Angela Tilby, Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, managed to upset just about everyone with her recent column on Christmas ‘family-olatry’ in the Church Times.
Christmas’s falling on a Sunday this year is bound to be awash with family services. I have heard of clergy cancelling the regular eight o’clock, on the grounds that they should be with their families at the start of Christmas Day, and anyone wanting to come to church should surely want to come to a lively Christmas family service rather than BCP Holy Communion…
We should not buy into family-olatry, but be actively seeking those who might be alienated by family jollities (especially in church) but still long to hear the good news of Christ’s birth.
My first observation is that Tilby is incredibly unwise, as a retired, unmarried woman without children, to criticise the attitudes of young, married clergy with children. It was once observed that ‘those with the simplest solutions are usually furthest from the problem’ and Tilby’s solution is saturated with that kind of simplicity. But it is fascinating to see how one, apparently small, issue can open up so many others.
The first is generational, and in this regard Tilby sits close to Theresa May whom she cites. Many older churchgoers and clergy assume that coming to faith is about doing one’s duty, and therefore being ordained simply means doing one’s duty par excellence. It is hard to recognise how culturally conditioned this kind of expectation is. James Lawrence explores this in his very helpful Grove Leadership booklet Engaging Gen Y: Leading Well Across the Generations. Half-way through the booklet, he includes a table which sums up different motivations and expectations of the different generations who might be present in a congregation:
If all Tilby is doing in her piece is complaining that ‘the younger generation aren’t as good as me’ I am not sure what this achieves. I was amused to meet a member of Trent Vineyard yesterday, who said he might join us at St Nic’s on Christmas Day ‘because we don’t have a service. It takes about 100 people to organise a Sunday service, and our leaders want to give people a day off.’ It would be interesting to reflect on what would happen in many churches if we rediscovered the idea of Sunday as a day of rest.
But Tilby also locates the issue within questions of clergy power and autonomy. It is just one aspect of young ordinands and curates wanting to determine the shape of their ministry on their own terms, rather than accepting how it is and doing what they are told. I experienced this when I first moved to Salisbury Diocese, having completed my ordination training and a good way through my PhD, because I wanted to marry Maggie who was already a partner in a GP practice. ‘You can’t be ordained unless you are deployable‘ intoned the Archdeacon—meaning that the bishop, and the bishop alone, would decide where I would go, regardless of any other considerations. Tilby characterises the response this location of power in the bishop to a contrary location of power in the individual ordinand or clergy person—but rather than this binary tug of war, perhaps we need to rethink the way that power and decisions work.
There were some good and thoughtful responses in the following week’s letters, questioning some of Tilby’s assumptions. Joanne Grenfell observed:
Sacrifice is good, and clergy families do plenty of it. But sacrifice is only part of Christian witness, which is also about wholeness and abundant joy. Neglecting your family for the sake of an exhausting Christmas diary isn’t good for anyone; nor is it, I believe, what God demands.
And Becky Allright (who is training at St Barnabas Theological Centre) makes a key point about clergy as models:
In a world where work for most people is God and families eat together on average, once a week, surely clergy should be modelling a better way to live. Like Theresa May, I am the daughter of clergy. Unlike Mrs May’s father, it seems, my mother helped my siblings and me to understand that Christmas was a time to rejoice and celebrate, as Jesus had finally arrived. I knew she wanted to be with us to do that, and she worked hard in the face of much criticism to achieve that sense for her parishioners too.
A fresh-faced ordinand, I signed up to be a slave for Christ, not a slave to Common Worship.
This raises the question: to what extent are clergy models, that is, just like members of the congregation, only ‘more so’—and to what extent are clergy set apart to enable something to happen in the congregation that is distinct from them? I don’t ask this from a theological perspective—I wonder how we might justify the kind of clericalism which says that clergy (alone) must spend Christmas Day visiting the flock—but from an institutional and organisational one. Those ‘set apart’ for ministry are going to have different demands put upon them in order to allow a particular pattern of life for members of the congregation.
One response to the ‘model’ question is offered on the Clergy Spouse Support blog, commenting on Tilby. In reaction to an approach to ministry that says clergy marriages must find their place in the wider context of ordination, the response seems to be to reverse the order: ordination must find its place in and under the more primary call to marriage. I understand this reaction, but I am not convinced about it, not least because, for the first years of our marriage we only had every other Christmas Day together, since Maggie was the GP on call. Why is ordination less important than other vocations? And what then might we say to those who are not married—do we have an equally strong sense of the vocation to friendship? Surely a better model is to locate both marriage and ordination within the wider category of God’s call, within which there needs to be negotiation between conflicting demands. And if we are offering a model, that should neither be one of workaholic neglect of family, nor retreating into the bunker of nuclear family, but the kind of engaged and open relational structures that we aim to model at other times of ministry (don’t we?).
I was intrigued by the presentation of the demands of marriage and family life in the latest Church of England video featuring Kate Bottley. (Was there more than a hint of Vicar of Dibley about it?). I don’t think it was an accurate portrayal of actual Bottley home life—but the picture was of Kate as busy vicar, mother and wife, trying to juggle ministry, parenting and cooking the Christmas dinner. I wonder how often we are presented with male clergy also struggling with continued demands of domestic life alongside ministry demands? There seems to be some asymmetry here.
Perhaps the final question raised by Angela Tilby is why we are so busy at Christmas—where these demands are coming from? There is no doubt that the Christmas season has become the busiest of the year, in part because commercial Christmas requires that the separation of Advent preparation is doubled up with Christmas celebration by pulling the latter forwards to overlap with the former. The Church year has things rather better organised by creating a season of celebration; is there a chance we could be truer to that, and so relieve the pressure points? That in turn raises the dynamic of demand versus intent: to what extent are we responding to (unrealistic?) demands and expectations from our communities, rather than focussing on what is actually important and effective? This is an easier question to address in urban contexts where there is less sense of traditional expectation, and hard in rural areas where relationship-building is key. But it sobering to reflect that more people come to Church at Christmas—yet fewer people come to faith than at any other time of year.
So, thanks for asking the question Angela—but I think I might look elsewhere for answers.
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