Thursday, 23 September 2010

Vicars - a bit up themselves?

Excuse the expression! I really do spend too much time with teenagers, both at work and at home... For those among you uninitiated in youth dialect, "up yourself" roughly translates as "self obsessed" or having a strong sense of your own importance. Stephen from, The Problem with Religion, responded to my post on ordination by suggesting that many vicars do have a misplaced sense of themselves as being in some way "special", perhaps above the ordinary run of humanity by virtue of their priesthood.

I must admit that I have met some vicars for whom I could say that this was true, but the thing that I notice most about the vicars I have actually got to know is how ordinary they are. I don't think vicars are more prudish, less sinful, more easily shocked or in any way different from the common run of humanity. They also share exactly the same failings and weaknesses and have all the problems and difficulties that beset everyone, including problems with their relationships, children, addictions, depression and doubts about their faith. In my experience many vicars hate the way that they are treated as a different class of human being the moment they start wearing a dog collar. But maybe I've just been lucky...

If you are not a vicar, I wonder how you see vicars? I am afraid I very much believe in the priesthood of all believers, I see vicars as just ordinary punters like the rest of us, they just happen to have been called to serve in the church, as opposed to in secular life. It's really not their fault! Having said this, I do sometimes meet priests in whom I sense a depth of holiness, but this quality is not confined to priests and vicars.

I do sometime wonder how vicars cope with certain aspects of their jobs. I would hate to have to decide whether I would marry a certain couple ( say in the case of divorce and remarriage.) I don't really see why it would be any of my business to make a decision that judged that relationship. I don't frankly see why it is the business of anyone, vicar or not (you can see I just wouldn't "work" in the church!) I would also hate to have to deal with any questions about suffering, especially from anyone who had been through something I hadn't. I would so hate to utter some platitude. I'd also be conscious that if I opened my mouth and caused hurt and pain by saying the wrong thing, some people might think that my view somehow reflected God's, instead of realising it was just me and that, not being God, I just screw up and get it wrong!

I have met one or two vicars, even the nice ones, who think that when confronted with people's problems or difficulties they need to come up with solutions instead of listening. I personally rarely find other people's solutions to my difficulties very helpful, especially if they have never been in my position and have not really thought, or prayed, or lived through that experience. This is particularly true of sensitive areas, such as sexual abuse, where people sometimes turn to a priest who is just not equipped to offer appropriate advice. I don't generally look to a priest or vicar for advice on how to live my life in terms of right or wrong. I consult God and my conscience. I really believe the church should aim to draw people to God, and only tell people how to live their lives if and when they are asked.

I have a fairly positive perspective on vicars, ( which does kind of beg the question of why I go through churches like some people go through whisky...) Perhaps I owe my ability to be forgiving of the clergy to my dad, who was a vicar, and a pretty cool one in my opinion. Dad was never vicarish in his parenting, in fact one of his favourite saying was, "Oh well, let's save the sermons for Sunday"- and actually the sermons on Sunday were never lectures, they just really made you think, but they never made you think badly of yourself, or anyone else.

That's how it should be.


  1. If your views are in any way a reflection of your Dad and his influence, he must have been a sensitive and understanding priest.

  2. Sue

    I must confess, I have been very lucky, in that all my ordained friends are certainly ‘not up themselves’. It is interesting to note that although three of my closest friends who are ordained – and another less intimate dog-collared friend - have all left their vicarages. One became a monk, one rose to very dizzying heights in the Anglican Church and – as is typical of those who previously held his post – could have gone on to even higher office, but saw enough of the C of E from the inside to make him decide against following this glittering path; he now works part time in academia and is an author; another became physically ill because of the hard work he put into his role, he returned to academia. Whatever, all are now no longer vicars.

    I will confess on one occasion, when working with a dying woman in my role as palliative care social worker, she told me her vicar was dealing with her affairs. I inwardly groaned at this piece of intelligence. My reaction was pure prejudice – though built on some rather unfortunate incidents. When the vicar appeared he was nothing how I imagined him. The woman had intimated he was of an Evangelical persuasion and I added to this sketch in my mind – middle-class, white and bearing that well-known ‘Evangelical Smile’. When I met him I was proved almost completely wrong in my prediction. He was white, but that was about as near as I came in my prediction. He spoke with a broad East London accent, was stocky, appeared far from middle-class, had tattooed hands and arms and a down to earth nature that quite disarmed me. I felt nothing but admiration for him; I was also rather impressed with what he had been trying to do for the woman. Practical as he was, he had tried to claim the appropriate benefits for her. I was amazed he had bothered to try and get involved in what can be a mind numbingly complex task – particularly as the woman worked as a cleaner at a Christian school that had not bothered to keep correct employment records!

    Following on from what you have said, to me this vicar had gone beyond the call of duty. But what is this ‘duty’. One of the reasons so many of my vicar friends left their vicarages was because they found that the job was not what they had signed up to. They found themselves managers, social workers, fund raisers, arbitrators, trustees. The actual work of preaching was far, far down the list of things they did. The real problem is that we have an expectation of what vicars do and how they should behave – and as in the construction of all social realities there is an interplay of expectation and behaviour. This changes over time, but there is an essential core of what is perceived as the role of the vicar.

    It is not a job I would want, as you note it is a difficult role. Yet I think it should also be remembered that there are advantages to being a vicar. Social standing, a good house, a good pension, various perks – and the job can be what you want it to be. You don’t have to ‘throw yourself into it’.

    That said, I will add that I do believe there is a disproportionate number of vicars that are ‘up themselves!’ – but probably no more than is found in other professions (social workers and academics have more than their fair share among their number who are certainly up themselves).

    Off to bed.

    Thanks for this.


  3. I would say there there is a general problem with the perception that people have of vicars/priests, what's more I think the ramifications of it are far move disturbing than a bit of smugness.

    The word Vicar is all about doing something on behalf of someone else. Representing one part to another. The 'Holy' Roman empire used it as the title for someone representing the Emperor. We might therefore be tempted to see the vicar as representing the leaders of the church, or more worryingly we might see them as representing Jesus to us.

    Things are made more confusing when we look at the word Priest, because there are two words in the bible one which talks about the priest who sacrifices at the altar, and the other meaning the church elder (presbyter).

    The priest who sacrifices is an intermediary between God and the people. In the NT context this can only be done by Jesus, and his sacrifice is complete and finished and not repeatable.

    I can't check right now but I think that the priesthood of all believers is referring to the sacrificing vicarious kind, because we represent Jesus to the world (or should) as the ambassadors of Christ.

    So, anyone who holds the office of vicar, and considers themselves to be acting as an OT priest between the people and God is on dodgy ground.

    There are various forms of liturgy which are not helpful in this matter, particularly having a priest using 'you' when talking about forgiveness of sin etc. when they could say 'us'.

    I understand that this is one of the reasons that Anglo-Catholics are so worried about women priests, because you cannot represent Jesus without being a man. Since the priest doesn't/shouldn't represent Jesus more than the organist or sunday-school teacher, the point is irrelivant. Or at least as far as I can see!

    (Sorry for the slight detour through rantsville)

  4. Actually I think some Christians have a smug air about them, let alone Vicars! (probably me included on occasion if I'm honest). It's like the childish attitude of: 'we know something you don't know...'
    Personally I have never really been good with people in authority, in that I don't accept it! I just think we're all humans, we're all equal. Just because someones Dad owns a million£ house or they happen to have studied at Oxford, doesn't mean I should treat them any differenty or that they have a right to treat me differently. Same with Vicars really, and yes I think they are ordinary folk too. (blimey if I ever become one then we'll all be in trouble...). Our current Vicar and the curate are both great, down to earth, will be the first to admit if they have made a mistake and that they are not the holiest of holies. And thats the way it should be. Perhpas those that do feel smug ought to be an example and humble themselvs a bit more!

  5. The consensus seems to be that we all prefer our vicars,and Christians in general, not to be too up themselves...:)

  6. As a Vicar's girlfriend,I would say they are just ordinary men with a label,but much is expected of them .

  7. Welcome, Vicar's girlfriend:)