Taking care

I’m reading at the moment Eric Stoddart’s Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and being Watched (Ashgate: Farnham and Burlington, 2011). Stoddart rightly recognises the legitimate anxieties most citizens harbour about surveillance, but also emphasises that surveillance can be undertaken for purposes of care. I was reminded of this at a recent meeting of the diocesan Ministry Development Review Supporters. Words like ‘review’ or ‘appraisal’ often evoke resistance among those on the receiving end, clergy being no more immune to this reaction than those who work in academic institutions, which is the environment I know best.

Review is often initially perceived as intrusive and threatening. My own experience of MDR, however, both as a review supporter and as a reviewee, suggests that the dimension of care is in practice uppermost. What struck me at the meeting in question was the degree of concern for the isolation experienced by clergy, especially full-time stipendiary clergy, and the unremitting nature of the demands made on them. A particular issue which is often overlooked, both by congregations and by church authorities, is the sense of bereavement that clergy are bound to experience when they retire from a ministry to which they have dedicated virtually all their waking hours. Sensitive application of mechanisms like MDR can be helpful, among other ways, in assisting clergy to prepare for retirement, and to develop (or recover) a life which is not wholly consumed by service to a congregation.

At the meeting, I announced that I wanted to retire from the role of MDR Supporter, one of several ‘ancillary’ ministerial jobs that I am gradually relinquishing.  I did so  in the belief that the care of ministerial colleagues demands a level of commitment and energy which I am finding harder to maintain as I get older.


Well done, Church of Ireland!

Joy and thankfulness that the Church of Ireland has elected the first woman bishop in these islands. Rev. Pat Storey, Rector of St Augustine’s, Derry, is to be the bishop of Meath and Kildare. And it is particularly satisfying that, for reasons which have to do with the history of that diocese, she will be known as ‘Most Reverend’. Alleluia!


I recently took part in a concelebrated Eucharist, on the occasion of an ordination. I suppressed my long-held reservations about the notion of concelebration, out of courtesy to those whose guest I was, but I still have questions about the theology of the practice. It is clear that the role of president at the Eucharistic celebration was established from an early stage in the Church’s history, but there also seems to have been an understanding that the Eucharist was a celebration by the whole congregation. True concelebration would seem to me to require that the whole congregation be gathered round the table, rather than that some of the congregation be invited to join the president simply by virtue of the office they hold.

Starting out

I’ve been silent for some time, I know, but this seems as good a day as any to start  blogging again. For on this day fifty years ago, I graduated as BA in Modern Languages from Queen’s University, Belfast.

What my mentors had had in mind for me was that after graduation I would go back into the grammar school where I had been taught, and spend the next forty years imparting the complexities of French syntax to unwilling youngsters. I think I would have lasted two weeks at most. Fortunately, however, my University teachers encouraged me to go on to postgraduate work in my preferred subject, Spanish, and I eventually had a mostly happy and fulfilled career as a lecturer in Spanish Language and Literature.

Universities were different places in those days. The notion that students would later come to be considered ‘customers’ would have been unthinkable, as would the idea of our evaluating our lecturers. Nor did we imagine that there would come a time when students would finish their University courses with debts of £30,000 or more, which would continue to be a millstone round their necks until well into middle age.  Neither we undergraduates nor our lecturers felt any need to apologise for pursuing learning for its own sake, nor did anyone question that such a pursuit should be funded from the public purse.

But of course it couldn’t last. The downside was that there was little explicit acknowledgement of accountability to the long-suffering tax-payer, and little attempt to make a case for the social relevance of humanities disciplines in terms that the public could understand and support: their value was assumed to be self-evident. Though I was privileged to have excellent and committed teachers, some of my generation in other institutions were frankly sold short by self-serving and lazy academics. Looking back, I think my cohort was experiencing the last of the old elitist kind of higher education, which was just about to give way to the concept of mass education. It is hard to fault the demand that universities should give ‘value for money’, but the whole atmosphere of the sector is now much more competitive and utilitarian, and has thereby become less humane.

Some issues were specific to Queen’s. The University prided itself on being an oasis of tolerance in a society riven with sectarian conflicts, and on the whole it managed to sustain this ethos, at least until the conflicts intensified in the 1970s. No-one during my time as an undergraduate could have envisaged that a lecturer in the Law Faculty would later be murdered on campus by republican paramilitaries. But there was a price to pay for maintaining this illusion of pluralism. Many of the lecturing staff were from outside Northern Ireland, and adopted an attitude of Olympian detachment from local problems. Furthermore, the relative avoidance of internal sectarian conflict was only achieved by a tacit agreement to leave one’s tribal loyalties at the door when one entered — but they were often picked up again on the way out.

On a brief visit to Belfast last February, I walked round the Queen’s campus at night, and was impressed with the number of new buildings (including a handsome new Library) and the vastly improved amenity of the environment. In every way, the University seems to have gone from strength to strength.With all its limitations in the 1960s, my alma mater provided me with a passport to what has been a richly fulfilled life. Thank you, all of you who have helped me along the way.

The fudge has turned rancid

A while ago, I posted here about my gratitude and joy at the announcement in 1992 that the Church of England had removed the canonical impediment to the ordination of women to the priesthood. My feelings last Tuesday were exactly the opposite: grief mixed with anger at the waste of an opportunity to set right a long-standing injustice. With hindsight, though, the seeds of Tuesday’s débacle were sown twenty years ago when ill-considered concessions were made to those who stubbornly held out against the settled will of the Church, concessions which gave a spurious legitimacy to continued discrimination against half the human race. A Church which behaves in this way cannot complain if it is regarded as an irrelevant anachronism by the rest of society.

Hope Reborn

Yes, I know.

Guantánamo is still functioning.

The US  is still violating Pakistani sovereignty and killing civilians with drones.

Not to mention the Dodge City-style slaying of Osama Bin Laden.

But it would take a heart of stone not to be stirred by the outpouring of joy and sheer relief at President Obama’s victory in the election. There will be stormy waters ahead, but at least the healthcare package is safe for now, and there is less possibility of an attack on Iran.

So go for it, Mr President. Face down the bigots, racists and ignoramuses. You have four years to pursue what makes for peace and reconciliation in America and in the world, and to start creating a truly compassionate order.

We’re praying for you.

‘The Holy Spirit is not a leaden stillness but a wind’.

Scottish Episcopalians worry a lot about declining congregational rolls, and understandably so. It is sobering to reflect that even the established Church of Scotland counts as regular worshippers only 9% of the total population of Scotland, and that Episcopalians constitute 10% of that 9%.

As a bit of encouragement to reflect on our strengths, which go well beyond numbers, you might like this.