Are clergy Christians?

November 22nd, 2022

I have three kinds of conversations with clergy. I get invitations to speak in the UK and elsewhere, and afterwards I find myself drinking coffee or something stronger with someone who wants to talk to a stranger. I’ve written or said something that intrigues or irritates someone, and they ask to come and talk. I live in London, and people I once taught or worked with are passing through and suggest we catch up.

But they’re all the same conversation: “Is it well with your soul?” We don’t hum rousing melodies with a key change for the last verse. Instead, usually with me asking the questions, we explore, “Is this turning out to be the vocation you were called to? Can you be a priest and still be a Christian? Are you certain about the things you used to be vague about and flakier about the things you used to be sure about?”

Leaving aside those who want advice on pursuing doctoral studies in mid-career and those who assume because I live in Trafalgar Square I pause daily at 4:00 p.m. to have tea with the Queen (a surprisingly large percentage), I find these three kinds of conversations yield three kinds of answers.

The first kind, which I’ve encountered in Scandinavia and again in Germany, said, “I feel like a civil servant. People pay their church dues, and membership is artificially high, but church attendance is low, and there’s this huge disconnect where faith is something that’s in the culture but even as a pastor no one expects or even wants me to talk about it. It’s like I’m in a marriage where the love has gone and no one has the courage to separate or the initiative to reignite the fire. We’re going through the motions. I’m experiencing slow asphyxiation.”

The second kind, which I’ve met in Hong Kong, said, “All your talk about the practices and habits of ministry sounds very pious and sentimental. I spend my life competing in a marketplace where people want products—a stylish wedding, a good educational experience for their child, a highly effective social care provider to which the local authority may subcontract services, a good price for a building extension. That’s what church means here.”

The third kind, which I find so widespread in the Church of England that I’d dare to call it the norm, goes like this: “I went into ministry because I aspired to the privilege of being with people at the deepest moments of encounter or loss in their lives; to cherish the ways we meet God, and to be close to people when they feel the absence of God; to be a still point, a Sabbath, for people who are run ragged; to be a prophet of abundance in a world of scarcity, a person who is not afraid even when a community or an individual is staring down into the bottom of the pond. But I’m finding the church is giving in to the culture of counting, target-setting, commodifying and circumscribing, and I have to fight to maintain the space truly to be a pastor.”

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As when I hear a person’s confession, I invariably come away from these conversations humbled and full of admiration for my companions in ministry. But all three kinds of clergy, in different ways, seem to be facing the same pressure—or temptation: how to carry on in ministry, or make the church function, as if there were no God. 

The first pastor is in the midst of a well-oiled but ultimately soulless machine, which has accommodated church to state and society so comfortably that one seldom notices the crossovers. Rather like Immanuel Kant’s notion of God as the moral law written on our hearts, the God of this machine has no particular personality or characteristics, but simply facilitates a series of rites of passage and entitlements. It’s hardly surprising that clergy operating in this system are living lives of quiet desperation—they might as well be running the train company. 

The second pastor is so busy proving that the church can play with the big bucks in the big league, can mix it with contractors and commercial players, can hold its own in the market place of social forces, that the reason for the church’s existence is submerged in the activity and profitability of its flourishing. It’s like Pentecost without the foregoing cross and resurrection. Christ hasn’t saved us from anything or to anything—merely provided a dynamic and resonant brand name. 

The third priest is subject to a more subtle temptation—to withdraw into the apparent simplicity of the pastoral encounter and to downplay the power and responsibility of shaping an institution, a community of disciples, a radical witness to a different hope, a new possibility, a cruciform truth. There’s an introverted naïveté that risks substituting spirituality and inner healing for church and mission. For every minister who enjoys this third vocation, there are bound to be others balancing the books by striving to practice better versions of the first two models. 

Every priest has a family member who constantly says, silently or aloud, “You’re wasting your time.” Sometimes that voice is coming from the priest’s own self. In the wilderness of unbelief or failure, we’re all tempted just the same way Satan tempted Christ: to smooth respectability, superficial success, or secluded intimacy. It turns out all are understandable, well-trodden, but ultimately futile attempts to do what every Christian wants to do: avoid the cross.


Excerpted from Face to Face: Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger by Samuel Wells. Copyright © 2020 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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