Essex vicars Sam Norton and Tim Goodbody have both posted about the difficulties of their tasks as Church of England incumbents. Sam memorably compares his job with piloting a plane and trying, not always successfully, to avoid crashing it. Tim, apparently facing similar issues, writes of the stresses of balancing “great new ideas” for the work of a parish with the preferences of “the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.”
Tim also speaks of this as “the paradox of collaborative ministry”. But I disagree. I tried to disagree with a comment on his post, but Tim quite reasonably responded
Sorry mate, I reserve the right to be the only one who rants here; if you want to rant feel free to do so at GW
I wonder, would he have allowed Jesus to comment on his blog? Certainly not along the lines of Matthew 23! But I am taking his advice and responding here at Gentle Wisdom, and in more depth than in my rejected comment. Judge for yourselves whether this is balanced or a “rant”.
This is how it seems to me, from the limited details which they give and from my own experience of life in various Anglican churches: the problem which Sam and Tim have, and which probably nearly every Church of England incumbent (i.e. pastor in charge of a church) has, is that they are trying to reconcile the wishes of those who genuinely want to serve God with the wishes of people who do not. The latter are people who, while claiming to serve the true God, are in fact serving other gods like mammon (materialism), their families, their culture and traditions, or their personal comfort. For example, it is clear that Tim’s “elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been” are not serving the God who makes it his business to make all things new.
Now this is not a peculiarly Anglican problem. Many other church congregations are mixed multitudes of the same kind. But it is perhaps especially serious in the established Church of England because of its parish system and its claim to represent in some way all the people of England. These make it all the harder for a vicar to suggest that a difficult congregation member find a different church where they might be more at home.
Of course I realise that it is not possible to divide congregations neatly into those who serve God and those who put other gods first. Any attempt to do this is bound to fail, not least because many people are genuinely torn between two different allegiances. Indeed we all need to examine ourselves to check that we are not slipping in this way.
Nevertheless there must be something wrong when an incumbent gets to the position that Tim is in, in which he has to reject “great new ideas” “because he knew he would get it in the neck from the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.” Of course not every great new idea is from God. But if Tim is finding himself rejecting ideas which are from God to avoid criticism from people who quite clearly do not have in mind the things of God, then I would want to suggest that he has abandoned serving God for serving the gods of his congregation members. This is not at all to single Tim out, for his point is that this is what the Church of England system more or less forces incumbents like himself to do.
To put it bluntly, what is happening here is that the servants of mammon and of other idols are being given a veto over the work of God in his church. This cannot be! As Jesus said, it is impossible to serve both God and mammon, and that applies also when that service is directed through their worshippers. So every pastor, in the Church of England and elsewhere, needs to decide which they will serve, the true God or the idols of their congregation members. If they try to serve both, not only will God’s work be thwarted, but also a plane crash is inevitable.
Yes, of course a pastor needs to show love and be pastorally sensitive towards those difficult or unbelieving congregation members. But that is quite a different matter from allowing them to control the church. Jesus was pastorally sensitive to individual Pharisees like Nicodemus and Simon, but he didn’t bend an inch to their model of religious practice.
So I call on Tim, Sam and all others in similar positions to take a stand for the “great new ideas” which they really believe are from God, and ignore the protestations of the “keep the church the same as it has always been” brigade. Or if they are unable to do so because those people have a majority in the PCC or whatever, or because those in higher authority, bishops etc, intervene, then they should accept that their position is untenable and resign. Perhaps they will be forced to conclude that the Church of England is not the place for them if they are not to compromise their position.
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”
“Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 (TNIV)
P.S. In case any of you wonder why despite this I remain an Anglican, I will point you to this post. I wrote it nearly two years ago, but I stand by most of it now. The main change since then is that there is now a greater chance of me moving on from my current congregation in the rather near future.