In the current edition of the Church Times (Comment April 1st, 2022) we are given a stark portrayal of bullying as it is experienced in the Church today. Bullying manifests itself through unrelenting pressure applied by an increasingly centralised, and thereby out of touch, organisation. It is a phenomenon about which the Church has been in denial for far too long with the result that its clergy are becoming fearful and demoralised, especially if they have not bought in one hundred percent to the internal system which controls them and from which many are feeling increasingly estranged.
This is not to say that the Church does not attract deference and even respect. It still has a certain mystique. The Church is still needed to enable people to manage life’s great mysteries, especially those which pertain to dying and to death itself. It is able to do this, in some measure at least, because its structures and authority system afford a measure of formality to its public ministry which many non-churchgoers appreciate when life events call for it. The rest of the time the Church is largely ignored. This is not because its priests and ministers are personally deficient, although they will often be blamed for failures which are not theirs, but due to a lack of support or simply to the fact that appointments are made with scant reference to the people who will be served by the appointee, or to whether that person will be happy and well suited to a given environment. The institutional church is not good at paying attention to particularities. It would rather think in terms of strategies and agendas which have largely come to replace emotional intelligence and genuine spiritual vision.
Given the kind of bullying that we are increasingly reading about, and which many of us will have experienced at some point in our lives as priests, it is perhaps time that the Church took stock of what it is and what it is about. The heart of the matter lies in the objectifying of its collective life. It sees itself not as a community of people who live and work together in a spirit of apostolic love for their Lord and for each other, but as an institution which is fast acquiring a kind of Orwellian identity, a post-modern managerial mindset built on an arcane authority structure that is no longer fit for purpose, if for no other reason that it cuts itself off from the clergy it is designed to serve, rather than control, and runs on fear.
The Church as organisation, separated from the human beings who try to serve it, and from those it serves, is afraid of failure. This is not just a matter of dwindling numbers in regard to Sunday attendance, but of a fear of an increasing resemblance to someone seen from a distance at sea and presumed to be waving when they are in fact drowning. And this in a sense is what is happening to it. It is drowning for lack of trust.
There is a breakdown of trust between the powers that run the system and many clergy who feel unheard and un cared for, but who are also held in bondage to it. Few clergy have the time or the training to do other jobs or engage in creative work that might not only enrich their lives (possibly financially) but also their ministry. Few parish clergy have the time to write novels or design houses.
But perhaps clergy are themselves partly to blame, since the only way to avoid the administrative demands of dioceses, which can be controlling and even invasive, is to keep their heads below the official diocesan radar, say nothing of their emotional and spiritual needs and soldier on as best they can while drawing as little attention to themselves as possible.
Retired clergy, who are largely ignored by diocesan officialdom, are often in a more fortunate position. They can quietly connect with people at a local level, become known and loved for who they are and, on the whole, are rarely bothered by the diocese. But hard-pressed parish incumbents will have a very different story to tell. Not only must they fill out appraisal forms, along with other administrative demands made on them in regard to the maintenance of buildings and graveyards, as well as to parish quotas, but they live in general fear of complaints being made about them, often fomented through clergy gossip.
Is there a solution to this sorry state of affairs? The answer to that question lies, I believe, in working together towards a renewal of trust, to what it feels like to really trust another human being and know their trust in return. It is a dangerous exercise for the institutional Church to undertake because, simply stated, it involves ‘dying to self’, or, perhaps better, shedding or dying to the Church’s comfortable public identity, based on internal status and driven by status-driven anxiety, in order to lay claim once again to its true self.
As in the lives of people, this is an exercise that demands the whole person and one that can only be carried out across the barriers people erect between each other when they are afraid, or wish to control, other people – which amounts to the same thing. Such an exercise, if we are to be realistic, will only begin to be undertaken when the need for it is most keenly felt. The Church ought to be feeling this need right now, not because it is in danger of disappearing numerically, but because of the way its internal workings are in direct opposition to what it stands for, the living out of the Kingdom of God in the world in such a way as to make Christ visible to that world which he loves and for which he died.