Shaping vicars: a ‘game of unreality’ (Tim Thornton)

Tim Thornton discusses how we shape vicars.

Anglicans live – and always have lived – with compromise and blurring of boundaries. There is definitely a theological conversation to be had about the place of compromise within the church and the world, especially at a time when individualism is rampant and each person appears to be the centre of their own universe, a place where rights rule and there is little or no talk of responsibilities.

There is no obvious way to mark the 'before' and 'after' of such prevalent ideas or trace where such ways of thinking come from – though it is often the case that several people in varying contexts come up with something very similar almost simultaneously.

But I think we have now reached a demarcation line. We have come to the end of an era – an era when we held a common understanding of the role and nature of the professional clergyperson. For the past century or so, there has been an implicit and tacit agreement that we have understood the nature and role of the profession we call 'clergy' and that the priorities and dominant characteristics were accepted by most people.

So it is that whether training to be stipendiary or self-supporting in the Church of England, in reality we have been shaping vicars. That is what we have understood ourselves to be doing and what the world, in turn, understands and expects us to provide.

But, in what is a long overdue move, I believe it's essential for us to deconstruct the understanding or definition of a vicar. Instead we need to reconstruct and permit new models of being deacons and priests so that they can be made 'real' and gain acceptance in the wider church and world.

At present we all participate in a game of unreality. We go through a process of discernment of vocation which is for the order of deacon and priest but, in fact, everyone really knows we are trying to find people who can be leaders of our churches. We are looking for vicars. If that is not the case then we ought to be honest and say so and challenge the perceptions of those in our churches for whom it does seem to be the case.

The confusion is now even greater than this due to the fact that many dioceses are struggling to create and allow new ways of leading churches and ministering to fresh expressions of church – as well as to inherited models of church. Yet there is no clarity about models of ministry so that theological institutions are left in a dilemma about what they should be doing and how they can best shape and form people for the ministry that lies ahead.