Vicars: who on earth needs them?: As priests become more like social workers, many people wonder what the church is really for

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THE Reverend Chasuble is with us still. The vicar as amiable old duffer in dog-collar and cream linen jacket at the garden party lives on in our dreams, appearing in TV adverts for artificial cream and probably supping a warm beer somewhere in the crowd at John Major's paradisiacal county ground. Like thatched cottages or five-barred gates, he is part of the imagery of England. And, like so much of that imagery, he is not too demanding, too importuning - a good but ineffectual man, not one to get in the way.

He is, it goes without saying, C of E. A Roman Catholic interloper in this dream would introduce a sour note of something foreign, exotic, mysterious - as if bruschetta had been served instead of cucumber sandwiches. He would be altogether too intense, insisting on confessions and rigorous church attendance. Chasuble probably believes in something similar, but he knows his place.

He can be infuriating to the serious-minded. It was the complacent English Chasubles and their flocks that inspired Cardinal Newman to reflect that the country would gain 'were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion than at present it shows itself to be'. For Newman there was something too soothing and loose about the native faith, a certain easy willingness to consign the entire drama of the salvation of mankind to a spare hour on Sunday mornings, sometimes. But Newman was a religious genius, a man alone. The English never did discover fierce religion. They stuck with Chasuble and, grateful for his picturesque complacency, they abandoned the church. In 1851, 12 years after Newman wrote those words, 40 per cent of the population went to church, now the figure has stabilised at just under 10 per cent.

So the present rediscovery of ecclesiastical fierceness is something of a sideshow for most people, mere specialised bickering, rather like the offside law being changed or Gower dropped. Ann Widdecombe's televised reception into the Catholic church and the threat of possibly 250 priests defecting to Rome are material for most people's 'just fancy that' pigeon-hole. Perhaps, slightly more grandly, the current undermining of the national church is being seen as one more Maastrichtian nail in the coffin of Great Britain. And certainly there is a kind of historical excitement in the air - the end of the Elizabethan settlement, Mary is to get her dowry and so on. But the dowry, if delivered, will be meagre. In truth, this is fraught, symbolic drama rather than gritty realism and there is no Newman to flay our consciences with biting, exquisite prose - or, at least, he cannot be heard. The question remains, however, what was the purpose of Chasuble, or even Newman, and do we still need them?

It is clear that, at the lowest level, the trappings of priesthood remain familiar enough to work as shorthand for 'good'. Even the Chasubles of the fake cream ads are there to nudge some faint memory of unarguable virtue. They are just part of the English scenery, of course, but a part with a specific meaning - remember the heavenward glance.

The unthinkingly agnostic English continue doggedly to embrace the national church at times of crisis. The language, music and architecture of the Church of England remain, for many, the only suitable settings for absolute grief or joy. Precision and commitment are lost, but significance remains.

This might be seen as the Priesthood Degree Zero, a vocation clinging on to its identity by virtue of a bare minimum of nostalgic loyalty or a lingering trace of superstition. And it is not just an Anglican problem. The Catholics, who might have been expected to be holding the line, have seen an even worse fall in church attendancies than the Anglicans - a fall from 1.6 million in 1975 to 1.3 million in 1989. It is hardly an inspiring spectacle and it is reflected in the low level of vocations in both churches. In some regions Catholics face the prospect of having no priest at all. At least the Anglicans can console themselves with the exciting influx of perhaps 1,000 female priests. Even so it is likely that both sets of clergy suffer from the problems defined to me by a Catholic as 'low status, low morale and high stress'.

This is not just a problem of poor attendances brought on by secularisation. It is a problem of identity. Priests in Britain are no longer supported by their parishes as they once were. It is a more lonely job. They endure what their churches have had to endure as institutions - not secularity but neutrality, society's bland acceptance of the equality of all voices. A Catholic voice or an Anglican voice is now simply that: a specialised voice, one more point of view on the big chat show, rather than the embodiment of a communal faith or of ancient wisdom.

One Catholic response to this has been a shift in theology away from the centrality of the priest towards the idea of the priesthood of the laity. It seems that, though vocations are few, lay interest in theology is booming. On the Anglican side it is likely that the influx of women - because of the nature of the campaign - will push the church further in the direction of a social role that stresses the counselling, caring side of the job.

Both developments downgrade what the unbeliever would call the magical, the believer the sacramental role of the priest as intermediary between God and man. For old Catholics this is a big change. When Stephen Dedalus is exhorted to consider the priesthood in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he is told: 'No king or emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God. No angel or archangel in heaven, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, has the power of a priest of God.' This was the fierceness for which Newman yearned, but it has long gone and, anyway, that was Ireland.

Replacing such uncompromising assertions of authority and power with the contemporarily acceptable language of community and caring is dangerous for the obvious reason that there are now a good many other community-minded, caring people who do not happen to be priests. Social workers, counsellors in all their proliferating varieties, psychiatrists, doctors and teachers. There are also agony aunts and grotesquely frank TV talk shows - Oprah Winfrey is undoubtedly a particular kind of priestess. Even serious novelists and artists in general have been heard to embrace the priestly role of acting as metaphysical lightning rods for the culture. It may be mere self-importance, but all of these can be said to have taken on priestly functions. They offer help with the crises of existence: the experts by redefining them as problems to be solved, rather than trials or revelations, and the artists by relocating them in the aesthetic realm.

Yet the message of so many 'talking cures', however secular they may appear, is not that the priesthood is redundant, but rather that it is still needed. People want to see their difficulties fitted into a pattern - if not into the pattern of God's plan for the world, then into an earthly pattern of psychoanalysis or any of its related systems of expertise or, indeed, into the consoling patterns of art. Perhaps the magical, the sacramental, simply has to be restated as a theory or aesthetic.

In this the Americans characteristically attempt to combine both the magic and the liberal, secular pattern. In Leap of Faith, a mysteriously under-rated movie, Steve Martin plays a phoney evangelist. 'I know I'm a fake,' he announces. He knows because he employs the tricks of the trade. Yet a crippled boy walks and the rain comes to the crops of the Kansas dust bowl. The preacher does not know what he thinks he knows. In spite of himself, the film appears to say, some undefined power works through him. Our dream is of a good, ineffectual Chasuble who does not demand too much and who does not press the case for his magic. Hollywood's dream is of a two-bit grifter through whose sins and lies 'The Force' can still work.

But we do not have such preachers, we have Chasuble, and his failure was that he was really the Vicar of Bray, a changeable pragmatist rather than a keeper of the faith. Now we are finding that the magic cannot so easily be discarded if God is to survive. Fine thinkers like Don Cupitt or Iris Murdoch would hope to keep it alive in the ceremonies of the church, even though the 'real' God of the mythologies might have to go. But the reality seems to be that such dilution means a slow death for any specific faith and a diffusion of priestliness into secular professionalism. There will always be priests of one kind of another. Sadly, for the English, they may have to be no more than experts or artists.