After Revd Angela Tilby’s column on the “family-olatory” of Christmas was published I wrote to the Church Times. While I never expected my letter to be published I was shocked to see that the Church Times editors chose to only publish responses from female correspondents. I am going to choose to believe that is an unfortunate statistical anomaly and not the editorial team trying to make some sort of statement, or suggesting that only female clergy or the wives of male clergy are interested in this issue or shocked by the dangerous and damaging comments made by Canon Angela.
For this reason I’ve decided to publish here the letter I wrote, as a male priest, in response to the column:
Sir — I read with utter dismay the unguarded and unthinking comments made by Angela Tilby in Comment (CT8021: 9th December 2016). She is right to question the expanding cult of the family in our society and right to question how as a Church we might engage in such an issue. But to do so by making a crass attack on exceptionally hard working clergy, especially in this season, the busiest of them all, is both distressing and dangerous. Her comments encourage a priest-centric, guilt motivated ministry and are deeply worrying.
Priests and ministers face the family-olatry she describes everyday of our lives. We challenge it and try to model a different way of living. We recognise that the calling of the priest is a vocation, it’s not work. But despite this distinction the modern parish priest or minister does work exceptionally hard. We agonise over service times and styles. We have agonised over decisions that we’ve made that might appear to favour either parish or family over the other.
In the Church of England priests have answered the Bishops’ call to ‘be’ not ‘do’ in our parishes. Part of that call to be is about modelling the Christian life to people of the parish, including how to ‘be’ as a Christian family. Whether that family is as a married minister with or without children, or as a single minister we are called to model our relationships with family in faith and under God.
The attrition rate amongst clergy is shocking. Burned out clergy leaving the ministry, clergy marriage breakdown and rates of “moral failure” are growing all the time because of the pressure being put on the ministers. Rev Angela’s comments do nothing to help such a situation, she uses an outdated model of ministry to support her assertions. The idea of the priest as the centre of the parochial life, responsible to do everything is as wrong now as it was in the time of Mrs May’s father, the difference is the wider Church has recognised once again the call of all believers to the ministry of the local Church. This attitudes plies unfounded guilt on clergy who have given their all through the Advent Season.
Her comments also show a deeply insulting attitude to intergenerational worship. The breadth of worship styles in the Church of England is as exciting as it is wide. I can only imagine how she would feel if someone were to dismiss choral or liturgically traditional worship with the same ignorant abandon. One of the great joys of the Principal Festivals of the year is the opportunity to draw together all those who worship in our churches, no matter the style, liturgy, or musical tradition and recognise that together we worship the same God in different ways. Every parish is different and for every one that calls the people of God together in such a way, there is another that will continue to offer the same wide traditions of service it does every week. Anyone who suggests that “family worship” is merely silly hats and shouts, is being as dismissive of worship offered to God as those who would suggest that BCP services are just staid and boring repetition. Both attitudes are a huge disservice to the heart of worship being brought before God.
There is a challenge for us, to address the cult of the child or family in modern society, but Angela has sadly decided to do so by attacking the very people who should and would agree with her. She makes her point by taking pot shots at the clergy, those who understand her point and all too often already sacrifice their families on the altars of their ministry, she has made a very serious misjudgment.