Give us a devout, scholarly and useful clergy

Faith & Reason; Never mind how well the Church of England is organised, maintains the Bishop of Worcester,the Right Rev Philip Goodrich, it is no good if its priests have nothing to say.

I recall the clergy photographed on the doorstep of our vicarage as they went into church 61 years ago, on 9 October 1934, to induct my father as vicar. Each was an incumbent of one village; products of Oxbridge, they were confident men, guardians of the culture as well as the faith. They addressed each other by surname like members of a club.

Canon Smith was still marking in the Cambridge University theological finals. He was also as nutty as a fruitcake. The day war was declared in 1939 he walked round his remote village of Ingoldsby with an armband saying "Air Raid Warden". John Josiah Crathorne, from Crathorne in Yorkshire, was on the contrary a great help to his parishioners when bombs fell on his village by mistake. Canon Vessey was a product of Eton and Oxford and for 40 years vicar of a village of less than a hundred souls. One could go on.

These were "rich men, furnished with ability, dwelling peaceably in their habitations". But not rich financially. I guess they never drank wine at meals. They spent their holidays with relations at Abergavenny or in Yorkshire. But they had other wealth. E.M. Tweed, of Burton-le- Coggles, was a top mathematician of Christ's College, Cambridge. Another coached boys for university entrance, another was a regular reviewer of books.

These men brought real quality to their villages; their ministry was human and it was incarnational. They were among their people and they loved them in an unsentimental way. If that isn't an English form of redemption I don't know what is.

It was said of the Edwardian clergy of the Church of England that they were "the best-educated clergy in Europe but theologically the most ignorant". There's the rub. They brought no working theology to the Church of England to equip it for its mission. They were not agents of change. I remember Archbishop William Temple being regarded as suspect because he was stirring the dovecote about unemployment.

The clergy then lived on the historic endowments of their livings. Lay people paid not a penny towards their stipends and expenses of office were unthought of. Clergy could be their own man and snap their fingers at criticism - though criticism was not often made.

The Second World War swept away this way of life. Four-hundred pounds a year and a house may have been adequate in 1934. It was no longer so in 1945. The clergy in 1995 are almost wholly paid by the laity, who seek value for money. Managers on parochial church councils are tempted to push clergy around. They tend to see them as functionaries of the Church who should have continuous training and, if they do not achieve, should be fired.

It is not surprising that morale is said to be low amongst today's clergy. Those who have been well trained know that flashy success will not be granted to those who follow a crucified Lord. Others, who know how to work for the community and with the community, have an assured place. It is, however, worth considering some of the things with which clergy have to contend.

There is the disappearance of Sunday as a different day. There is the universal ignorance of Christianity. Then there is the problem of living in a plutocracy when even 40 years in full-time ministry will not take you beyond the salary on which your youngest daughter starts. It is a good thing to be a guardian of the culture as well as the faith, but what is the culture? Some say it doesn't exist except in so far as like-minded people are linked by the Internet or communications technology. Then there is the realisation that much of the caring work is now done by others.

Yet people's expectation of the clergy does not damp down. A clergyman is to be a spiritual mentor, teacher, administrator, social worker, orator, liturgical adviser, counsellor, confidant and fund-raiser. No one person is sufficient for these things. Only a healthy detachment, the constitution of an ox and a sense of humour - and an unshaken trust in God expressed in a daily discipline of prayer - can possibly enable a priest to survive.

Survive he or she must. In the Coronation service we ask God to grant us "a devout, scholarly and useful clergy". Without one, the Church of England will become like a swimming pool where all the noise comes from the shallow end. It does not matter how well organised we are if we no longer have anything to say.

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