Comments: opinion

What's happened to the Guardian "Loose Canon" article by the next Bishop of Durham (or should that be Ebbsfleet?) that you usually put on the Thinking Anglicans Saturday Opinion slot?

Posted by Father David at Saturday, 6 April 2013 at 11:32am BST

The Spectator article reveals how many prejudices the writer seems to have-about rural parishes and people, non BCP worship, women clergy, "modern" hymns, etc. The vicar never had a chance, beginning with the description of her appearance. The negative, jaundiced views of anything but the writer's own superior liturgical preferences make this article just mean-spirited. If you go to church with low expectations and a negative attitude and then find your smug attitudes confirmed, this says more about you than it does the congregation and the Christian faith. Too bad the writer didn't get a fine (paid) choir with classical hymns and stiff upper lip worship. What did you expect? Why throw stones?

Posted by Richard Grand at Saturday, 6 April 2013 at 1:48pm BST

The choice of articles for the weekly Opinion slot is at my absolute and inconsistent discretion. I link to Fr Fraser's Loose Canon column roughly one week in two, so there is nothing unusual about its omission this week.

Those who wish to read all his columns will find links to them here:

They appear in the Saturday paper edition of The Guardian, and are usually added to the website on the previous evening.

Posted by Peter Owen at Saturday, 6 April 2013 at 1:49pm BST

Richard, there may well be here an easy target in the life of the rural church, and there are extremes in the article which have been used to make the point, but it does beg the question about two things:
1. The insane and often unsustainable patterns of ministry the church is creating, without any creative thinking of what ministry and therefore the product of that ministry might look like
2. There is a real issue about first impressions. The picture painted is sadly too often the case - and I for one dont think that it is good enough. For the occasional visitor - as leaders in worship - we must be on top of the game - offering the very best we can. We should not be afraid of excellence and quality in what we seek to offer. For within the church's liturgies, well done, is the power to transform and convert.

Posted by Tim at Saturday, 6 April 2013 at 8:40pm BST

Re the article from "The Spectator", let's assume the article was written by someone who had something approaching the experience described there. You were guest at worship. Act like one, instead of putting on airs like a foodie for some faux urbane weekly. Be thankful for the opportunity to worship. Add something more to the "work of the people" than the attitude of a secret shopper.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Saturday, 6 April 2013 at 10:25pm BST

Great article on "Blaming the Poor." The article mentions the influence of a paper put out by "the churches," The Lies we Tell Ourselves. Was CoE involved in this? It mentions the Baptists, Methodists, Church of Scotland (Presbyterian, right?) and United Reformed, but not CoE.

Posted by Cynthia at Saturday, 6 April 2013 at 10:55pm BST

Sarah Coakley's view of resurrection - die to self, turn and turn again via doubt and longing, and then see clearly sounds somewhat Buddhist - as three things you can do rather than impossible things to believe. But the difference is the impossible things to believe, and thus I don't believe them. Same as her Friday talk on 'it is finished' - what is the mechanism that attaches any of my finished to that one individual's? There isn't one suggested. It's all text and sleight of hand.

Posted by Pluralist at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 2:38am BST

"Celebrant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People: I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People : I will, with God’s help."

Seen in this Light, the "Get rid of old&boring 'bums in pews'" argument can only be seen as either 1) ludicrous or 2) Evil! (or both)

[I still *want* to see A Brown as indulging in an April Fool's prank]

Posted by JCF at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 3:27am BST

"For the occasional visitor - as leaders in worship - we must be on top of the game - offering the very best we can."

Tim: While I can see your point here, and would always hope I was doing the best I could in leading worship, I think it is unrealistic to expect that on every occasion, in every church, every worshipper will get what they want. There might have been all sorts of reasons why the priest concerned wasn't top of her game (as well as the mere fact that the writer obviously had her own axe to grind). She might have been ill. She might (as I did over Easter) have had serious family illness to contend with (and most of us have no ready supply of locums). The church is not some glossy business, but a real community of real people, good, bad and ugly, going through the real stuff of life. It might be that the one thing the Spectator writer needed was to hear that life isn't all about presentation, and that the deepest blessings of God often come when we are broken, battered and bruised 9as they did through Jesus). This service could have been an opportunity for her to grow in love, to become part of a real community, to express care - and maybe receive some for the less than perfect parts of herself also.

Posted by Anne at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 7:56am BST

I very much agree with Tim's first comment. As an habitue of Gladstone's Library (a plug here!), I have often rural clergy who are just exhausted from running united benefices of six to ten churches. It isn't sustainable on any level and, as Tim says, we need to develop and new and innovative model of parish ministry rather than try to sustain a pale version of what was the norm sixty years ago.

Daniel Lamont

Posted by Daniel Lamont at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 12:21pm BST

With what I've seen of how clergy view themselves as the centre of the known moral universe in their respective churches, I feel little sympathy for the beleaguered 'do-it-all' team vicars.

Team ministry may reduce the disparity of workload among clergy, but there are many capable, eager young committed Christians who are rejected by the officiating minister and Diocesan Director of Ordinands for any career in ministry or participation in the preached word.

If ministers find themselves exhausted of energy and ideas, it's because they don't empower the laity to initiate anything. The clergy make a rod for their own backs. The sermon-led engagement of thought is largely a one-way system of moral traffic, with little left for laity to do, except smile, recite, sing and herd others towards the the pews, the minister and then the coffee. Boring.

Try employing the talents of all those who attend regularly, not just a cadre of loyal, but mean-spirited worship facilitators who flatter the good reverend with unflinching obedience and praise.

Find and recount the real joy in the world around us. Try standardising on an open post-service discussion forum and stop avoiding the possibility of losing your sacred reputation to public contradiction.

Identify gifted musicians and those with good voices and give them a chance to participate. Discover those prepared to make exceptional commitment who are gifted with clarity of oral expression. Give them exposure and take them under your wing for further training.

Of course, that sort of approach might signal an end to complete moral dependence on you for good. But that's not such a bad thing, is it?

Posted by David Shepherd at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 3:15pm BST

From the Spectator Article "The vicar is a rather exhausted-looking ... team vicar of six parishes, [who] has probably ...found the stone rolled away from the empty tomb twice and it’s only mid-morning"

There are many reasons to give thanks for pastors who serve in the kinds of situations imagined. They planned, prepared, and provided leadership in several liturgies on Easter Day. They likely have done the same for a number of liturgies through-out Holy Week. No doubt they have also been bringing the sacrament to the sick, comforting the dying, consoling the bereaved, burying the dead. Quite likely they have been actively supporting, nurturing, even cajoling the many lay ministries at work in the parish(es).

Reading the mind of God is pretty much guesswork; but one wonders. What is more precious in the sight of God? Is it hard working strung out members of an order of ministry, or, is it the know it all comments of posters who have the luxury of time to write about all that could be better in the church if only we were at the helm? Let me guess.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 8:33pm BST

David Shepherd-where did that come from? There are kernel of useful ideas in your diatribe, but you seem to have an axe to grind. To Tim-I am extremely conscious of our need to put our best foot forward and make the best impression possible. But this also has something to do with the worshipper seeing him/herself as a child of God among other children of God, recognizing our needa dn imperfections and building up each other in love. Why disparage those who actually ARE doing their best-just not the best you want. As the priest of an ordinary parish with ordinary people, I still assume that they are doing their best according their gifts. We could always do better, but a sneering judgement is always possible, since we simply do not have the talents and means for a stellar performance. perhaps how we live the Christian faith matters more than appearances. Don't get me wrong-I love fine choirs, great music, superb worship and gorgeous buildings. However, the average rural/small town parish is unlikely to provide these and we do the best we can. The writer of this artcile should have known what to expect and not be condescending. Do you think that God disregarded the worship she experienced? When one comes to scoff and doesn't expect to do anything else, why be surprised?

Posted by Richard Grand at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 9:13pm BST

I think that the article in the Spectator is appallingly uncharitable. There are occasional expressions of sympathy for the limitations of the congregation,but, generally, an air of smug superiority prevails. It does, however, bring up two things which I, as an American, have never understood. Why do people in the Church of England sit instead of kneel? Why aren't all the verses to hymns printed directly below the music?

Posted by Old Father William at Sunday, 7 April 2013 at 9:34pm BST

The rural parish episode could have been much worse....a screen with the bouncing ball, rock combo and wall to wall carpeting to ensure crappy acoustics...and oh, "who do we have visiting today, please stand up and introduce yourselves..." to embarrass one during the announcements....
I'll take wobbly old dears in the choir stalls any day. At least it's genuine.

Posted by evensongjunkie at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 12:19am BST

I agree with the Pluralist that Sarah Coakely's Easter Day Sermon is short on details. The substitution of the death of the striving self for the death of Jesus does not necessarily support belief in the resurrection of Jesus. A different way of living need not imply belief in anything supernatural.

Or maybe the doctrine is merely a picturesque way of saying things.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Posted by Gary Paul Gilbert at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 12:23am BST

I have two comments about the Spectator article and the comments it has generated.

Thought 1. Why does Ysende Graham, or anyone else believe that the kind of Easter worship she describes is a new phenomenon, or indicative of recent decline, or for that matter peculiar to rural contexts? Daniel Lamont, my memory does not go back 60 years, but I can well remember an Easter service in the suburbs of Nottingham in 1981 that was very similar to her description. There was a congregation of about 30 in a building big enough for 200, there was a robed choir numbering 3, all in their 70's, and a ring-in retired priest who preached about Easter Eggs. I suspect that much parish worship has always been a bit like that, or where would satirists like Peter Cook or Rowan Atkinson have gleaned their material?

Thought 2. There is a lovely story told by the late Roland Walls, church history lecturer at Cambridge and Edinburgh, and founder of the Community of Transfiguration. He described a worship service similar to my Nottingham one, or Ysende Graham's experience. He found it so gruelling that he found himself praying: "O God, why do I have to be here? This church is dead - the worship is terrible, the preaching is appalling - there is no atmosphere of worship here - why do I have to be here?" Then he heard a still small voice in his ear: "Now, Roland, I have to come!"

Posted by Edward Prebble at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 1:49am BST

Ysenda Maxtone Graham's piece in The Spectator is indeed highly critical of her rural Easter Day worship experience. However, she can take comfort from the Orthodox view that time spent in worship halts the ageing process (no wonder they have such long services). In the long run this will prove to be far more effective than any Olay moisturiser or Nivea Visage anti-wrinkle cream. If the dear lady gets to know about this minor miracle - she may even feel moved to pop along to her local fane on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity. Failing that - I'm sure there will always be an opening for her as a Mystery Worshipper on the Ship of Fools website!

Posted by Father David at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 7:20am BST

David Shepherd - I reflect that in the more dispiriting moments of frustrated initiatives in parish ministry I could write with similar frustration about the 'laity'. But I would be no more 'right' than you. 'Clericalism' and 'anti-clericalism' are two sides of the same coin. But it is not the currency of the Kingdom. Perhaps, on that point, we agree.

Posted by David at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 7:34am BST


No axe to grind. I just have a very different take on the labours of the 'hard working strung out members of an order of ministry', when lay resources are often squandered. As Bob Marley sang, 'in the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty'.

I think the tone of the article is actually quite light-hearted, rather than purposefully malevolent. Admittedly, the unflattering comparison between Choral Evensong on Radio 3 and Sunday Worship on Radio 4 reveals a high-church bias. Equally, a prayer for the grace to speak in the name of the Trinity should not attract any more criticism for disturbing the emotional impact of listening to Mary's resurrection encounter than it does in a cathedral service.

In spite of this, the writer raises some important issues that, if addressed, would make the first-time experience of any church, rural or urban, a rewarding one.

1. Emphasis on non-patronising participation. While family-oriented anecdotes and action-songs can tug at our heart strings, they should be employed sparingly as they can also be interpreted as emotional manipulation.

To locate and print out the hymn-sheet music for those who can read choral music, but are unfamiliar with the modernised forms of sung liturgy would make them feel a part of the congregation. Of course, it's disingenuous to claim to desire participation and then dread exchanging the sign of the Peace.

2. Theological induction in a sermon that simplistically leaps from the empty tomb to mission will lose all, but the devoted arm-chair theologians. If the eye-witnesses had difficulty in relating the empty tomb to 'all power is given unto me in heaven and in earth' (exaltation), and thence to 'go ye therefore' (universal mission), why would we expect more of uninitiated lay folk?

If Easter is about mission, it's about the vindicated promise to those whose lives have been cheapened and ravaged, as Christ's was, by the tyranny of prevailing social, civil and religious values. However brutally our lives and efforts are undermined and destroyed by the spirit of the age, they are valued and capable of invincible redemption by God.

So, if there is any criticism to be levelled at the Spectator article, this must be our chief complaint. It provides no hope of redemption.

Posted by David Shepherd at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 9:07am BST

Shame that the interesting piece on George Bell didn't make the cut:

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 12:57pm BST

Re David Shepherd " I just have a very different take on the labours of the 'hard working strung out members of an order of ministry', when lay resources are often squandered"

I'd be interested to know what your take is based on, particularly is it is based on any experience is developing and mentoring lay ministries? After three and one half decades of direct involvement with encouraging, recruiting, mentoring, supporting, and training various lay ministries , I think the "abundance of water" you imagine is really a group of scattered small oases in what is otherwise an increasingly parched landscape.

Interestingly, parishes in the diocese I live in
seem to have a chronic problem getting parish officers, lay Christian educators, pastoral visitors and the like. However, there is a line up of middle aged people wanting to be non-stipendiary priests, or what I think you folks call Local Ordained Ministers.

So I say God bless team vicars in rural communities. Lay ministers need to be team players. I'm not certain some of the vicar detractors fit that bill.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 1:48pm BST

Cynthia asked if the CofE was involved in the report The Lies We Tell Ourselves. The answer is no, but as this article explains, that may well have been beneficial to the outcome

Posted by Simon Sarmiento at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 3:22pm BST

Rod Gillis makes a good point. I have been a priest in a variety of parishes, rural and urban, in Canada for over 37 years. I have never ceased preaching about, recruiting, leading, "empowering", and supporting lay ministry. So have many clergy, as well as our Diocese and national Church. Yet the situation is not much better than it was before we did these things. The tendency of people to be passive and leave it to clergy has not changed all that much, with the exceptions of lay people who want to run the show, who dislike the clergy, or who feel that they know better and have agendas. However, as peoples' lives are busier and more complicated and the number of available, talented, and able people seems to be getting smaller, the onus is more and more on clergy, whether we like it or not.

Posted by Richard Grand at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 4:59pm BST

Rod, I have sympathy for your frustration. Yet isn't a possible clue here in the sincerely said "I have never ceased preaching about, recruiting, leading, "empowering", and supporting lay ministry". It does not seem to me very possible - as you have discovered - for clergy to 'do' this. Maybe what might work is the creation of a kind of vacuum, a gap, that able members of our eucharistic communities simply fill, uninvited as it were.

I reckon something important is said in this footnote to an article by The Revd O A Dyson called Clericalism, Church and Laity in the 1985 C of E publication All Are Called: Towards a Theology of the Laity: "In discussing ‘clericalism’ in this essay the author is not imputing to individuals bad faith, lack of integrity or ineffectiveness. Clericalism, understood as the undue influence of clergy, is not to be interpreted in individual terms but as a pervasive reality in which clergy and laity are deeply involved whether or not they want it, and whether or not they know it. Openly to discuss clericalism which can be found amongst clergy and laity may help us to understand more accurately a significant feature of the Christian environment to which we belong and to analyse some of the hidden, and none too attractive, influences to which our Christian lives are exposed".

Posted by Hugh Valentine at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 7:16pm BST

These are very complex questions. 'Plant' churches often do well, if doing well means getting a lot of people, but they are really only possible in urban contexts and they often base a lot of their appeal on a rhetoric of victim-hood. And, of course, from the perspective of many 'thinking Anglicans', they espouse a limited theology and - often - retrograde positions on gay people and even sometimes on women priests. So, although they 'do well' (in some sense), their growth is neceessarily circumscribed, and certainly they don't plausibly address the crisis of Christianity in the 21st century. I am not against them (not exactly), but the idea that here lies the solution is a delusion. The same applies - to some degree - to 'big' Evangelical outfits more or less within the C of E umbrella such as HTB.

Posted by John at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 7:31pm BST


I wouldn't dream of contrasting my lay preaching and mentoring experience with your more than three and a half decades of ordained ministry. It's clear that you've established for yourself the cause of lay inertia. It's unfortunate that the cure remains so elusive.

Richard provides a startling dichotomy of lay participation: divided between passive lay members who 'largely leave it to the clergy' and the exceptions of those 'who want to run the show, dislike the clergy, or feel that they know better and have agendas'. The happy medium to such a contrast would appear to be active lay members who simply do as they're told. Yet, I remember the distinction held by Christ regarding His friends. He entrusted His hidden purpose to them because they had stayed the course. They were so much more to Him than mere servants.

I might mention my experiences of black church leadership and how such leadership has a record of unparalleled growth in membership and empowerment of ordinary folk to organise against social and moral deprivation. However, I'm not encouraged by the stock First and Second World responses that I've read on many religious comment threads in the UK and elsewhere. They are often loaded with scepticism about the relative soundness of Third World Christian theology.

So, let's agree to disagree on your dichotomy of laity: divided (as it appears to be) between passive paralysis and the self-promoting para-priesthood.

'But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better."' (Luke 5:39)

Posted by David Shepherd at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 9:25pm BST

Re Hugh Valentine, the quote you provide actually belongs to Richard Grand.

Re, David Shepherd ( and perhaps Hugh as well) and the alleged dichotomy, I don't think there needs to be a dichotomy between clergy and laity. There are excellent and long standing theological resources on this issue. The radical and ground breaking work of people like Verna Dozier has provided great long standing conceptual tools for those of us passionate about the whole people.
Notwithstanding, the ability to engage a critical mass of the baptized in the ministry of the Whole People, to move from theoria to praxis, remains a big, and frequently elusive, challenge.

All beside the point however. Pointing to some more holistic church that might be does not justify the rather misinformed views about the realities of team ministry in rural communities. In fact, unless your rural communities are very different from ours here, my guess is that the writer from The Spectator was about the only person in church not engaging ministry in some way. My guess is that just about every soul in the imagined rural parish is doing ministry and that's why the church remains open. Don't make hard working and faithful pastors scapegoats for the state of the church.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 11:26pm BST

David Shepherd said:"The happy medium to such a contrast would appear to be active lay members who simply do as they're told." How did he reach that conclusion? No, not at all and I did not say or infer that conclusion. Even the idea of a "happy medium" is not helpful. I portrayed two extremes to make a point. What the Church needs is lay people who are truly happy being "the People of God" and who understand that this is the primary vocation of all the baptised. Priesthood and ordained ministry grow out of our common Baptism. Such lay people underatand the sacramental ministry of the ordained, but do not see themselves as subordinate or inferior in their work and ministry. They do not want to usurp clergy or become min-clergy and have no agendas and are not jealous. They recognize God's call to them and serve in various capacities with faithfulness, zeal, good will, and cheerfulness. They support the ministries of all the baptised, clergy and lay, and get on with it. They give leadership and do not cling to any perks or privileges. They have no power issues. This applies equally to clergy, of course.
They take initiative, understand and live their faith, and are Christians "seven whole days, not one in seven".

Posted by Richard Grand at Monday, 8 April 2013 at 11:34pm BST

Just to provide a balance here, I have only ever worshipped in rural parishes and they all had thriving lay involvement, from licensed lay ministry down to the church cleaning rota. I have never been in a church where someone didn't have a role if they wanted one and only very old or unwell people weren't deeply involved in some activity or other.
Not all the priests were equally good at letting parishioners get on with it and we did have the occasional very very stressed micro manager, but we never had one who had to do everything.
To me, that's the strength of small communities and rural ministry.

Posted by Erika Baker at Tuesday, 9 April 2013 at 8:06am BST

I think, Edward Prebble, you have misunderstood me. I was not referring to patterns of worship - I too remember services such as you describe - but to patterns of ministry; ie one church, one parson. The subsequent posts have offered interesting alternative patterns of ministry which are worth exploring.

Daniel Lamont

Posted by Daniel Lamont at Tuesday, 9 April 2013 at 2:35pm BST

Thanks Simon, the article was interesting. I'm not sure that I'm buying into the idea that the absence of CoE in the report was a good thing, but I'm better informed, thank you!

For the record, the Spectator article was dreadful. What a nasty, smug, arrogant, guest! I also prefer beautiful high church, but geez, variety gives more people the opportunity to be fed. The sexist, ageist remarks (I don't care if they came from a woman) and assumptions were unnecessary - to say the very least.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 9 April 2013 at 7:43pm BST
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