by Rev. Robin Isherwood
When I was a theology student in Uppsala, I attended a short course on crisis response. The idea was that, pending catastrophe, clergy should develop an action plan. When the charter plane, then, returning with a load of pickled Svens from two weeks’ alcoholic oblivion from some Mediterranean disco hell, belly flopped on Runway 3, the local clergy would be able to rush to the spot with a ready-made strategy. When the Saabs and Volvos were piling up on the frozen motorway, when elk flu was devastating Stockholm suburbs, religious leaders would react in immaculate, multi-faith harmony with the police, the fire brigade and health services.
It’s easier to take the piss out of this idea than it is to admire the confidence of the people behind it. When you actually become a priest and visit the scene of disaster (however small the scale) it’s difficult not to be overawed by the skills and sure-footedness of the others gathered to help – from the nurse with decades of experience on A & E to the kid who’s just completed his first month with the St John’s Ambulance. What substance were those nutters on, who thought that we clergy have anything to bring to the party? When there is so much to be done, at such an earthy and practical level, what bloody use is a vicar?
A good deal of clergy training nowadays involves the acquisition of skills, the development of professional competence. And there’s no doubt that able Church of England vicars fill an impressive range of rôles: they are fund-raiser, social worker, teacher, children’s worker, financial director, estates manager, theologian, author, manager, strategic planner, publicity officer, youth worker, chaplain to the elderly, heritage consultant and (free) counsellor. But when I think about my colleagues, however gifted they are, it’s not their accomplishments that most seem to qualify them for the priesthood, but their shortcomings. It’s not that they might know all the right things to do and to say as they stand in the lee of the burning tower block or crouch on the shipwreck shore. It’s that they have no idea why they’re there, except that somehow this is what’s required of them if they’re to become fully human.
Last year, I moved out of parish ministry to be chaplain to an almshouse. This almshouse is a home for elderly men who have in common their inability to have managed their lives so that they approach the end of them with a roof over their head. Our residents come from a number of professions – lawyering, teaching, acting. But the most represented profession is the clergy. They exemplify the crucial qualification for priesthood – the aptitude for failure.
I’m reminded of my own vocation. I was teaching music in an adult education college in Denmark. Have you thought of becoming a priest? This question was asked by a number of my students. Even then, I realised they were saying, You’re a crap teacher.
It took me over ten years to make the transition – Uppsala, Oxford, theological college. Even after ordination, the efforts at betterment – conferences, courses, articles, reviews – and all this for a priest with (genuinely) no ambition to rise through the hierarchy.
There is, however, that other ambition: to find my voice, and having found it, to sound it; and sounding it to find that it is the voice of others, too. And that it is carried by something of the divine.
Charles Le Foucauld’s solitary vigil in the desert. Futile, many would say.
You sense a smidgeon of the mystery of the fourth gospel, something of the terrorist spirituality of Mark, a glimpse of the mad vision of Paul, a distant whiff of the burning bush. You recall the delights of discovering Hume and Kant, the struggles with Bultmann and Kierkegaard. You even return at Morning Prayer to the Greek, and in the evening to the liquid theology of Bach. But what I learn in fat middle age is that God has chosen, if to live in me at all, to live in being cuddly. Stuff learning, stuff wisdom, stuff the knowing ways. If I’m appreciated at all, it’s because I’m cheerful.
So what bloody use is a vicar?
If there’s an answer to that, it sits for me in the back of the hearse. Not right at the back, where the coffin lies, but in the bucket seat behind the driver. We’ve woven our way deep into a 1950’s housing estate in Manchester. Concrete stucco, broken down woven metal fences of the kind that used to border railway lines. A few kids skid to a halt on their bikes to watch the sleek black cars pass. We pull up outside a house where a rusted VW commands the front garden. The funeral director goes to the front door. His men open the back so that flowers may be laid on the coffin. For a moment, I am alone. No more the conversation we’ve had on the way here – Stoke City’s new loan signing, the latest YouTube sensation, the price of a pint of beer and a packet of fish and chips in Whitby. But the muttering of low voices. The breeze gets up and the thin trees sound through the weak sunlight. And I am here. On her way down the path, in fetching heels, the grieving daughter I’ve got to know so well in just a single hour: the pictures on the wall, the left over Jack Russell, the unpaid bills mounting in the hall. The empty weight in the coffin as the flowers are laid. The family stand back. The funeral directors’ men discuss tuna mayonnaise sandwiches. The things of life are never less alive. Even here, the presence, the Presence that makes of all of us a presence of an entirely different order.