Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The rise and rise of the deanery…

One of the more delightful items of post waiting for me in a Babel like tower on the hall table on my return from France was the latest report to the Church in Wales’ Governing Body on the Review of Clergy terms of Service. “Yet another guaranteed insomnia cure,” was my first thought as I skimmed through it before almost committing it to the "filing cabinet" which sits by the side of my desk. Not entirely unexpectedly there were sections of this document which could be of great concern for those of us trying to preserve (seeking to restore, is probably more realistic now) the traditional faith within the Province. Predictably, there were the expected proposals for a move towards a system of “common tenure,” a rather dubious status very familiar to our brothers across the border in the Church of England.
However, tucked away at the end of the report as one of the potential illustrations of the occasions when the Province’s complaints procedure against the clergy could be set in motion was a “failure to regularly attend meetings of the PCC or Deanery Chapter.” Split infinitives on one side (and Church in Wales documents now read as if they have been badly translated from the original Welsh) this made me sit up and take notice.
Now a consistent failure to attend one’s own PCC meetings would obviously flag up a significant breakdown of a parochial ministry and be a sure indication that the non-attender was in need of urgent and appropriate help in order to get his priestly ministry back on track, but I worry – a lot - about the recommendation that a failure to attend deanery chapter constitutes a similar problem; in fact, that would constitute a sea change in the status of deaneries within Anglican diocesan structures.
Previously deanery chapter meetings have been a convenient forum for the discussion of issues of concern to the clergy in their parochial ministry. The rural dean (“area dean,” now, alas!) despite the “sly shade” of Rupert Brooke’s “Grantchester,” has largely been a genial, collegial figure nominated by the clergy themselves to deal with necessary administrative matters and to represent the views of the clergy to the diocesan bishop.
However, the modern trend has been very much to build up the status of the deanery (historically nothing more than a convenient and voluntary association of parishes) into one of the vital pillars of the diocesan structure, and to regard the “area dean” not so much as the clergy’s representative to the bishop, but as a kind of ecclesiastical middle manager appointed to do the bidding of the diocesan hierarchy –in effect, a complete reversal of his historic role.
Attendance at deanery chapter was at one time, if not always an unalloyed pleasure, hardly an onerous or challenging aspect of the parish priest’s life. But with the advent of women’s ordination and the moves towards women bishops, deanery life has become much more politicised, and for the isolated traditionalist (whether catholic or evangelical) fraught with problems. How, for example, does one relate to fellow clergy who, one believes with the Universal Church, cannot actually be priests at all? With ecumenical courtesy, of course, but problems still occur if that courtesy is not reciprocated and one’s views anathematised by the overwhelming majority of one’s deanery colleagues. Here we bear the scars of that after a lengthy and ultimately rather futile attempt at deanery re-organisation.
So for non-attendance at a deanery chapter to become, in effect, a serious disciplinary offence is a huge matter of concern for those of us whose theology makes such attendance highly problematical if not downright impossible. Add to that the wilful refusal of the Welsh hierarchy to take seriously or even comprehend the need for alternative provision for traditionalists to be made in terms of deanery membership (as in episcopal care,) and we have potentially a ready made weapon with which to drive out the remaining orthodox clergy from the province altogether. It’s sad, even tragic, that one should have to regard these proposals with this degree of suspicion; but it is a realistic attitude in the present crisis when solemn promises have been dishonoured, and also one borne out by events across the pond in TEC, to believe that if a particular power can be used (or misused,) then sooner or later it will be. The sensible option (the Christian option, even) is not to grant that power in the first place.
The failure to make provision of any kind for the orthodox in the Church in Wales is partly due to the antipathy felt by some bishops, senior clergy and laypeople to the traditionalist position (otherwise known as the historic faith of the Church) but also to an abject fear of giving offence to the increasingly vocal and militant women’s ministry lobby who now tend to regard any provision whatsoever for their opponents as a concession too far and as an affront to both their gender and to their individual ministries and sense of vocation. Of course, they have a point: there really is no future for an ecclesial body which recognises or even tolerates two incompatible doctrines of the apostolic ministry. Ultimately, heterodoxy and orthodoxy cannot co-exist, not that they would put it quite like that.
Having said all this, and putting the disastrous revisionism of the Anglican world on one side for a moment, it would be good just once in a while to receive official communications which spoke of fatherly or brotherly concern and support rather than documents couched in purely legalistic and punitive terms prescribing disciplinary measures to be invoked in the case of individual pastoral failure.
Every pastoral breakdown when it occurs has at its root a physical or mental and, almost(?) invariably, a spiritual cause. What we need today are more bishops and clergy in the mould of St Francois de Sales, St Gregory the Great, George Herbert, the Abbe Huvelin, and, in this anniversary year, St Jean Vianney, and far fewer “efficient” administrators whose hearts and minds are closed to the pressures and problems of priestly ministry and the “demons” which beset those called and commissioned to engage in it in the largely hostile environment of today.

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