Adam Smallbone with inner city church in background

This is about the sense of having a distinctive role. It is inspired by the television series Rev, with its vicar Adam Smallbone. I rarely watch television, but to me Rev was special. At last the BBC has produced a series about the clergy that tells it the way it is.

Some considered it unrealistic. From my retirement, on the other hand, watching it brought back lively memories. With my background in inner-city ministry and anglo-catholicism I was reminded time and again of things that happened to Marguerite and I, things that you may consider incredible if you have never lived in an inner city vicarage.

Adam’s sense of identity, his perceived role in life, was his priesthood. His attempts to interpret it in the light of his ministry’s ups and downs, his prayerful questioning and doubting of it, his crisis-driven wonderings about alternative identities, were very similar to my own, and to those of other priests I have known.

Is this, I wonder, the last dying embers of the Oxford Movement? In the 1830s Keble and Newman borrowed the traditional role of the local priest and enhanced it. At the time Newtonian science was describing the universe as nothing but atoms pushing each other according to eternal and unbreakable laws of nature, everything determined and meaningless. In response the Tractarians redescribed the sacraments as things that transcend that enclosed physical universe, connecting us with the larger, animated, meaningful spiritual world. They redescribed bishops and priests as people with special powers to produce valid sacraments. To be a priest was, therefore, to be different in kind from other people.

A century later, in the early 1930s, my father trained for the priesthood. To be a Catholic priest in the Church of England was still something special, making one a different kind of person. There was a heavy price to pay. Unlike Roman Catholic priests he could marry, but had to wait ten years after ordination – and did. There were strong expectations of a disciplined lifestyle and a daily pattern of prayer and study, over and above parish ministry. After all the priest – like the sacraments – was a sign, a pointer to the spiritual realm that transcends the physical. When parishioners see the vicar in his black cassock walking down the street they are reminded that this physical world is not the only world and the laws of physics are not the only laws.

Forty years later I too trained for the priesthood. For the Anglo-Catholics it was still a special calling, so that once ordained they would be a different kind of person. I witnessed at first hand the development of mannerisms, the excited practising of the wearing of clerical collars. However the special calling of the priest was no longer described in terms of duties and disciplines. They had been replaced by rights and perks. I never heard ‘I am a priest so my lifestyle must be above reproach’ but I did hear ‘It doesn’t matter how many times I get caught for speeding because my sacraments will still be validly consecrated’. It was as though the whole movement had become self-indulgent. Perhaps there always had been a self-indulgent element. I didn’t help. A month after my own ordination I married Marguerite. Father disapproved.

Move on another forty years and we reach the present day. There remain Church of England clergy whose understanding of their identity and their role in life is all about their priesthood. Some have large congregations but most, like the television programme, have small ones. To be deprived of an altar, by retirement or for whatever reason, can feel like an intense bereavement. The bottom drops out of their world. I have heard many complaints that the church hierarchy do not seem to value their priestly ministry.

They are probably right. Financially, the Church can no longer afford the Adam Smallbones. They cost too much, for very little return. Yet the sense of being hurt and betrayed can be very strong. Is it justified?

In some ways I think not. Vocation and ordination do not mean the church hierarchy owes them a priestly ministry, let alone a vicarage and stipend; that would make the priesthood a source of rights rather than duties. Underlying the decline in this tradition has been an important cultural change. In the nineteenth century the Oxford Movement drew on that sharp dividing-line between the determined, purposeless universe of Newtonian physics and the disputed claim that there is a spiritual world beyond it. Today science has reverted to the older view that the universe is far too complicated for the human mind to understand. As a result the spiritual and the physical no longer need to be kept separate. Physical things can relate us to the divine. Ordinary people can have priestly functions.

On the other hand that tradition of priesthood has managed to retain something important. The Oxford Movement may have exaggerated the status of priests but today, with so much pressure for society and culture to be God-free zones, and with church leaders so inclined to judge parish clergy by the sizes of their congregations, it is all the more important to defend the role of the holy person whose wisdom and lifestyle helps people to connect with the divine. It is a role which cannot be performed by those driven by anxiety to produce the outward signs of success.

When I was ordained the traditional account stated that there were three differences between a deacon and a priest. A priest can give blessings, pronounce the absolution of sins and consecrate the bread and wine at Communion. These were precisely defined activities, taught to us as though they had been given by Christ to the Church. I now realise that they are echoes of universal patterns.

Every society contains people who desperately need to be told that their sins are forgiven. Every society needs authorities who can assure people that their purpose in life is to flourish in their own way. Every society needs someone who can help it connect ordinary life – laughing and crying, eating and excreting, working and playing, giving birth and dying – to the ultimate purpose and meaning of it all. Otherwise we won’t know what our lives are for.