Tuesday 3 November 2009

Get real! Kill George Herbert!

At home I have a groaning shelf of books published since 1900 about ministry in the Church of England. Justin Lewis-Anthony’s If you meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him is the latest and, no mean feat, by far the best. The trouble with “how-to” books about ministry is that they can easily become part of an oppressive structure that keys into a significant vulnerability in sincere ministers. You woke up this morning with 25 things you hadn't done, and felt vaguely guilty about. You read the how-to book, and now you’ve got 35. Could be time to stick your head in a gas oven. Indulging in the wrong kind of how-to stuff, spiced with paperback Evangelical fisherman’s tales by the Successful, does not make you the best priest in the street (shades of the Father Ted “Golden Cleric”) but a nervous wreck. Its nursery slopes are the way to slow death — what some do call burn-out.

Justin’s excellent book does not play this how-to game, although it does end up talking Turkey, with excellent alternative strategies and tactics to help lower spiritual and personal blood pressure, and bring a Kill-George-Herbert priest back from the Church of the Planet Zog into the Church of England.

Justin’s thesis is that we in the C of E have indulged in harmful romanticism about ministry, focussed around a gentle bucolic fantasy about the ministry of George Herbert. Roman Catholic friends tell me of a similar phenomenon in their tradition about the Curé d’Ars. This ecumenical dimension, as well as a certain Cambridge historian’s reluctance to use any “-ism” except baptism, made me judder a bit over terms like “Herbertism” but the term does clarify the discussion and provides a tool to enable us to continue to enjoy Herbert’s sublime poetry without being sucked into a lot of crushing sentimentality and hype about his three year ministry as a parish priest in the seventeenth century, in a parish of under 500, with two curates to do the dirty work.

Back in the late eighties, when I was an urban vicar, I almost had a breakdown through the unsustainable and unrealistic expectations I was putting on myself. I can see it now, but it brought its own tunnel vision at the time. As well as lifebelts from spiritual advisers, teachers and friends, I read Bonhoeffer, then Vincent Donovan, then Martin Thornton, then Rowan Williams, then Sara Savage, as healing and hope gradually dawned. The analytical sections of this book reprised almost exactly the path I found towards recovery. Dame Edna would call it spooky. If I’d been able to read this book years ago it would have saved me a lot of trouble. Therefore I commend this book 110%.

The combination of high fantasy and self-expectations, an apparent duty to say yes to everybody all the time, a one-man-band mentality about ministry, historical romanticism and exhaustion almost got me. Care Bears who attenuate everything else about their lives get crocked. I don’t now mind admitting it, and the more we all admitted our need to be needed, got some boundaries in and stood up to our own fantasies and the cult of nice, the more we could all begin to be half the people God made us to be, as priests and ministers of the gospel.

This book is a vastly intelligent, compassionate, understanding and helpful resource. Some will find it a bit clever, so if you prefer your books stupid, you may be disappointed. Of course, if the cap does not fit you don’t have to wear it. It does fit many of us. The fact is that almost all of us vicars have been on this game for far too long. It has done us no favours. As crocked care bears we may even have sought a way off the not-so-merry-go-round. This book offers the most cogent escape route I know, historically and theologically, as well as practically. Take it, and get a life!
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Jim said...

I look forward to reading it. Being on the verge of a breakdown myself, I think I attribute much of the stress of the job to two things:

i) the culture of omnicompetence. Reading the list of key competencies produced by MinDiv for new curates just makes me despair. Since when was administrative ability (as just one example) in the ordinal. Yet the hierarchy seem hellbent on pandering to congregations' desires for clergy to be Superpeople;

ii) clusterisation and the cult of the building. Adding more and more parishes to single priests, with no structures encouraging them to work together or on their own initiatives simply leads to worn-out clergy doing paper-and-string ministry. If congregations and communtieis cannot - or will not - sustain churches then churches have to close. Instead, we waste hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to sustain the unsustainable and stressing clergy to breaking point. It is madness.

Caelius said...

I'm not a priest, but I found the online epitome thrilling reading. It's something I may buy in the future for beloved spiritual parents.

Alistair Reece said...

To a large extent it is the unrealistic expectations of many in congregations for their pastors to be not just superpeople but sinless Christians as well that put me off seeking ordination after I got my BA in Theology.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alan, I have passed this along to the clergy in my Diocese--looks great and thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Flying Fantastic said...

Well, this is an interesting comment for me, especially as I was brought up in the kind of church that had no formal ministers in the sense the C of E has, so I have always found it curious that the clergy seemed to want to keep the people at arms length when it comes to helping out in church. Of course this may simply be my own perspective.....even after more than 20 years attending C of E churches.....Perhaps you can tell me what steps I am allowed to take to change this......thank you

Kathryn said...

Emerging weary from taking 12 funerals in 14 working days, while spending what felt like ALL the rest of the time at the bedside of a dear soul who took "an unconscionable time a-dyin" I guess this is the book to open on my long planned reading day on Monday. Justin learned the hard way, I know...it will be wonderful if the rest of us can benefit from his wisdom and experience, to do the things that our reason tells us that we should, even if our hearts suggest otherwise.
In other words, thank you for helping me decide which of my "longing to reads" I should actually engage with

Adrian C said...

I'm incumbent of five parishes and we've just agreed that I DO NOT NEED TO BE IN THE CHAIR at most PCC meetings (how many headteachers Chair their governors!). I'm in Wales and the C in Wales Constitution makes that easier but it feels so releasing!
Adrian Copping

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Alan. I caught your tweet on this book just after emailing my bishop's pa to enquire about a meeting with him. Got the book that evening (my wife is a bookseller!). Gave up on the meeting with the bishop, began to read the book instead. After three chapters... BRILLIANT.

Robin / Spideog

Chris Fewings said...

I suspect George Herbert's dirty work was done by his wife and maid! I think he ran a tight ship at home.

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