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The Vicar at Prayer

July 4, 2008

By Coakley, Sarah

An English reflection on ministry IT MIGHT SEEM otiose, even pathetic, for priests to spend time wondering about what they are and do: is it not obvious what sort of jobs and roles they are meant to be getting on with? And is it not equally and painfully obvious that any social status they may have enjoyed in earlier generations as a result of these jobs and roles has been largely eroded? The popular media image of the male clergy diverges paradoxically and revealingly: either the priest is the harmless and incompetent figure of fun (the “ice-cream jacket” type) or the sinister and seductive schemer (the “black beetle” type). Either way the office of priesthood comes under critical, even demeaning, public gaze. (The BBC sitcom The Vicar ofDibley adds a certain canny resourcefulness to the female image, but with no obvious hint of underlying holiness.)

The representational invisibility of priesthood in a secular society can, paradoxically, be its true strength. Needless to say, this role often does not feel strong. It is a matter of theological virtue (faith, hope, love) rather than perceived victory. Maybe we should think of it as roughly akin to the main drainage system. Like the main drainage system, the Church of England and its priesthood can still be taken for granted in secular Britain. Like the main drainage system, its efficacy is as deep as it is also invisible. Like the main drainage system, it continues to attend to what often cannot be mentioned. And like the main drainage system, when it goes wrong there is a horrible smell that affects everyone.

The outside observer of Anglicanism might be forgiven for thinking that the current worldwide ruction about homosexuality are what constitute such a horrible smell. But the danger of a horrible smell comes more insidiously from another quarter-a potential loss of commitment (under the pressures of fast contemporary life and the frenzy whipped up over the worldwide “Anglican crisis”) to certain classic disciplines of the invisible parish priesthood: the commitment to prayer, to place and to the poor. The three hallmarks belong intrinsically as a package and so stand and fall together. But it is prayer, the most invisible of these three invisible disciplines, that sustains the whole priestly edifice. It is also the discipline most in danger of erosion.

Prayer. I note that many, even most, advertisments for new Anglican incumbents seek a minister who is gifted in “leadership,” or one who is “energetic” and “efficient.” Rarely do they ask for one who is “prayerful” (would this be regarded as precious or elitist?). This ecclesiastical trend toward secular models of personal efficacy is odd; for if ever an age yearned for authentic sanctity, surely it is ours. Think of the magnetism of John Paul II, of Mother Teresa, of “Father Joe”; think of the well-documented current quest for spirituality over institution.

Is there somehow a tacit conclusion that Anglican sanctity is impossible? Has the business-inspired model of leadership completely supervened over spiritual authority? Is Anglican priesthood set on a false self-abnegation which corrodes the very possibility of its renewal?

Some characteristically bold words of Evelyn Underhill to Archbishop Lang on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference are worthy of repetition:

May it please your Grace: I desire very humbly to suggest with the bishops assembled at Lambeth that the greatest and most necessary work they could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently, to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer. . . . God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him.

The apparent clericalism in Underhill’s words may strike some as offensive. Surely the clergy cannot bear this responsibility to prayer alone, and does not everyone know by now that the laity is often more soaked in prayer than its harassed and overworked (albeit “efficient”) “leaders”?

Yet surely Underhill is right about something basic: without the daily public witness of a clergy engaged, manifestly and accountably, alongside their people, in the disciplined longhaul life of prayer, of ongoing personal and often painful transformation, the church at large runs the danger of losing its fundamental direction and meaning. It has lost the public, and therefore densely symbolic, manifestation of the quest for holiness to which all are called. And it should never be underestimated with what longing the laity look to the clergy for an example in this matter.

It is perhaps not so significant how the priest exercises this charism (and evangelical and catholic wings within Anglicanism will of course have different views and practices), but I am concerned about the creeping loss of the shared commitment to the daily office as at least a fundamental anchor in what should also spread out into further personal prayer and intercession for the parish. Within Anglicanism daily Eucharist has of course never been the norm, except in larger AngloCatholic parishes. But with the increasing erosion of Morning and Evening Prayer as well, there is no public witness to the clergy putting this task first in their hierarchy of “business”; more insidiously, there is a drifting away from the centrality of the prayer of the Psalms and from the constant- sometimes creatively jolting-input of the weekday lections.

It may be objected that as more and more parishes share a minister, and as more and more parishes rely on nonstipendiary priests who have other day jobs, this desideratum has become in practice impossible. This is certainly a challenge (though not an insuperable one). The more insidious and underlying complaint, however, is that it is pointless to pray office in the church if no one else comes except the priest.

I do wonder about the real impetus of this (regularly expressed) objection: is it that the clergy have stumbled on the true impossibility of prayer and fallen at the first hurdle? We think of R. S. Thomas, daily and consistently throwing lonely prayers against the cold walls in his “The Empty Church”: “Why, then, do I kneel still / striking my prayers on a stone / heart?” Yet a crucial answer is given, even within the terms of Thomas’s peculiarly bleak apophaticism, in another of his poems (“Adjustments”): “Patiently with invisible structures / [God] builds, and as patiently / we must pray.”

The loss of disciplined clerical prayer in a busy age is fatal: for the priest herself, for her people, for ecumenical relations and even for national Ufe. Its absence is-quietly but corrosively- devastating. In contrast, its faithful presence (even if felt as failure, as the flinging of prayers on a “stone heart”) can benothing short of electric.

Place: The free-market religiosity in North America has drawn my attention newly to this question of Anglican architectural and geographical orientation and its strange relation to the matter of clerical presence and prayer. The fact that Anglican parish churches still provide the central architectural focus in villages, small towns and parts of larger cities is not something to be dismissed lightly. Often at the axis of the meeting of roads, the church building is also at the crossroadswhether consciously or unconsciously to the local inhabitants-of many singular moments of decision, change or transition. That moments of rage and frustration should attach to it as much as moments of celebration or grief itself witnesses to the church building’s dense symbolic power. The pelting of the church or vicarage with stones, eggs or other missiles (as happened a few years ago over several weeks in the parish of Littlemore in Oxfordshire) is, in a strangely backhanded way, also an implicit quest for narrative meaning, a demand that some social ill be attended to. That the vicar at the same time is deemed personally implicated in this dis-ease, along with the church building, is manifestly painful, but not a matter of random chance: her presence, her prayer and her witness are again being called to account.

Sociologists of religion point to a paradoxical state of affairs in current English responses to religious “place.” On the one hand, much of the “American” feeling of optionality, choice and fluidity in religious preference is fast becoming a feature of English religious life too: many so-called secularized people prefer to step into a cathedral occasionally for a good liturgical show rather than make commitments to their own parish church which might be burdensome. To that degree the tradition of immediate local religious rootedness is eroded. On the other hand, precisely this draw to historic “holy places,” or to scenes of fatal accidents or special celebration, has seemingly become the more accentuated in our culture, and has re-emphasized the importance of place in a new way.

John Inge has written recently of how the importance of place, and especially of holy place, is always such because of its association also with people: “Places exert a profound effect as a result of our encounter with them and with their inhabitants” (.A Christian Theology of Place). Any church building shelters many such memories: of past clergy, holy and not so holy; of remarkable “saints” among the congregation, perhaps only fully recognized as such in their passing; of joyous and tragic moments of transition in the lives (and deaths) of people whom we have loved. It is as if the building itself holds these memories of people from the past, and acts as a kind of spiritual incubus for the coming “Church Triumphant.” Past, present and hoped-for-future blend as memories are recast in the context of a consecrated building. “The church is not a building.” That is most certainly true. But buildings in which “prayer has been valid” (to quote T. S. Eliot) are more like people than stone or brick, because of their vibrant association with the folk whom we and others have loved. They are not so much haunted as thin to another world in which past, present and future converge. And when, as in the parish system in England, each such building holds the memories of a particular geographical community, it is well to be aware of its remaining symbolic power-even if it now seems neglected, underused or actively vandalized. To pray in such a building, faithfully day by day, is itself an act of hope and love for the future. Such a commitment gets to the heart of sustainability in a community perhaps more incisively-albeit intangibly and mysteriously-than any political or ecological survey can. And such faithfulness to a place will also be sure to lead to meetings with those members of the community who have been pushed to its edge, and who see in the church building a last-ditch potential for aid.

The poor: Some, perhaps, might wonder who “the poor” are in contemporary Britain. Apart from knowing that they are “always with us,” who are they exactly? These can only be questions of the privileged. Suffice it to say that the priest who faithfully prays in his church building day after day will have no trouble discovering who the local poor are. They will find him. Romantic views of the poor invariably miss the point-as well as evading the exhausting and repetitive challenges posed by those who constantly arrive seeking help (or dispensing insults) at the sacristy threshold and on the clerical doorstep. The grieving, the distressed, the insane, the homeless, the abused, the drug- and alcohol-crazed, the recently imprisoned, the political refugee or the simply unchurched and desperate together present huge difficulties-and increasing physical dangers-for any incumbent. The problem of safety for women priests working on their own is particularly worrisome and acute.

Once more the contrast between North American religiosity and the English parish system is quite striking. The historic American vision of a church as a pure “gathered community”-or (in sociological terms) as a “voluntary association” (Talcott Parsons)- creates an entirely different understanding of charity or social alleviation than does that of a national church; and this sectarian backdrop rubs off to a significant degree on American Episcopalianism also.

During the university year I am an associate priest in the parish of the Good Shepherd in Waban, Massachusetts. When a needy or deranged person arrives on the doorstep of this parish on the leafy outskirts of Boston (an eventuality which, revealingly, does not happen very often at all: such is the covert but rigid apartheid system of American suburbia), the supplicant expresses no implicit sense of national right. It is worth a try to see if the rector or his assistant will oblige with aid, financial or otherwise, but the person fully expects to be seen off expeditiously in order not to spoil the beauty and order of the liturgy!

The atmosphere and expectations could hardly be more different in my summer parish in Littlemore. The mental hospital up the road supplies us with a never-ending stream of curious, desperate and hopeful visitants. Disaffected, druggy or merely bored village adolescents are also more than merely passersby-though they are more inclined to express their feelings about the significance of the site by vandalizing the church yard than by attending a service. All this is before we get to the many young unmarried mothers in the village, the divorced or separated, the unemployed, the depressed, the grieving, the sick and the frail. The sense of right that such folk have in belonging to the church is palpable, and this is particularly true of the patients from the hospital, even if the police occasionally have to be called to sort out a disturbance during a service.

Encoded here in the parish structure of English Anglicanism, as I see it, are at least the remnants of the possibility of a true religious socialism, a sense of a “living nation” responsible for the whole. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox and members of the Free Churches may balk at this idea, thinking that this is perhaps the last, pathetic gasp of a false Anglican fantasy of hegemony. But it has been Anglicanism’s historic privilege to pastor the nation, and its simultaneous commitment to prayer, place and the poor has now of necessity become a shared and ecumenical endeavor which only an establishment (weakened though it is) has the remaining power to propose and foster. The stakes are high because the spiritual need is great. “Praying for England” is indeed a demanding and ongoing task.

One person, now dead, has taught me more about this braiding of prayer, place and the poor than any other, and I end with a reflection in his memory. His story is not one with a good ending (at least not in this life); indeed, it ends about as badly as it possibly could. What this man taught me is that a priest can’t fix things. She can pray; she can remain insistently faithful to a place and to a needy person; but the rest is often out of our view. This last consideration in no way invalidates the other ones.

Steve (not his real name) was a Littlemore resident with a ferocious and immovable depression. Though he was not without natural charm or talents, his life had somehow been derailed at the outset, his sense of selfhood crushed and debilitated by an unhappy and ultimately broken home. By his late 40s, Steve had given up on the possibility of a stable job, despite a spell in the army as a cook and several other periods of temporary employment. He took to hanging out at the morning office at the parish church, and to ringing up the vicar on a daily basis in the afternoon, pathetically asking for help and wallowing in self-pity. Despite much encouragement, he would never come to the main Sunday services to enjoy the wider fellowship or to receive communion, nor would he actually accept any practical offers of assistance. The vicar decided to offload this exhausting charge onto his new summer curate (me), hi the hopes that some special pastoral attention over a few weeks might shift something.

Taking care to get proper supervision from the chaplain at the mental hospital, I embarked on this task with some diffidence and caution, meeting with Steve for an hour two or three times a week after morning office. But I need not have worried. Steve had the most natural and perfect sense of proper boundaries of any parishioner I have ever encountered.

The practical problem of where we should have our meetings (it being, I thought, improper for us to meet alone in the church) was graciously solved by the Roman Catholic sisters of the Society of the Work, who agreed that I should meet with Steve in John Henry Newman’s library in the College (just opposite where Steve lived). This illustrious locale provided some moments of high farce as well as of profundity: I well recall the morning that Steve proudly brought in his saxophone and broke the contemplative quiet of the College with his rendition of “Strangers on the Shore” (not half bad, actually).

And something like a minor miracle was already quietly happening: Steve stopped moaning incessantly about his past and his family and started to show an extraordinary gift for extempore prayer. At the start of every meeting I would pray for him first, and then turn to him and say “Now you.” To begin with it was all gloom and doom, but over the weeks his prayer transmuted into compassionate intercession for others in need in the parish and for the agony of the world at large. This new form of prayer even spilled over slightly into his inputs to the morning office in church, greatly surprising the other clergy. Early on it had occurred to me to ask Steve, in the midst of his usual recitation of past miseries, if he could remember any time he had been genuinely and completely happy. Steve answered immediately, and without missing a beat. “Yes,” he said, it was the day that he’d taken up the challenge to do a parachute jump for charity, and in the moment that he was pushed out of the airplane and took flight, leaning into the wind and feeling the parachute bearing him up, he’d known the most glorious ecstasy in all his life.

This moment became thereafter the metaphoric touchstone in our discussions. When I finally persuaded Steve to come to the main Sunday mass one week, he arrived late, crashing through the west door just as I was turning around at the altar singing the Sursum Corda, my hands raised. The next time we met, Steve was emphatic: “I saw you there; you were parachuting.”

When the time came for me to return to Boston at the end of that summer, the vicar and I had carefully prepared Steve for my departure. All along I had feared that this special attention that had been devised for him might lead to a dependence, or that he would interpret my exit as another betrayal. But again we had underestimated him. There was a little service of anointing and blessing, attended also by the sisters, and Steve was cheerful and upbeat. He had even promised me he would consent to seeing a doctor again about the depression: after all, better drues than Prozac were now available. But over the next year, while I was back in Boston, things apparently went downhill dramatically. Steve’s bedridden mother was finally taken into a home, and this was a point of no return: his life unraveled for the first time into alcoholism and begging on the street. In the cold Lent of the following year, the police found Steve dead in his squalid little cottage. Although he had long stopped attending office, the parish church had never given up on him, and the vicar had only a few days before checked on him and taken him food. Even the bishop, Richard Harries, had tried to help, miraculously supplying a replacement saxophone for Steve’s own, which had been stolen in a street scuffle. Only after the autopsy was it revealed that he had died of an overdose of drugs, presumably acquired from squatters whom he had invited in to share his quarters. Sister Mary at the college, knowing I would be devastated, wrote gently to remind me that this was not the end of Steve’s story, and that they were praying for his soul at the college. After a bit of a tussle and considerable diplomatic maneuvering with the divided family, Steve’s body was released from autopsy and his funeral conducted in the parish church on the morning of that Maundy Thursday.

When I think about the connection of prayer, place and the poor, I inevitably think of Steve. Yet I think not of what I tried to give him (which was little, temporary and-as it turned out-woefully inadequate), but what he showed me. In his parachuting mode Steve grasped the centrality of the orans posture, the absolute indispensability of prayer: at least once in his life he had experienced the ecstatic free fall into the wind of the Spirit. He also knew that the parish church of Littlemore was his place, even though his wretchedness was so great that he had come to refuse the sacraments and finally to push away all those who repeatedly tried to help. Finally, he showed me that it is preposterously false to think that we clergy can fix the poor; it is more truly they who fix us, by reminding us of our endless need for grace and,our empty- handedness without it. In showing me this, Steve showed me Christ.

The loss of clerical prayer in a busy age is fatal. Its faithful presence can be nothing short of electric.

It is false to think that we clergy can fix the poor; it is they who fix us, reminding us of our endless need for grace.

Sarah Coakley teaches at Cambridge University and previously taught at Harvard Divinity School. She has served as an associate Anglican priest in parishes in Massachusetts and Littlemore, Oxfordshire, England. This article is adapted from Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, edited by Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley and just published by Continuum. Used by permission.

Copyright Christian Century Foundation Jul 1, 2008

(c) 2008 Christian Century, The. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.




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