Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Ministry

Excerpted from a lecture on "The Future of Ministry" given at St George's Cathedral, Perth, on May 12 2009.

In his recent book on The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton reminds us that attitudes to the relationship between paid work and the good life have rarely mirrored those of the modern West. Although work has been necessary to every society, we are almost unique in regarding it as something more than a necessary evil. Our forebears, including the ancient Christians among whom the patterns of ordained ministry emerged, had ideas quite different from our own; and it should not therefore be as difficult as we presently seem to be making it to reform the relationship between ordination and work.

The experience of the real George Herbert, as opposed to the "Jacobean Angel" revealed and critiqued by Justin Lewis-Anthony’s work on "Herbertism", reminds us how different the clerical estate could be, even in early modern England, from our expectations. Herbert was "inducted" into a number of “livings” as an absentee before his final few years of dedicated presence at Bemerton. This system, the “parson’s freehold”, is not so far away from our own experience, but was not strictly speaking work in the modern professional sense. The income of the parish was provided to the incumbent and was certainly intended to ensure that pastoral ministry was offered, but in quite the opposite way from what we assume. By receiving it, the cleric was freed from work, not bound to it. The exercise of ministry was understood to be a form of free dedication to the needs of the parish.

This insight may help us redeem Herbert’s example as a pastor, but more importantly offer a new range of possibilities for contemporary ministry. George Herbert's example stands or falls not on it being the way any cleric should behave, but on how a Christian of extraordinary virtue did behave, given the freedom to do so. Our admiration for him is deserved, but more on the terms that our admiration for Mother Teresa or Ita Ford or Charles de Foucauld might be earned. "Herbertism", when practiced freely rather than as a wage contract, might be drudgery divine indeed.

We must now be willing to rethink the deeply entrenched conviction that the ordained are “professional” ministers, and vice versa. There is of course a venerable and even profound spirituality of ordained priesthood in particular which, perhaps with a dash of "Herbertism", asserts the complete dedication of the priest to God and Church in a way that seems only capable of being expressed through something like “hyper-employment”, a commitment that meets and exceeds professional expectations, and hence shies away from the possibility of anything “less”.

We have already seen that this is partly a modern phenomenon. Just as the Church has borrowed and even radicalized the language and culture of bourgeois professionalism, and before that of feudal hierarchy, we too can borrow new concepts and patterns. It is often stated that young persons today will often be employed in a greater variety of positions requiring different skills than their parents had. Many might spend time variously as teachers, small business owners, consultants, and manual labourers, as need or opportunity arose. Identity is less and less bound up with the notion of an unchanging form of work; it cannot be.

To link ordination and ministry unswervingly to a dying paradigm of work would be disastrous, for it can only encourage the notion that those young persons who, like their peers, undertake different kinds of paid work at different times are actually abandoning their vocation when they leave parish ministry. In protestant circles this seems often to be the case, and hence of course a spiritually-devastating process for the individual.

Yet there are other aspects of our identity which endure beyond jobs or work altogether and which we regard as more fundamental to our being. I do not cease to be a father from year to year, nor does the fact I do other paid work lessen my own or anyone else’s sense that I am a father. Do we imagine that fatherhood is compromised by the mere fact of paid employment? Or does even identity as a great cook or a mediocre poet depend on being paid for it?

Ordination must I think be seen as a form of covenant commitment to God in the Church whose relationship to employment is likely to vary from person to person and from time to time, but which the deacon or priest and the Church, through the bishop, should honour and support at all times. What is more important is to grasp the principle that ordination may be a vocation or profession in some senses of the word, insofar as it is a commitment, but does not always amount to a job.