I have a sense that many clerics today find themselves no less confused and variously out of sorts than their widely dispersed flocks. Some report being frazzled with too much work; others are hurriedly honing their skills as online pastors; some have to self-isolate, and yet others are trying to evade being overwhelmed by taking refuge by reflecting on Celtic saints or the Desert Fathers, who did not seem to need too much engagement with everyday people to fulfil their vocation to honour God. It takes all sorts to make a church.
The responses to the coronavirus outbreaks will be many and varied, and that may not be a bad thing. The virus itself will take different paths through different communities and elicit necessarily varied responses, so it is only to be expected that there will not be a uniform response by all faith communities or individual ministers within each.
Inevitably, many will take refuge in the tradition to which they have become attached: more Anglo-Catholicism, more ‘Radical Inclusion’, and greater biblical fidelity will all be asserted explicitly or implicitly, and I make that observation without any pejorative intention. We all seek comfort in the familiar, where we can. These will be sincere responses, and who knows, they might each work in different contexts. Jesus said that the good shepherd knows his flock and will care for them in times of trouble. That observation works whether you capitalise the title or not. Ours is a church of many colours.
It is the relationship of the Good Shepherd to His clergy that interests me here. I began reflecting on this after a priest friend expressed natural apprehension about exercising his ministry in a context where a number of people had already been diagnosed with the virus. Not everyone is comfortable with Father Damian or a St Maximilian Kolbe as a sacrificial role model.
Some will go to the hard places, but realistically there will be others feeling apprehensive, inadequate, maybe even alienated from the flock and even their vocation in these times. Should you ‘up-skill’ to offer an online church to your small elderly congregation when your bishop can do it so much easier and better? Maybe you convince yourself that that is just not your calling; maybe you begin to call it into question.
Hunkering down is a persuasive temptation, but brings with it a sense of pastoral redundancy, or spiritual hibernation until it all ends. Such sentiments will be erosively at work, especially amongst the many priests, licensed local ministers, readers, pastoral assistants and youth workers who themselves fall into the higher-risk categories for catching the contagion through age, illness or susceptibility, either directly, or indirectly by sharing a household with another at risk. Frustratingly for so many, staying home is clearly advised by secular and faith leaders alike.
Yet at what cost will prudence be observed? There will be a significant cohort of Church workers troubled by a sense of guilt and inadequacy. Have they truly fulfilled their vocation when put to test? Paradoxically, others seem to be coming into their own, like the Rt Rev’d Philip North, Ben Vonberg-Clark and this lady. This may feel like a worryingly arid time spiritually, and if, like my priest friend, when an opportunity presents itself and it brings with it an actual risk, a natural apprehension might feel like a wobbling of faith.
I suspect that such feelings are widespread. So where should one go for comfort and inspiration? Well, I suppose one ought to look to someone like the prophet Elijah, who felt himself to be the last of the remnant. In the first book of Kings we read his lament: ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too‘ (19:10).
Most priests will have considered that passage at some time: a clerical sense of isolation is not that uncommon, but in difficult times even that passage might not do the trick. What if there is no direct, clear and unambiguous ‘voice of God’ to direct you? Not all are so personally blessed as a Elijah. Happily, Jesus offered relevant encouragement: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
What other encouragement might we offer?
I find myself recalling the unnamed anti-hero ‘whisky priest’ of Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. Set in the anti-Catholic persecutions of 1930s Mexico, a fearful, failed and disreputable priest is on the run; his challenges and reflections constantly reminding him of of his very real inadequacies. They included alcoholism and fathering a child by a village woman of his former parish. At the end, a dying man needs the comfort of the last rites, and the renegade priest is shamed into responding to that need, but is then betrayed. Suspecting the danger, he nevertheless fulfils his vocation, is captured, and then executed. He proves to be an unworthy but true martyr.
Many of our priests will currently be finding themselves having to go to places where they do not wish to go. Some will be stressed by what they are obliged to do, others by what they are obliged not to do. Yet, surely, they will not be the judges of their ministry, certainly not immediately. Each will never know for sure what served Christ, and what did not.
So, for all clergy feeling uncertain or out of sorts today, let us remind ourselves that neither they, nor we, are well placed to judge how effective or acceptable to Christ their ministry will prove to be, nor how the Church may be changed or even transformed by it in future years.
Turning up to the crematorium to conduct a spartan, socially-distanced funeral may not feel very fulfilling in the present, but at some future time, the willingness to do so may have been noticed. The message left on the answerphone is still ministry. If Graham Greene’s story of redemption under adversity teaches us anything, it is surely that we should never prematurely judge the value of the whisky priest.