Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Fresh Expressions of Vicar 2: How to get the Vicar out of the Way

In a bid to save the vicars of the future from guilt, burnout and untimely death, Andy Griffiths continues his guest blogs on Titus and ordained ministry in the CofE. 


The team sent Titus to Crete to appoint a ministry leadership team and let them (not him) be central to church life.  And then he was to leave them to it, and move on to a new assignment.   So Titus 1.5-9 describe the qualities to be looked for in this local team:

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.  An elder must be blameless and faithful to their spouse; if they have children, they should be believers not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, they must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, they must be hospitable, loving what is good, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.  They must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that they can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

The criteria for the ministry team members are clear: faithful in their families (v6), faithful in self-management (v7), faithful in relation to outsiders (v8).  Incumbents oversee the selection, empowerment, training and encouragement of ministry teams.  This is a better use of their time than acting as Vicars.

“Vicar” is an oddly apposite word for what incumbents have often found themselves doing – they are substitutes, standing in for others.  They sometimes stand in for the parishioners by having a prayer life so other people don’t have to (“Say one for me, Vicar”) and they sometimes stand in for those in the pews and chairs who would be more than able to lead worship, preach sermons, care for one another and run the church if only the Vicars got out of their way.  (I was present at a diocesan consultation day where we were asked for a word that gave us the most hope for new life and growth in their parishes – every single layperson in my group chose “interregnum”).  

We incumbents may try to justify this in terms of us being the “focus of unity” (how did this choice of words enter the conversation?  Isn’t it meant to refer to bishops?), but in fact I wonder if we are simply resisting a call to move towards the margins and let others be centre-stage. (I was deeply unsettled to meet a priest who had discouraged a congregation member from seeking ordination with local deployment, because that would have compromised his position as “Eucharistic Focus”).  

By contrast, Titus was not a vicar but an enabler, appointing and enabling the elders/overseers to do their tasks as a team.  I have made this move very imperfectly – I still sometimes wake in the night, concerned about Galleywood, which implies that I may still somehow see myself as indispensable to it.  But here are two anecdotes that give some impression of how I have tried to be less vicarious and more like Titus.

First: back around the year 2008, we were starting to set up a pastoral care team.  But I was hearing complaints from some of the elderly and housebound people we would visit: when a couple of laypeople from the pastoral care team dropped in, it felt as if “that didn’t count” or “the church hadn’t been”.  After the death of one elderly parishioner, the son complained that in her whole last six months, the church hadn’t been to see her at all.  “I’m so sorry”, I said, “I’d understood that Elva and Edith were regular visitors.”  “O yes, they were often round, I don’t know what mum would have done without them – but they’re not the church, they’re normal people!”  

So I made a decision: for a year, I wouldn’t visit anyone, ever, in their homes for pastoral reasons.

By the end of the year, it was a common subject around the village that the Vicar didn’t visit.  But it was also commonly known that there was a pastoral care team, and Rosemary (a lay person) led it, and it was really good. Make no mistake, a parish’s felt need to have the incumbent at the centre of everything is often at least as strong as the incumbent’s felt need to be there – but we must engage in the struggle to extricate ourselves and get back to the margins where we belong.  

Not long ago I covered a service in a parish I didn’t know.  I asked what their expectations were (is someone doing the intercessions?  Is someone reading the epistle?  that sort of thing) and was told that in that church, the members didn’t get involved in saying things at the communion.  Imagine my surprise to discover that “not getting involved” included not even saying the words in bold print in the service booklet – including not only the sanctus and Gloria, but even the Lord’s Prayer and the amens!  I guess that would have felt unanglican.  Brothers and sisters, we took a wrong turn somewhere.  . 

A second story: in 2010 there was a sense at St Michael’s that a member of the clergy (myself or my colleague the curate) “ought” to be in church every week.  It wasn’t that anyone resented there being lay leadership or laypeople preaching – but “it just didn’t feel right” for there not to be a vicar in the building.  

So we decided that at least once a month, we’d make sure neither of us were in church on Sunday morning.  

We were not service-providers for a set of consumers, but encouragers of a people with a purpose.  Three years later, all the churches in the Unit have incumbent presence exactly 50% of the time on Sunday mornings, and another important step has been taken towards breaking the curse of dependence on incumbents.  Please note: since this goes alongside the development of ministry teams including locally deployed priests, this does not in the medium or long term mean anyone is deprived of communion – less incumbents need not mean less priests.  

What’s absolutely clear is that for me to spend my Sunday morning driving from church to church, celebrating communion and then getting straight into the car to get to the next eucharist, would not be sane for me or missionally helpful for God’s people.  St Michael’s Galleywood has become a Church of Teams – an evangelism team, a pastoral care team, a leadership team, a preachers’ team, and so on.  Most days, I’m glad.  Some days, it feels like being at the margins instead of the centre is a good place to be, giving me a chance to get involved in mission to those not part of the church community.

Frankly, we have to do something.  I met with an ordained colleague this morning, and the subject turned to whether any of us knew any incumbents who work full-time (that is, 40 hours a week approx.) but no more.  We came to the conclusion that neither of us did know anyone like this, and we feared that if an incumbent did work like this they’d be in danger of ending up guilty in themselves, bullied by their congregations and suspect to their Area Deans.  

Which means that the post of incumbent is closed to all but a select few able to sustain this kind of rhythm, week in week out.  

It is probably closed to anyone with small children and a spouse in inflexible full-time work.  I write as (most of the time) a happy incumbent – even one whose ministry gives him some satisfaction most of the time.  But I am determined, if only as a model for others, to do better at not being indispensable.  I’m nobody’s hero, and I just don’t have the energy to be Jesus any more. 

Andy Griffiths is a Vicar in Essex, an enthusiast for the Moravian tradition and a member of a small new-monastic “mini-order” but his main claim to fame is that he went to college with the Opinionated Vicar (who at that stage wasn't a vicar, but the other bit was true).  So that’s why he’s “guest blogging” four posts about incumbent ministry.  Last time, he presented a model of incumbency where incumbents serve in something a bit like the “apostolic teams” of the New Testament. This is the second post, follow these links or the 'Titus Series' tag for the others. 

Update: the CofE comms blog has What's It Really Like to be a Vicar? 


  1. I am clear what I want of the clergy. I want them to be people who can by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, about success, about money, and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs. I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare, to refuse to work flat out (since work is an even more subtle drug than status), to refuse to compete with me in strenuousness. I want them to be people who are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who can face the emptiness and possible depression which often attack people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied. I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it was, as I want them to be people who have faced the problems of prayer. I want them to be people who can sit still without feeling guilty, and from whom I can learn some kind of tranquillity in a society which has almost lost the art. - Monica Furlong in "The Parson's Role Today", 1966

  2. Perhaps I can add an anecdote and a moral.

    There was a priest who was sent as an evangelist/church planter in a rural area in the Anglican diocese of Pretoria -- a Titus, if you will. He went from village to village evangelising, and in each place where a congregation started, he would visit to celebrate the Eucharist. When he had started aobut 30 congregations, he stopped evangelising, because all his time was ntaken up by a roter to celebrate the Eucharist, He had gone from evangelist to incumbent.

    I suggested that such people should adopt the Roland Allen model -- in each of those congregations there should have been teams of priests, deacons and other ministers. They would see that the Eucharist was celebrated every Sunday, and that other local ministries took place, and the job of the Rectoer would be to visit them for training and support -- an enabler, in other words.

    In order to do this, the Rector would not necessarily have to be ordained, in fact it might be an advantage not to be ordained, because then the temptation to be a "Mass nomad" would not be there.

    At one time I was also responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, which facewd smilar problems and conditions in rural areas. But I found that the incumbents were treating them as assistant curates of the whole parish, instead of locating them in just one congregation. They just incorporated a self-supporting priest into the rota of services in the whole parish. It was very sad, and somewhat missed the point.