Toxic clergy work: Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop hosts conference on women’s ministry

Monday 19th September 2011

“And I think that’s something which really to my mind comes over as one of the most urgent things that’s been said today. Because again and again I’ve heard people saying there is something actually rather toxic about our assumptions around how clergy work.”

“But it does seem to me that if we have an ordained ministry in the church, and if part of the function of any ordained ministry is to help the church be the church, and if the church truly is the church when it is the human community that is Christ’s body among us – and you can add lots more ifs – but if that’s the kind of territory in which we think theologically about ordained ministry of any kind then the ordained person, deacon, priest or bishop is not exempt from modelling the new humanity.

The ordained person doesn’t just talk to other people about how they become better human beings or more effective parts of the Body of Christ. The ordained person is a part of the Body of Christ and therefore involved in modelling the new humanity.

And so if we ask whether this or that form of ordained ministry models a humanity that looks full or joyful or renewed, maybe that’s the crucial question. And frequently the answer is no, isn’t it, for men and for women?

And the challenges that have come up in that area today about employment practice and work patterns, about couples in ministry, a whole range of issues, does this ministry, this human ministry, look as though it stands for an attractive, a transforming and transformed new humanity?

Because if it doesn’t we are actually not doing what we’re supposed to do and we’re treating ordained ministry as if it was something other than the life of the Body of Christ. So it’s perfectly all right for a congregation to flourish and a priest to be crushed? I don’t think it is all right.

We all know how the pain and the cost of ordained ministry can feed the life of a community. And I think that’s what St Paul is talking about in a lot of 2 Corinthians.

But we can’t leave it there to my mind because that both dehumanises and super-humanises the ordained ministry if you see what I mean. It dehumanises because it says it doesn’t really matter what happens to these particular persons that God loves in Jesus Christ. That’s dehumanising.

And these particular persons in Jesus Christ who have collars round their necks and various coloured shirts are the ones who do the work for the Body of Christ including the sacrificial suffering. And everybody else just sort of free wheels on it.

You won’t be surprised if I quote Dostoevsky at this point, but one of the terrifying things in the great parable of The Grand Inquisitor in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is of course that the grand inquisitor is not a bad man and not a selfish man. On the contrary, he is a fanatically selfless man.

He believes that his own renunciation of peace, absolution, a sense of being right, is necessary. He doesn’t really know what he believes except that he knows he’s got to make other people safe. And therefore this aged, dried, wrung out, exhausted, sacrificial character cannot see Christ.

Now that’s a rather grim image to leave you with but I do think that we have to ask ourselves about what kind of humanity the priesthood models and what kind of humanity the church at large wants in its priests, if it wants any at all. And sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s worth asking, I think.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams speaking to a conference on women’s ministry in September 2011.

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