Church of England

Understanding the Ministry of the Church Today: a lecture in honour of the late Rev’d Canon Dr Ian Tomlinson

The Rev’d Canon Dr Ian Tomlinson died peacefully at his home on Monday 31st October. He had asked the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, to deliver a lecture at his funeral, rather than the usual eulogy or sermon. It is reproduced here in its entirety:

Understanding the Ministry of the Church Today
The Very Rev’d Prof. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

Ian Tomlinson, born in 1950, had been the Rector of Ragged Appleshaw benefice in the Diocese of Winchester since 1979.  He had also been an instrumental founder and overseer of the Diocesan Pastoral Care and Counselling Service, serving as Bishop’s Adviser for over fifteen years, and was a driving force on the Committee of the Andover Crisis Centre for over thirty years.  He had previously served curacies in Yorkshire.  There are many here today who mourn him: Caroline, his devoted wife; his three fine sons – Hugh, Ralph and James – of whom he was so proud; and parishioners, friends, colleagues near and far.  Many, many people are here to mourn his passing, reminisce over good times, as well as his deep and courageous last few years battling with cancer.  Ian, I can tell you, would have been embarrassed, and told us all to stop it at once.

Ian studied at London, the Open, Hull and Oxford Universities, and at the Richmond Fellowship College and the Tavistock Clinic, in London. He was a Professional Associate of the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Studies and was a pioneer in using psychotherapy to inform understandings of ministry.  In his inimitable, hospitable manner, full of self-deprecation tempered with beautiful humility and rich insight, rose to become one of the most influential clergyman of his generation.  Always more of a ‘back room boy’, he preferred consultancy and counsel to the ecclesiastical limelight.  He was a remarkable priest, pastor, counsellor, consultant, scholar, wry observer, wit – and more besides.

Now, I need to explain to you that this is not a eulogy, or a conventional sermon for this kind of occasion.  Ian was very specific about what he wanted at his funeral, and expressly asked for a talk and reflection on ministry today.  Nothing more; nothing less.  And so that is what it will be.  I knew Ian as one of my doctoral students, and it was a rare privilege to supervise someone with such an effervescent mind.  He also had a fabulous sense of humour, and could be quite irreverent when discussing the diocesan hierarchy.  But he loved them too, and wouldn’t harm a fly.

So my starting point for this address is a poem he gave me. Unpublished, as it turns out, as it was supressed some forty years ago, and seen as too subversive.  But uncannily, more is said in this poem about the authentic nature of ministry than could be expressed in several thousand words of prose.  I don’t know who wrote this, but we know that the lines were intended to inspire vocations to ordained ministry. And the poem goes like this:

Give us a man of God
Father, to pray for us,
Longed for, and insignificant,
But excellent in mercy,
And ordain him
Someone who loves the mystery of the faith
Whose conversation seems
Credibly to come from heaven
A poor man, a hungry man
Whose hospitality is endless.

Give us a preaching man,
Father, who doesn’t know how to fake,
A free man, on holiday
In this parish, a still man
Good as an ikon
With a heart full of treasure;
Someone to talk to
When death comes here,
A fellow countryman of birth and death
And the dynasty of our family,
Whose eye has missed nothing.

Give us a man without sanctimony
Father, to handle what is eternal,
A private citizen among miracles
Not his, modest
Capable of silence
Someone who reminds us now and then
Of your own description
And another kingdom
By the righteousness of his judgement
Or some grace in what’s done
In laying down his life even
For his friends.

Reginald Askew, (source: Advisory Council for Church Ministry prayer card, Petertide, 1975).

Ian stands as an exemplar of our highest and finest traditions of devoted parish priests, who have served their communities, and God, with deep commitment and unswerving constancy. He spent over thirty-five years in one parish – a once unremarkable pattern of ministry that is almost unheard of in today’s Church of England.  His dedication to God, sense of virtue, and his profound compassion for his people marked him out as a truly great pastor and priest.

Like many doctoral students, supervisors tend to learn much from them, even as they supervise their project and mentor the person. Ian was no exception to this, and his blend of gentle, sharp, incisive, visionary reflective skills, together with his profound humanity – and through which the warm radiant grace of God was liberally poured – made both him and his project a joy to work with.

His capacity to reflect on himself, his ministry and community was always remarkable. His eye missed nothing. He was the quintessential participant observer and observing participant. Rather like a family therapist at a large celebratory wedding reception with their own kith and kin, he knew how to join in and enjoy himself; but also when to step back, muse and reflect. He prayed for his people; he visited graciously, but tended not to intrude. He counselled and consoled, yet understood the difference between empathy and compassion. He was but one sign of God’s kingdom in a small-ish English rural benefice – an unchanging symbol of God’s light, love and presence in a world that is distracted and busy.

But lest this sound like the burnishing of the memory of Ian, this same priest was utterly contemporary and professional in his work, with a methodology and practice of ministry that was responsively dynamic both in and to its environments. He read assiduously and discerningly. Ian blended the unchanging virtues, values, practices and behaviours of a faithful ministry, with all the very best theology, wisdom and work of a thoroughly modern minister. Yet his additional work as a counsellor for the diocese – and this over more than two decades – often struggled for recognition, despite its dynamic impact and a thoroughly contemporary, professional approach to ordained ministry.

When I think of Ian and his work, I am reminded of one of my (few) detective heroes, Peter Falk. He plays the TV character known as Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Lieutenant Columbo was a detective consistently underestimated by his suspects, who were initially reassured and distracted by his circumstantial speech. Despite his unassuming appearance and apparent absentmindedness, he shrewdly solved his cases by marshalling and sifting all the piecemeal evidence.

Columbo’s work was distinguished by a formidable eye for detail and his dogged, dedicated approach. He appeared to be an unassuming man; he was very kind, and befriended everyone to get a better insight into what was really going on; he often pretended not to understand at all – in order to understand more and better; he shuffled around, rarely making eye contact, picking up evidence, stories and impressions, here and there, piecing together the broken bits of a much bigger picture; he used all his senses; he analysed; he tended to dress down; he finally made eye contact at a precise point of epiphany;  modest, he then shuffled off stage, and into the next episode.

Ian is a reminder of something currently lost to the church; indeed a church that has somehow become forgetful of itself, and so without a deep sense of constancy, has developed multiple addictions to change. But as Albert Einstein once opined, not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that is counted, counts. Counting ‘members’ or the hard, inner-core of congregational attendees does not tell the whole story; indeed, it does not even account for the half of it.

The mission of the church is a vocation to serve communities, not just convert individuals into members.  Partly for this reason, the church needs to become more cautious about recasting clerical and ministerial paradigms of leadership in apparently more successful secular moulds.  As one writer puts it:

What is happening to ministries that equip the saints for the work of service when we adopt the language and values of the corporate world and describe ministers as Chief Executive Officers, Heads of Staff, Executive Pastors, Directors of this and that? Why is it that ministers studies have become offices? (This) may be superficial evidences of the problem…[but it is what happens] when the values of the corporate world join with the values of the market place in the church…

The more the church is treated as an organisation, the more its mission becomes focussed on techniques designed to maximize output and productivity. We become obsessed with quantity instead of quality and where we have a care for quality, it is only to serve the larger goal of increasing quantity. The church moves to becoming a managed machine, with its managers judging their performance by growth-related metrics.

Invariably, the clergy and the congregations are made to collude with this – largely through the imposition of codes of compliance, in the name of ‘missional excellence’ or ‘healthy churches’. This can rob clergy and parishes of their distinctive local autonomy, and can also override the value of local knowledge. It turns partnerships and soft forms of association rooted in trust into hard forms of organisation and corporation. This can destroy the soul of the church, and the souls of the clergy who are seeking to serve their communities with compassion, and their congregations with zeal.

As two writers for The Economist note,

Professionals…value autonomy…[yet] there are many examples of professionals surrendering their autonomy in the face of managerial change agendas. It has happened in health care, as management systems have been imported from automobile manufacturing, to control the workflow of doctors. Now even priests are being sent on management training courses in business schools…

Ian had a wry, sharp sense of humour.  He knew it was all too easy to distil the mission of a church and your clergy into three handy tasks, and all beginning with ‘p’, to pick a letter at random: Prophetic, Pioneer and Passionate.  But he knew that such distillation sold the church well short of its roles and vision.  Ian’s Ian ministry embodied several quite different ‘p’s’: Pausing and Prayer; churches to be Pastoral, Present and Public; clergy to be Priestly and Prescient.

Ultimately, Ian knew that ministry is not really work, a profession, or labour; but to use an old fashioned word, it is, rather, an ‘occupation’.  A rather quaint word, granted; but an ‘occupation’ is something that consumes time, energy and lives, but is not paid or recognized as ‘work’ in the way that the secular world understands the term. Ministry is an uncommon ‘occupation’ – a sphere of activity where remuneration is not linked to the value of the endeavour (which in itself was hard to measure) – either for the priest or for the wider public.  This makes understandings of ministry more marginal, even though its symbolic and public functions remain public and at times highly visible.  The practice of being engaged in an occupation of this kind says something about the possibilities for different kinds of spaces in communities – social, pastoral, intellectual, spiritual, to name but a few.

So, what is ministry like today?  In some respects, it is rather like intentional parenting. That is to say, there are indeed plans and structures, and there is no getting away from the essential value of these for cultivating healthy individuals and relationships. A loving and cherishing home underlie this ecology.  But mature parenting is also about accepting that despite the intentionality of plans and structures, life, like ministry, is a constant stream of interruptions, disruptions and surprises – some of which are welcome, but not all of them.  Ministry, like parenting, is a relatively boundless occupation.

Theological education and formation – in both its highly formed and rather unformed states – prepares the minister for this world, and this type of occupation.  Which is why it is important that the structuring of training oscillates between the systematic and unsystematic, and the planned and the fluid: our wisdom is found in the spaces between these.

But Ian understood that our churches and theological landscape were often formed by wider cultural and political forces.  We often discussed this passage by Lesslie Newbigin:

Modern capitalism has created a world totally different from anything known before.  Previous ages have assumed that resources are limited and that economics – housekeeping – is about how to distribute them fairly. (Ian, I should add here, always felt that the institution the church was most like was the extended family – and so our leaders did not need MBA’s, but rather needed to learn how to be good parents…but I digress, and Newbiggin continues…). Since Adam Smith, we have learned to assume that exponential growth is the basic law of economics and that no limits can be set to it.  Growth is for the sake of growth and is not determined by any overarching social purpose.  And that, of course, is an exact account of the phenomenon which, when it occurs in the human body, is called cancer.

For Ian, this analogy was pertinent. Metastatic Cancer feeds off testosterone; and when it can’t find it, it makes its own. So the illness that claimed Ian was a perfect fit for Newbigin’s analogy.  Obsessed with growth, the church produces compensatory hormones and then continues to feeds off itself, until it is finally self-consumed.  This led us to talk about patterns of leadership being formed in various dioceses of the Church of England, and what they were like.  I must confess I don’t remember all the details of these conversations – though North Korea often cropped up: another cult of leadership that promises endless growth in return for unquestioning obedience.

So what are the clergy for?  Some theologies of ministry entertain romantic fantasies about distinctiveness; but it is in the tasks and life of ministry that clergy begin to find the correspondence between the Creator and the created.  The ‘set-apart-ness’ that guarantees both centrality and marginality in any community or parish is fundamental to the vocation.  Moreover, it is frequently in the marginality of life and death that the office and calling becomes apparent. One writer, Tom Lynch, a funeral director who constantly witnessed the ministry of clergy in death and bereavement, reflects upon this:

‘I remember the priest I called to bury one of our town’s homeless tramps – a man without family or friends or finances.  He, the grave- diggers, and I carried the casket to the grave.  The priest incensed the body, blessed it with holy water, and read from the liturgy for twenty minutes, then sang In Paradisum – that gorgeous Latin for “May the angels lead you into Paradise” – as we lowered the poor man’s body into the ground.  When I asked him why he’d gone to such trouble, he said these are the most important funerals – even if only God is watching – because it affirms the agreement between “all God’s children” that we will witness and remember and take care of each other’.

The same writer continues,

‘…in each case these holy people treated the bodies of the dead neither as a bother or embarrassment, nor an idol or icon, nor just a shell.  They treated the dead like one of our own, precious to the people who loved them, temples of the Holy Spirit, neighbours, family, fellow pilgrims.  They stand – these clergy, these local heroes, these saints and sinners, these men and women of God – in that difficult space between the living and the dead, between faith and fear, between humanity and Christianity and say out loud, “Behold, I show you a mystery.”

Clergy occupy that strange hinterland between the secular and sacred, the temporal and the eternal, acting as interpreters and mediators, embodying and signifying faith, hope and love.  They are both distant and immediate; remote, yet intimate.  And in occupying this most marginal and transitory ground, and sometimes helping to close the gaps between these worlds, they become humanly and spiritually necessary even as they live out their (party willed, partly imposed) social marginality.

It is nothing less than to follow the call of Jesus: to belong both to the wilderness, but also to the city.  To be a citizen of some place; but also of nowhere; of earth and of heaven.  To be of the people; but also for their sake, to be wholly, holy other.  I realize that this may be a deeply unfashionable note on which to end, but perhaps the most important thing about ministry is, after all, to be vested in the notion of occupation.

Our priests are to be occupied with God.  And then to be pre-occupied with all the people, places and parishes that are given by God into our care: to dwell amongst, care for and love those people and places as Christ would himself.

So I want to draw to a close with a small extract from one brief tribute of the many that have flooded in from colleagues of Ian.  Mark Bailey notes that an important part of Ian’s work, and indeed his legacy, was the setting up of a counselling service for use by clergy and their households within the Diocese of Winchester. So, Mark writes:

Ian was all too aware of the vulnerability and frailty of clergy and their need for psychological support at times of crisis. He cared very deeply about his fellow priests and knew from his own life’s experience how valuable, even vital, being able to share and off-load in a safe therapeutic setting could be. Ian had a big heart and a very good mind. He was dubbed by more than one as ‘the priest’s pastor’ and was much admired for this work by [all] who had the pleasure of working with him.

And so I return to that poem with which we started, and give thanks to God for Ian – his life, work and ministry:

Give us a preaching man…who doesn’t know how to fake,
A free man, on holiday in this parish,
a still man, good as an ikon with a heart full of treasure;
Someone to talk to when death comes here,
A fellow countryman of birth and death and the dynasty of our family,
Whose eye has missed nothing…

Today, it is God’s own eye that is fully on that man – Ian: one whom we have been blessed to know, and who in cherishing us, came to embody all that we affirm and recognise in good ministry.

So Ian, may you rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.