Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Wrestling with the Angel: living the ordained life

This is an essay written some years ago when I was the Vicar of St Mary's in Hawera, Taranaki, and the Archdeacon of Waitotara. I almost forget writing it now but a request for more on the novel Monsignor Quixote led to a computer search and this essay was disinterred.

I think the questions it raises are still pertinent, especially the engagements of the ordained life. I offer it to any readers of this blog with my best wishes and the hope that they might find something of value in it.

24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.[1]

This paper has its genesis in my recollection of a rather unsatisfactory conversation with an English Bishop a quarter of a century or so ago.  We were, I recall, driving through a not so palatial part of West London in my little Renault 4 when, in a moment of surprising episcopal insight, the Bishop gestured at some fairly humdrum rows of semi-detached dwellings and said, ‘How do I tell any new priest, look here is the rest of your life?’

What was he saying?  Is it something like, they come here with their dreams and their calling, well educated and articulate, and in the parish they break their hearts as the congregations become older and die off?  That they come here to break their hearts against the (mostly) amiable indifference of an affluent and secularised society?   That in this spiritual desert they will minister, mostly forgotten and ignored, until they quit?

Now, 25 years later, in New Zealand, and writing out of the context of a country town in South Taranaki, I find myself asking the same question, but with an edge and urgency that the good Bishop had not imagined.  While the demands of parish ministry remain as difficult as they have ever been, the way in which ordained ministry is understood has changed so radically that now were one to speak of vocation, or priestly formation, or the supportive grace of holy orders, it would likely be received as advocating an outdated and unwanted clericalism. Now, economic crises have caused the development of alternative (non-stipended) forms of ministry, notably Local Shared Ministry (LSM) and Total Ministry (TM): these have seen the rapid and widespread ordination of men and women as priests so that a sacramental ministry can be locally provided.  In short, where formerly ordination was to a vocation and profession requiring learning and formation, now that seems much less the case.  At times this seems horribly reminiscent of the grinding down aspect of economic devaluation, when financial shortfalls are managed by simply printing money until the currency becomes worthless. 

How might such ministry schemes place priestly being under question? This could be described under three headings: first, the ordained person as a professional; second, the ordained person as a sign of God in the community; third, the significance of ordination.   (1) The adoption of a ministry model that replaces the seminary/university trained priest with local people who, whether in other employment or retired, are ‘trained on the job’, can only be interpreted as saying that a priest no longer needs to be a professional with the learning and spiritual formation one has previously expected (though, sadly, not always found!). (2) More profoundly, there is also a change in symbolism: this is critical because symbols are the deep ‘language’ which shapes and forms our identity.  Previously, ordained persons have symbolized something: differentiated, perhaps even isolated, by vocation, training, stipend and sometimes details such as clothing, they have been counter-cultural reminders of God and the life of the spirit.  With clergy now ‘called’ from within the local community and with a new emphasis on a lack of differentiation, the potent shaping form of the symbolic language has become, at best, muddled; at worst, emptied of meaning.  (3) Theologically: the understanding of the nature of ordained ministry has become more tenuous since the development of a theology of ministry as something all Christians do by virtue of baptism.  Certainly, since the Lima statement on ministry, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) it has become the fashion to speak of ministry as a capacity with which each member of the church is endowed. As a consequence of this, it is only a short step to the necessity for the traditional orders of ordained ministry falling under question. The theological seesaw has now gone to the opposite extreme of clericalism, and in the process provoked a crisis for ordained ministry. While all the baptised now tend to be affirmed as ‘ministers’, the ordained ministry, without any strong counterbalancing theology to speak for it in relation to the baptised, has become devalued.

Looking about me in the local church, the attritive effects of such devaluation are not hard to see.   I minister in an archdeaconry where there is now such a diversity of understanding of ordained ministry that there is little sense of a common identity or focus. In my church foyer I can pick up a recent copy of that admirable publication, Anglican Taonga: and find an article on ordained ministry which dutifully deplores what it tags as ‘esoteric mysteries’ and ‘priestcraft’, and instead describes priests as kaumatua or trusted elders – as if that somehow shed light on the matter. In relation to this, one can have no fault with Greenwood’s statement on the ‘inherited burden of clericalism:’
At the level of attitude, as well as of theology, it is vital for clergy to reject the inherited burden of clericalism, in particular, the collusion between priest and people, that the clergy, because of their ordination, are automatically more attuned to the life of God.[2]
However, it is one thing to reject ‘clericalism’, but quite another thing when the church adopts practices and theological positions that undermine the mystery at the heart of ordained life.  It is ironic that in a post-modern society that seeks the spiritual and is open to mystery, so many voices in the church seem determined, (a) to demolish any suggestion of the numinous in relation to ordained ministry; and (b) minimise, if not quite abolish, any distinctions between lay ministry and ordained ministry.   Parish ministry is difficult enough but when ordained life itself is so at question within the church, how can anyone survive it?

This is not a new question.  Austin Farrer stated the dilemma rather well many years ago.
There is nothing to stop a layman from being a more learned and a more penetrating theologian than the priest of his parish; nothing, certainly to prevent a layman from being a much more understanding helper of people in any sort of trouble or sorrow.  What distinctive place does (the priest) hold in the mighty purpose of God?[3]

Unless our church is prepared to answer this, we are in trouble.  A recent film, Priest, begins with a little tableau showing an elderly priest carrying a large crucifix and charging at the Bishop’s residence with it, as if with a battering ram, and thrusting it through the bishop’s sitting room window.  The priest had been sacked from his parish and, shortly after he has left the presbytery, sitting in his new bleak surroundings, he offers an equally bleak summary of his vocation: he simply says, ‘What a wasted life.’

Living with mystery: priest and poet
I want now to take a minor detour to try and view the difficult mystery of ordained life from another angle.  It has always seemed to me that there was a connection between ordination and the call felt by some men and women to be a poet.  It is not hard to think of priests who have been poets: famous names roll off the tongue, including, for instance, Donne, Crashaw, Herbert, King, Hopkins, and R.S.Thomas.  Both poet and priest are essentially workers of the Spirit and both forms of being may be judged, by a brutally pragmatic society, as redundant.  In this regard both priest and poet are defiant signs of a counter-cultural mode of being. (I will return to this in relation to parish life later.)  James K Baxter, in the essay ‘Conversation with an Ancestor’[4], touched on the religious dimension of the poet’s being and in that way also throws some light on priesthood.  It is worth quoting at some length:
His self is an artist’s baggage, his burden, his problem, his doubtful treasure, which he must come to understand on his own terms under pain of losing his gift:…His job is to be useless and creative – resembling by analogy the apparently useless exercises of the Trappist monk who may feed pigs or build walls or plant vegetables, but whose real work is an endless struggle in silence to find in the abyss of his own soul the source of holiness and the meaning of the creation.[5]
Baxter makes the point that both priest and poet must deal with the life of the spirit, that inner life which struggles for expression within the mystery of creation and of being.  This has got nothing to do with function, but everything to do with the mystery of being.   Both priest and poet are voices for the unheard song of God as it resounds behind the discords of our lives.

There was also a time when both priest and poet could speak quite seriously of their life and work as a ‘calling’.  Behind the idea of the calling, a response to the unheard voice that summons, is the sense of being caught up in a mystery and being required to respond at the peril of otherwise losing the very ‘essence’ of oneself.  Does that describe it?  I am not sure what words to use here.  (Dare one speak of ‘essence’ given the massive assumptions such a term implies?  Perhaps the word is a gesture and an interim metaphor for lack of anything better.)  The blind poet, Milton, fearful that his blindness would curtail his divine call to poetry, expressed these deepest fears in Sonnet xix with a soul-chilling reference to the parable of the talents,
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless…

This idea of calling as a matter of life or death, as a matter of ultimate seriousness, is not of course anything to do with function but with being itself.  It is an ontological statement of identity.

How might this connect with the theology of ordination?  Much conversation about ministry has tended to be in over simplified terms that swing between function and ontology.  Whereas a function may change or be terminated, an ontology is understood to be indelible.   While any theology of the ordained life must allow a connection between function and ontology, only the ontological dimension will anchor ordination in something beyond functions that may be picked up or laid down at will.   Only an ontological dimension gives the ordained life an ultimate seriousness.  Before dismissing this assertion, one should consider what rejection of this entails.  I suspect that whatever argument is used against the ontology of ordination, could also be used against any of the sacraments, including baptism.  I don’t think even Greenwood’s subtle relational and Trinitarian view of ministry quite achieves as much as he hopes: it helps us understand the essential demotic ‘style’ of ministry but not the mystery itself.[6]

Wrestling with the angel: living with uncertainty
In understanding the ordained life, I have set to one side the debate between New Testament scholars and early church historians.  That is not to devalue their work, but to accept that these disciplines can’t provide the answers we seek: the tension between the interpretations of scripture and history, on the one hand, and the lived life of church and ministry, on the other hand, has always been there.   The consequence is that one lives the ordained life with some uncertainty: and the sheer difficulty and tension of the experience are what I have in mind with the title of this essay, ‘Wrestling with the angel’. 

Obviously the title is drawn from Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling bout in the Genesis saga (Genesis 32: 25-32).  The core of the story is the struggle at a crisis point in Jacob’s life: Jacob is in the wilderness at night and the following morning he must face the brother he has tricked and cheated.  He must endure this night in a wild place: alone, in darkness, in tension, fear and uncertainty.  Yet it is through his endurance of these things that blessing, and the purpose of God, will come.  The unknown nature of the opponent; the question as to whether the whole struggle is real or just a dream; these are uncertainties which leave any reading of the experience under question.  Yet Jacob is changed by the experience, read it how one may, and accordingly this story may offer an image for the ordained life in a time of uncertainty.

It seems to me that an ordained person faces a vocational question that is at one level a matter concerning identity (i.e. who am I?) but at a deeper level the question is something different entirely, and much more interesting.  It is a question addressed to God and may be expressed as something like, ‘Who are you and what are you doing with me?’  Of course every Christian may well ask just these questions, many times.  The only difference may be that the ordained have submitted to a way of life in which these questions are inescapable and central.   Perhaps living these questions is the ordained life?

Imagine a typical scene: the priest alone in the church saying the Daily Office.   Hardly a heroic figure!  There is no obvious social relevance in what is being done.  There are no signs or wonders: it has absolutely no entertainment value whatsoever.  Is anything happening at all?   On a bad day all of those possibilities (and more) will likely have crossed that priest’s mind.  On a good day, who can tell?  Which is exactly as it should be.  One is reminded of that wry observation in Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’, ‘But there was no information’.[7]  As in the Jacob story, the One with whom we are engaged tends to remain silent. 

Yet the prayers are said and perhaps there is something heroic after all, but in a minor key.  Something heroic and comical at the same time, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, though to say that is inevitably to think of the admirable comic and heroic priestly figure bearing that name in Graham Greene’s novel Monsignor Quixote.  Here again, as Greene certainly understood, perhaps the ordained one is a sign that is both heroic and foolish.  The mystery of the ordained life is to be marked out; to endure uncertainty; to be faithful, as best one can, to the mystery of the vocation; and, almost certainly, at times to appear to others, and oneself, as foolish.

In the post-modern theological climate of the church, the tenacity of Jacob models the mode of the ordained life.  The image of struggling in the dark with an undisclosed opponent is particularly appropriate. Consistently one encounters confusion and mixed messages: over styles of ministry; what it means to be church; what it means to be ordained.  The list could extend far beyond these few headings, and the ordained will experience the darkness and conflict differently.  For some the pressures may be mainly theological in character, perhaps a sense of pain at the present lack of clarity for ordained ministry, and perhaps a temptation to become aligned with some theological model or cause that will offer reassurance.  For others the darkness and struggle may be more institutional in character: the sheer mess and muddle of some church structures at this time can be a real source of disquiet and alienation.  For others it may be something even more intimate: perhaps questions involving gender or sexual orientation; or perhaps a nuance of that terrifying existential angst in which one wonders whether the whole life commitment is to a fantasy and one will end up like that poor priest in the film, sitting in darkness and bitterly lamenting, ‘What a wasted life.’  Here, amidst such pressures, the tenacity of Jacob is instructive.  Jacob’s question, ‘Who are you?’ is a version of the question I believe central to the ordained life: ‘Who are you and what are you doing with me?’  The answer is in the question itself and in the repeated asking, and in the passionate engagement with that question throughout the ordained life.

For those who are engaged with questions about ordained being, there are points in the gospels where Christ seems to provide a model of living with questions and radical uncertainty.  For instance, in Matthew, Christ asks ‘Who do you say that I am?’  How one responds is of course the subject of the gospel, but by analogy, the ordained life is similarly cloaked in mystery.  If there is a knack to living this life, it must be to avoid shortcuts and over-ready answers, and rather to live with the questions and embrace the uncertainties.  That parish priest, rising from prayers in the empty church, may feel the pressure of the questions, as relentless as one’s own pulse, but around the walls are the images of the saints, those other fools for God.  Occasionally, there is a sense of surprise that one is somehow amongst the best of company.

Ordination and Naming in the Wilderness
It is worthwhile paying attention to the place in which Jacob’s struggle took place.  It starts out as an unidentified wilderness but it ends in becoming a place to which he gives a name.   Naming comes out of passionate engagement and is central to the ordained life.   This life involves living with a holy vulnerability that dares give names to things: that dares to name those things that most truly frighten and appal us, and hold them up to the light of God.  In spiritual direction the deeply incised self-understanding that goes with such ‘naming’ is frequently the point for future growth.  So it can also be in parish life: the ‘cure of souls’ is about that kind of gently exercised ministry that helps nudge folk along the way to wholeness.  While that happens with individuals it happens also across a wider community than just the parish faithful: for instance, one calls at a farmhouse in a valley to talk with strangers about a funeral.  In such privileged moments we have the opportunity to listen and to help find the words that will utter another’s story and in so doing help connect their story with the great narrative of God.  This also is a kind of ‘naming’: an act of holy listening and attentiveness that helps a community to register the presence and activity of God.

The wilderness is always that which disturbs and engages us and from which we seek meaning.  The ways in which it is experienced will vary enormously.  For the ordained, the call to a parish is frequently an invitation to encounter a wilderness.  However, speaking of this experience as wilderness must not be allowed to conjure up images of a dreary rural landscape, for any church appointment can have dimensions that threaten to freeze the soul. It is this aspect, which this paper focuses upon.

The invitation to give this paper particularly included the expectation that I would give some reflection to my present calling as vicar in Hawera, South Taranaki.  This engagement has involved first of all attentiveness to the place itself, the land, the weather, all the various phenomena that impact upon me.  There is a strong tradition in the church, especially in Celtic spirituality, for doing this.  One writer from within this tradition has expressed the value of allowing one’s response to proceed in this way.

Landscape is not matter nor merely nature, rather it enjoys a luminosity.  Landscape is numinous.  Each field has a different name and in each place something different happened.  Landscape has a secret and silent memory, a narrative of presence where nothing is ever lost or forgotten.[8]

At first appearances South Taranaki appears an undulating landscape that eventually rears up into the lower slopes of Mt Taranaki.  The appearance is deceptive because that undulating plateau is deeply bisected by rivers that have formed deep winding gullies and off the main road the country is surprisingly broken and difficult to traverse, increasingly so as one moves inland from the gentle coastal slopes.  On the exposed terrain of the coast the prevailing salt wind sculpts hedges and trees, burns the fronds of palms and exasperates gardeners.  Boxthorn hedges resist both wind and man: brutal and tough these breaks enclose farms, shelter cattle, and cut folk off.   Here dairy is king.  The cows determine the rhythms of life.

But this farming landscape has its ghosts.   In any dip or hidden around a corner one comes upon the gaunt concrete shells of a past that is barely remembered.  These are the old dairy factories that used to process the milk or cheeses for a small cluster of local farms.  The workers lived nearby, close to the factory; they spent their money in the local shops; supported local clubs and churches.  Their children attended the local school.  Then the small factories closed as the farmers merged them into one giant co-op.   The consequence is most readily seen in the small country towns like Kaponga and Eltham with the empty storefronts of what used to be lively centres.  It is felt in the closed schools, the empty rural churches, and the mouldering country halls that used to be lively with Saturday night dances. The mergers continue.  Not dairy factories now, but the farms.  Farms are now getting bigger and jobs fewer.  The wealth of the region becomes ever more centred in the hands of a few.  People continue to mainly drift northwards.

For South Taranaki, Hawera is the commercial centre.  The town centre is a reasonably elegant cluster of turn of the century buildings. It is a wealthy community, a place many farmers choose for retirement.  It is a town that has never quite achieved the status that had been anticipated: this may be seen in the remnants of the opera house and the show buildings, the faded letters on some of the older structures.  Nonetheless it is a proud community; close; interrelated, and the people have long memories.  If you come here from the outside, it is hard to belong. The novelist, Ronald Hugh Morrieson lived here all his life, and the dark gothic element of his fictions now makes perfect sense to me!

The church of St Mary is a splendid building of brick and timber and the parish complex is delightful.  Yet the numerous brass plaques and the mementoes given from other Anglican churches that have closed in the parish or adjacent area are a reminder that this is a shrinking community of faith: St Andrews, St Paul’s, St James and St Elizabeth’s are no more.  Parishioners remember with fond nostalgia the great days under Allan Pyatt just after the war, but since then the worshipping community has steadily shrunk. I have seen the worshipping congregation at the 9.30 Eucharist shrink from about 55 to 45 over the last four years.  Mainly this has been through deaths or people leaving the district.  The real gap in the congregation mix is the small number of young families and absence of people in the professions: this is a congregation of the retired with very limited opportunities for growth.

I mean no disrespect when I say that South Taranaki is my wilderness. I can speak this way because this place is also now my home.  If the wilderness is indeed the place of deep questioning and testing, of the deepest engagement, then this place is that for me.   I don’t know how many times I have looked at the church and the community and felt isolated and wondered what on earth I am doing here.  What do I have to give this church, this community?  Remembering that Bishop of 25 years ago, I have certainly wondered if this place is now ‘my life’?  I have said yes to that question, while wondering why.   Since that assent I think I have noted a greater sense of freedom.  However I have no sense of what that might involve. There are moments when one feels uncomfortable and yet also strangely liberated.  Of course, since I write this on a good day, I acknowledge the possibility that I may experience it differently tomorrow!  An image in one of Baxter’s later poems catches something of this way of being and, intriguingly, draws upon the persona of Jacob.
        To sweat out the soul’s blood

Midnight after midnight is the ministry of Jacob,
And Jacob will be healed.[9]

This has been deliberately a ‘confessional essay’ (i.e. a personal reflection) rather than a theological argument.   Such personal reflections are usually where theology starts to move from, or to build upon.[10]  For me the truly exciting aspect of the ordained life is that one remains consistently curious about what God is doing.  In the mess and muddle, in the midst of very ordinary things, one catches fleeting glimpses of a holy shaping purpose.  Like a very attentive fly fisherman waiting for a fish to rise, one keeps waiting for such glimpses.

[1] Genesis 32, The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
[2] Robin Greenwood. Transforming Priesthood (London: SPCK, 1999), p.146.
[3] Austin Farrer, ‘Walking Sacraments’ (1968), in A Celebration of Faith: Communications, mostly to students (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), p.109.
[4] James K. Baxter. ‘Conversation with an Ancestor’ in Frank McKay (ed), James K Baxter as Critic, Auckland, Heinemann Educational Books, 1978.
[5] Ibid. page 99.
[6] Greenwood writes; ‘It is my contention that such a relational view of ministry outflanks previous disputes as to whether the individual priest possesses an indelible character or whether the character of ordination is functional or ontological.’ loc. cit., pp.152-153.
[7] T.S.Eliot. The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), p.103.
[8] John O’Donohue, Anamcara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (Bantam, 1997) p.124.
[9] James K. Baxter, Collected Poems (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1979) p.22.
[10] For instance, if there is anything in my sense that LSM is in danger of blurring or devaluing the ordained life in any of the ways that I suspect, then that may encourage some sustained theological reflection and possibly amendments to our church practice.  The subject spawns questions the more one thinks about it: if we need a revised theology for the ordained life, do we also not need a theology for being laity?  Do we need to clarify the distinctions between ministry and mission?

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