definition, don’t need to be there. Volunteers only remain associated with an organization for two reasons: first, they perceive a need in themselves which can be fulfilled by what the organization offers; and two, if they feel themselves to be needed by the organization, and that need is sufficiently clearly expressed. Churches do things, and doing things involves procedures, and as most of the things churches do are to do with people rather than, say, mechanics, there will always be more than one way of doing the things that need to be done. More than one way will lead to more than one opinion of how to do things. In the past, differences of opinion were settled by the hierarchical power attributed to the clergy: “Father knows best”. That cannot be used today, and even if you work in a parish where “Father knows best” is traditional, it still cannot be used. For it is now, in our time and culture, the nuclear option, with a difference. It doesn’t work. Even if Father says what will happen, people will still behave just as if Father said nothing at all: fuzzy boundaries, loss of deference and subversion of hierarchies apply to parishes High and Low alike.

Of course, differences of opinion need to be managed, and most parishes, according to Savage and Warren, manage them badly by Conflict. There are relatively few parishes in which toe-to-toe stand-up rows are the norm. We know this to be so because every single instance of these conflicts is reported in local, national and church press (usually with a headline including “unholy row”). However, just because open warfare is relatively rare in our churches doesn’t mean that conflict by other means is not being waged. Here though, it is indirect conflict, a general, low-grade, grumbling hostility. Gossip (and the intercessions!) tend to be the forums of choice for the laity, the parish newsletter (and the pulpit) for the clergy. We have all been in churches, have we not, where the sermon has argued for one particular policy for the church, national or local, and the intercessions have immediately contradicted it, with only the Creed in between acting as peace keeper.

Warren’s interviews convince her that conflict is the dominating social and psychological mode of discourse for clergy today, and this discourse is both external and internal25. The expression of external conflicts are mainly descriptive of the sorts of areas we have already seen in the changing status of clergy and the Church. Warren’s interviewees find themselves in conflict with a society which has very little interest in the Gospel which they are charged to proclaim. Their working lives are not understood by people inside or outside the Church (explaining for the umpteenth time that ‘working one day a week’ is a joke and not a job description). In her interviews, any residual status of clergy as the ‘professional’ person was no longer borne out by the laity’s behaviour: “the anecdotal expectations of the laity have appeared to rise in proportion to the decline in church attendance”26. There was an experienced confusion of roles between those to whom the parish clergy are accountable and who also offer pastoral oversight: this dissonance will presumably have deepened since the passing of the Clergy Discipline Measure in 2003 (in force since 2006), when it is now explicitly stated that the bishop who is your ‘Father-in-God’ will also be the man who judges any complaint made against you. Balancing the demands of parish and family life were no longer tolerable, especially through living in tied accommodation, when the parsonage house is either much larger, or much less well appointed than others in the parish. Residual expectations still run high, and even if there isn’t a tradition of “open house” at the parsonage, there will be a tradition of “neighbourhood watch” upon the comings and goings.

There is another factor in the Parsonage house which Warren’s study didn’t touch upon. As a tied house it represents a benefit of the parson’s employment (and is certainly counted as such in all the calculations of parish share, diocesan quota and Church Commissioners’ reimbursements), and yet it is a benefit that only accrues in the living in of it. The parson and his family have no access to the capital that it represents. I don’t mean that the parson should be able to sell the parsonage, although, in recent years of pension scandals and stock market under-performing, more and more people outside church employment use property as a means of saving for the future. Rather, most banks offer extremely cheap loans secured against property ownership: one can borrow money against the value of your house in order to improve the house, or pay for a holiday or a car loan, or even simply to pay off debts. As long as the mortgage is long enough, and property prices continue to appreciate, the cost of the loan is almost as small as it could possibly be. Try borrowing using an unsecured loan: interest rates are up in the dizzy heights of credit card APRs. In Canterbury a number of socially concerned and thoughtful people decided to set up a Credit Union. The instigator came to speak to a fellowship meeting of my church: he used as an example of need the fact that some people had to take unsecured loans at exorbitant interest rates. Everyone agreed that this was unacceptable; everyone in the meeting owned at least one property— everyone except the Rector, who had just finished paying off an unsecured loan at an exorbitant interest rate. As a benefit in kind, in a society in which owning property is both a means to save and means to an income, the benefice house is no such thing.

But this all comes under Warren’s external conflicts heading. There are also internal conflicts: the plea at the Chapter retreat is a common one; parish ministry, by definition, is impossible to complete. (Is this why so many clergy throw themselves into building projects? Here is something concrete, measurable, that will leave a lasting effect (for good or ill!) within the parish, and everyone can see when it has been completed). There is the psychological dissonance that comes from preaching upon and modelling the life laid out in 1 Timothy (be “above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher” 1 Tim 3.2) and yet dealing with inner frailties, and a set of disciplines (prayer, study, spiritual direction, confession) which potentially provide a piteously honest examination of those frailties. The priest is also a representative of a belief system that builds upon a transcendent, supernaturalist, understanding of the world and human society: is it possible to maintain an intellectual and pastoral honesty for the sake of others if dealing with doubts of one’s own?

The turmoil of the 1990s over the ordination of the women to the priesthood raised questions of gender identity and authority. Some of Warren’s respondents were bitter disappointed by the ordination of women, and felt the decision of the Church to be a keenly felt wound to their understanding of the priesthood (in abstract) and their own priesthood (in particular). Perhaps the strength of opinions expressed was a product of the time in which Warren undertook her research, and ten years on, matters have settled. Perhaps.

The management of conflict is of such importance to church life that we need to devote a whole chapter to it below. In the meantime, let us agree with Sara Savage when she says that too often people within church communities do not wish to admit to conflict, for in the building of a Christian community it is seen as a failure. During a free and frank exchange of views in a PCC meeting you can rely on at least one voice to say wistfully, “Look how these Christians love each other”, thinking that they are quoting Scripture27. It is as if conflict, or even disagreement, is never permitted in the Christian fellowship, by the very nature of that fellowship. Therefore, we tell ourselves, because we are not susceptible to conflict, we need do very little to learn from conflict. And yet “conflict is a growth point; it is a rare arena in which religious people are forced to relate honestly to one another.”28

Of course, not all conflict is the result of well thought-through opinions, honestly held. Some conflict in church (most?) is the result of Difficult People. Now, one man’s difficult person might be another man’s projection. Even so, Savage tells us that a small proportion of the general population fall within a range of psychological disorders, which “while not psychotic (in other words, they are in touch with reality) have developed inflexible, maladaptive personalities with a striking inability to reflect on their own need for change”.29 If this is true of the population as a whole, then how much more so must it be for the church community, a society which explicitly welcomes the marginalised and the misfit, and allows opportunities for all kinds of volunteering. Managing such maladaptive personalities requires anything but niceness: “‘Form a real relationship with them, and then sit on them’”!30

Even those who are not clinically maladaptive may display other, unappealing, social pathologies: Vanity and a tendency to Disunity. Vanity finds its expression in “taking a stand” on points of theological principle. This is a good camouflage: “I am not behaving this way through self-aggrandisement. I am behaving this way because I am a principled and honest broker of a particular (the correct!) theological understanding of the problem.” As Savage says: “Leaders, at all levels in the hierarchy, may seek to advance their own theological orientation in such a way as to disadvantage others. Clergy intuit this, and feel they have to fight their corner”31. Occasionally, cultural differences may intervene, to cause misunderstandings in the expression of vanity. On Christmas Day 2006 an interview with the Rt Revd. Peter Akinola was published in the New York Times, during the course of which Akinola denied that his actions in the Anglican Communion were the result of vanity: “Self-seeking, self-glory, that is not me… No. Many people say I embarrass them with my humility.”32 Let us assume that the genuine modesty in that statement was lost in translation.

Sometime the translation is lost not between people, but within a person. In other words, we are all subject to Unconscious Processes, as a result of our birth, upbringing, moral choices and development. These processes include our understanding of God and His community, a “God image”, which then acts as a lens through which our relationships with God’s representatives, other Christians in general and clergy in particular, are refracted:

It is normal that God’s ‘representatives’, the clergy, evoke strong feelings, and that emotions from significant past relationships are transferred on to them. This process of transference may be signalled by inordinate love towards the minister, or, if failing to comply with a person’s particular God image, inordinate hate.33

The same unconscious processes are also acting upon the clergy, but with an added burden of living up to serious expectations. The Ordinal makes this explicit in the introduction to the ordination of priests:

Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well-being. They are to set the example of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling.34

We can see concrete examples of this pressure to conform in Warren’s research. Between 1996 and 2000 she wrote to a representative sample of 347 clergy in two dioceses, one in the northern and one in the southern province, inviting them to participate in a study no more explicit than “the way clergy live today and the problems confronting them.” She received a 76% response, very high for this sort of exercise, of whom 170 willing to participate. She eventually interviewed sixty priests. The interviews make disturbing reading. The occasional happy, integrated personality is so rare as to be remarked upon. Some clergy are obviously in the throes of a deep neurotic breakdown; their answers are monosyllabic, or stereotyped, their engagement with anybody outside their own heads limited. Of course, some of this is predicated, it seems to me, by the nature of the exercise. If you feel neglected, isolated and bowed down, and someone writes to you to elicit your opinions on the problems facing the church today, then you are very likely to agree to co-operate. If you are busy, and happy in your business, then you are unlikely to see the need to participate. Petitioners to Parliament very rarely demand that things should stay the same! As Warren records of one of her respondents: “one reason for his desire to take part in this research was a wish to communicate his feelings of hurt to the Church”.35 Leslie Paul saw something of this self-selecting phenomenon, when he recorded one reply to his questionnaire concluding with: “I’m thrilled to be one of those chosen to send in a reply”.36

Even so, the majority of Warren’s respondents seemed to her to have been ordained so as to deal with brokenness in their lives: the Church was seen, unconsciously in most cases, consciously in some, as a refuge, an alternative family, or the means to social mobility. This is not a healthy body of people.

A combination of unconscious processes and an externally imposed, but never conclusively defined, conformity, leads the clergy always being on best behaviour, and ultimately to an “erosion of the freedom to be an authentic self”37. The individual priest, who may already be dealing with the other negative social/psychological aspects of parish life, begins to substitute a “religious performance” for an integrated performance of his personality. He begins to operate with such erroneous beliefs as “I must be successful in everything I do. Everyone must accept me. Everyone must love me. If I make a mistake I am a total failure. If I disagree with someone they won’t like me. My value as a person depends on how other people view me.”38

This is the Litany of the Cult of Nice.

So, we can see, in Savage and Warren, a real dichotomy between external and internal conflict, public and private discourse, conventional niceness and unconscious processes. These splits are difficult for Warren’s clergy to manage. She sums it up thus:

Being a priest is internal. It is how the clergy feel about themselves, which is expressed in their priestly persona. However, being a vicar/rector is public. It is to do with how others see them, and more than that, it affects others as well — community, congregation, and the wider Church. It is often not possible to hide feelings of fragility or incompetence.39

Clergy cannot find affirmation in completing the task, because the task of the Good Shepherd can never be completed. Good relationships with the hierarchy are hard to make and keep when the role of pastor, manager and judge are confused, and we live in a society which has broadly rejected hierarchy. Clergy spend a disproportionate amount of time with people who exhibit border-line sociopathic attitudes and behaviour. If all these things are true, then is it any wonder that some clergy find themselves taking foolish Risks in Their Pastoral Ministry?

Losing objectivity, a sense of appropriate pastoral boundaries, or even the boundaries of personality between pastor and person cared for, has been called “pastoral lust”40. The giving and receiving involved in a pastoral relationship becomes imbalanced, and the pastor’s need for affirmation, to be needed, disguised as a virtuous sacrificial giving, becomes the drive behind the relationship. Savage reports a survey which found 37% of clergy in the United States admitted to inappropriate sexual involvement in a ministerial role41: this is three to four times more than other caring professions. Why?

There must be some kind of answer in the extent of the psychological brokenness in her respondents’ childhoods uncovered by Warren. The deprived child finds expression in the inherited emotional deprivation of the adult priest. The clergy described to her, wittingly or unwittingly, many different ways in which they sought affirmation through their pastoral relationships, although all affirmed that they would be aware of an absolute boundary that must not be crossed.

Deliberate risk taking in ministry has been identified by Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger, as one of the main contributing causes to clergy leaving full time ministry. One the ministers they interviewed for their study of Pastors in Transition mused “I have often wondered if having an affair isn’t a sick way of relieving the stress, that to shoot yourself in the foot is the only way to get out of a terribly stressful pastoral situation you’re in. It’s ‘I can’t handle this, but I can’t say, let me out.’”42

Sick ways of relieving stress are matched by sick ways of experiencing stress. This is called ‘burnout’, and it is such an important factor in clergy life today that we need to look at it in detail in our next post.

I am grateful to Dr Mark Chapman, Dr Robert Jeffrey and Mr Nick Stacey for their comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


  1. see note on this post []
  2. Leslie Paul, The Deployment and Payment of the Clergy : A Report, (Westminster: Church Information Office for the Central Advisory Council for the Ministry, 1964) pp. 228–230. []
  3. Paul, Deployment, p. 72. []
  4. Paul, Deployment, p. 72.-73. []
  5. Paul, Deployment, p. 86, 87. []
  6. Michael Hare Duke, ‘Psychological implications of the Paul Report’, Prism, No. 91, November 1964, pp. 28-29. []
  7. Yvonne Warren, The cracked pot: the state of today’s Anglican parish clergy (Stowmarket: Kevin Mayhew, 2002). []
  8. Sara Savage, ‘On the analyst’s couch: Psychological perspectives on congregations and clergy’, in Stephen Croft (ed.), The future of the parish system: shaping the Church of England for the twenty-first century, (London: Church House Publishing, 2006). []
  9. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 17. []
  10. When the Church of England eventually gives permission for the reuse of closed churchyards, we will see this ownership springing to life again, like the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus: “How dare you reuse the grave of my great-great-great-Uncle Bert!” []
  11. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 18. []
  12. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 19. []
  13. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 22. []
  14. Curiously for a Christian ceremony, the word ‘inauguration’ comes from the Latin, inaugurare, to take omens from the flight of birds. Are we to see the bishops’ inaugurations as a flock of pigeons? (Insert your own joke here). []
  15. Paul, Deployment, p. 86f. []
  16. Warren, Cracked pot, p. 54 []
  17. Warren, Cracked pot, p. 57. []
  18. Martyn Percy, Clergy: The Origin of the Species, (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 166 []
  19. Percy, Origin of the Species, pp. 114ff []
  20. Robert Jeffery, ‘Self Understandings of the Church Today’, unpublished lecture delivered at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, 8 March 2007. []
  21. Percy, Origin of the Species, p. 115. []
  22. Giles Fraser, ‘Resurgent religion has done away with the country vicar’, The Guardian, 13 April 2006, p. 33. []
  23. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 22. []
  24. The Church Times, 6 January, 2006 []
  25. Warren, Cracked pot, pp. 205ff. []
  26. Warren, Cracked pot, p. 206. []
  27. It is actually Tertullian, who isn’t famous for avoiding all disagreements (Apologeticus ch. 39, sect. 7). []
  28. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 24. []
  29. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 25. []
  30. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 25. []
  31. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 25f. []
  32. Lydia Polgreen and Laurie Goodstein, ‘At Axis of Episcopal Split, an Anti-Gay Nigerian’, The New York Times, 25 December 2006, Section A, p. 1. []
  33. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 26. []
  34. ‘The Ordination of Priests, also called Presbyters’, Common Worship: Ordination Services (Study Edition), (London: Church House Publishing, 2007), p. 32. []
  35. Warren, Cracked pot, p. 44 []
  36. Paul, Deployment, p. 86. []
  37. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 27. []
  38. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 27. []
  39. Warren, Cracked pot, p. 154f []
  40. A Time to Heal: A Report for the House of Bishops on the Healing Ministry (London: Church House Publishing, 2000), p. 148. []
  41. Savage, ‘Analyst’s couch’, p. 28. []
  42. Dean R. Hoge & Jacqueline E. Wenger, Pastors in transition: why clergy leave local church ministry, (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, c2005), p. 130. []