Le Curé d’Ars – the ordinary priest

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, the Curé d’Ars was a simple French priest who is now known as the patron saint of parish clergy. He is celebrated on the 4 August, which happens this year to be just as BBC2 series ‘Rev’ comes to the end of it’s current run. Both have got me thinking about styles and shapes of ministry in 21st century Britain.

The Curé D'Ars
The Curé D'Ars photo Ryan Humphries

Vianney almost didn’t get there, and some have argued Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) perhaps shouldn’t have got there – become priests that is. Vianney had problems getting past his ‘BAP‘, and once in ministry, was given a small out-of-the way parish to deal with; the Rev seems to have been dropped, very green, in to a parish setting that appears doomed before he starts.

That’s not to say that there aren’t features of Adam’s situation in Rev that aren’t instantly recognisable to most clergy families – there are many: the constant door bell/phone; relationships with the school; the often disfunctional people that churches collect (fortunately – someone should – and that includes the clergy!). But some of it was pushed beyond credibility, spoiling it for me. The Archdeacon; the inappropriate relationship with the school’s head teacher, etc.

I know that the series has recieved good reviews in some quarters (including the archbishop, if reports are to be believed) but Adam’s serious lack of self confidence, competency, and faith, frankly, leave him a pale shadow by comparison to the many (hundreds!) of good clergy I have known. +Pete Broadbent thought similarly I gather.

In contrast to Adam’s rather lifeless church, Jean Vianney’s parish ministry slowly grew through his years of patient service, and particularly, his spiritual direction. He may also, reputedly, have polled low on the Mystery Worshipper’s sermon score card; but something of the vital spark of Vianney’s faith was what drew thousands to him in later life.

His Holiness the Pope, partly with Vianney in mind, set aside last year as year for vocations, calling people particularly to the priesthood. Much as I love Vianney, I am not sure about him as a model. (It’s a bit like George Herbert – the archetypal Anglican parish priest, whose model of ministry is questioned in Justin Lewis-Anthony’s bookIf you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him‘. Don’t be fooled by the title, by the way, it has many positive things to say!)

The problem with using Vianney, or Herbert, or even Nicky Gumbel (of St Alpha’s) as models for clergy is that they are so unattainable for most ordinary parish situations, which quickly becomes quite demoralising. And perhaps His Holiness forgot how hard it was for Vianney to even get in to the ministry and through training in the first place! Not your average model for vocations.

A couple of things gave me hope at the end of the series of Rev. One was the helpful interview with the writer James Wood that Ship of Fools managed to get. It highlighted that Wood & Hollander, having had the initial idea for the series, spent a year with real clergy, understanding them and their parishes, making sure their research was as rounded as possible. It also changed their opinion of clergy, from the caricature they arrived with, to appreciating and admire the evident call many clergy had – even if all priests are “absolutely mad”. Great interview.

The only part of the interview that concerned me was that both writer and actor thought most clergy took the prospect of a poor review by the Mystery Worshipper too seriously. For many clergy, the sermon is one of the areas they spend most time and energy on in the week, and feel most vulnerable over. A poor review, especially on an important occasion, I suspect would plunge most clergy in to a Smallbone-style depression, that could well spark a questioning of ministry direction, trigger a move, or even make some feel suicidal tendencies. It’s certainly no joking matter guys.

This year in Chichester diocese, we had 23 new deacons ordained, plus a further 17 ordained priests. I also went at the beginning of July to another diocese to participate in the ordination as priest of a friend and former parishioner of mine whose call to vocation and ministry I had been privileged to share. Here is evidence, if anyone really needed it, that the call to the priesthood is alive and well – and as Rev Adam found in the final episode (my other sign of hope), engaging with God’s people is what gives clergy energy, purpose, calling – and faith.

Happy Jean Vianney day to you. May God continue to call good priests to the church. Maybe even you!

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