A (clergy) friend of mine went for a job interview not too long ago. He didn’t get the job, but, being a fearless sort of person and always wanting to improve himself, he asked for a debrief. “Why,” he asked the bishop, “did I not get the job?”. There was much humming and hawing, but eventually he was told by the bishop that the parish and its representatives had felt threatened by my friend’s doctorate. It was thought that he would be too intellectual for the parish1. My friend was philosophical: “after all,” he said, “we wouldn’t want our parish clergy to be clever!”
This is, unhappily, not a new phenomenon in the church. What would you make of this:
The Church as it is today is tied to the two social strata of the middle-class bourgeoisie and the peasants, and this is true even of its dogmatics and ethics. I myself belong neither to the bourgeoisie nor to the country folk, but to the intellectual world, which does not go to church, and is undenominational out of necessity… I belong to a world different from my congregation’s, and different from what it can ever be; for the world to which and from which I speak does not go to church… For an intellectual minister the only alternative is either to renounce his former world or to leave the ministry, unless he can become a university professor.
Preaching is, after all, a dialogue. But a dialogue between an intellectual and a bourgeois or peasant is no longer possible. The two no longer understand each other. As an intellectual priest I am condemned to a tragic solitude.2
That was a letter from Richard Widman, a Lutheran pastor in rural Württemberg to his younger friend and colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That was the situation in 1926!
Have things changed or improved subsequently? Are things better in the Church of England in the twenty-first century? No, not really. Not so long as the Archbishop of Canterbury is mocked for delivering theological lectures to audiences of theologians or jurisprudence lectures to audiences of lawyers. Not so long as the threshold for local ministry training schemes seems to be set at the lowest possible level, in order that no-one who offers themselves for ministry might be turned away for lack of intellectual aptitude. Not so long as the mark of authenticity is the status of victim and how strongly we feel about a subject.
Long ago Alasdair MacIntyre finished his pessimistic survey of the collapse of the western moral enterprise with this watchman’s exhortation:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us… We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another— doubtless very different— St Benedict.3
Looking at the way the place of the intellect and the intellectual is treated in today’s church, I wonder if we shouldn’t be waiting for another— doubtless very different— St Dominic.
(More of which, as they say, anon.)
- and this, it must be said, was for a market town in the home counties. We’re not talking about a sink estate in the north where the average school leaving age is 12. [↩]
- Letter from Richard Widmann to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 13 March 1926, quoted in Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer theologian, Christian, contemporary, E. Robertson, ed., (London: Collins, 1970), pp. 65-66). [↩]
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1985), p. 263. [↩]