The vicar, the laity and the job of holy management

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IN England's Green and Pleasant Land (1925) J W Robertson Smith complained: 'The blunt fireside's adjudgment of the mass of families on many a parson is that he is a witless and lazy, self-satisfied drone, who by advantage of his social position has secured a soft job.' Writing on this page on 28 April, Bryan Appleyard appeared to agree.

His monochrome picture of the Anglican clergy may be at odds with the multiplicity of the breed as we see it: a wedding taken by a female deacon, a village baptism by a non-stipendiary priest who otherwise works in computer technology, a daughter prepared for confirmation by a young school chaplain, a colleague helped to self-respect through an ecumenical prison chaplaincy. But in one sense, Mr Appleyard touches a vital nerve.

The confusion he expresses about priesthood probably reflects that of the nation and the church at large. For most people, God and His supposed existence have little connection with the routine life of the established religion. When it comes to vicars however, the Church has only the laity from which to make its choice. And it is precisely here that a great theological revolution is taking place. In a recent address to clergy of the Bristol diocese, Dr Elizabeth Templeton, the theologian, writer and broadcaster, stressed the deep yearning of many people to ask sharp and honest questions about faith. She reminded us of the condescension of church leaders when they overlook the capacity of the general public to think complex thoughts about God and the mysteries of life and death.

The Church of England is often depressed by charges that its response to most situations is slow, fragmented, and low on clarion-calls. Supposing, however, that we take such accusations as a compliment and recognise the genius of Anglicanism exactly in this quarter.

Recent ecumenical dialogue has raised the question: 'What kind of a god do Christians worship and believe in?' A new vision of reality, and therefore of church, comes when we rediscover the shockingly impertinent assertion that God makes Himself known to His world as a dynamic and differentiated community of love: the Trinity. Is it so surprising that a God who is three particular Persons in one, should initiate and sustain a cosmos of complexity?

Modern scientists are giving us a new map of human knowledge centred in an orderliness made out of multiplicity. No longer can humanity and world define themselves as isolated from each other. A suggestion, of which Archbishop William Temple would have been proud, is that the church's primary agenda lies in helping to hold the world together. The way it orders its own affairs, therefore, needs to reflect that task. A differentiated unity is not the same as chaos or lack of direction.

Making the transition from the old world of Oscar Wilde's Rev Chasuble is painful. The recent growth in lay spirituality and involvement in parish life has led clergy in particular to fear that they are being pushed to the edge of the church. Instead of assuming that truth lies at the crossing point of opposites, we should surely accept that a trinitarian belief opens up a unified church of difference. It may be helpful to imagine a triangle of tensions, at the three corners of which stand committed laity, clergy, and outsiders. How can each contribute to the affirmation of the others without wanting to make them identical? Women priests, because of their recent experience of marginalisation, may have, for the time being, special understanding of those who now feel excluded.

The implication for a church that struggles to be a sign and foretaste of God's shalom, is that vicars no less than laity have a big job, but a new one: that of holy management. In a church that attempts to reflect the inter-related being of God, who is Himself three Persons in courteous relationship, everyone can find their rightful place. This church can combine the work of providing a field hospital for life's walking wounded with participating in God's mission to bring all things to their destiny.

The vicar's job is to help the church be true to itself and provide a model of what life can be when God has His way. To move towards such a vision is hard, partly because we have a deep desire to depend on the Rev Chasuble to sort God out for us, or at least to keep Him at bay. There are those who fear that God is not merciful and has no sense of humour. Fortunately, every day they are proved wrong as the most wayward and idiosyncratic among us open doors to the mystery that some call God.

The author is Canon Missioner in the Diocese of Gloucester. His book on parish priests will be published next May.