Vicars are not so very special: A response to Anne Atkins

by Jane Mason Bloggers Circle January 2010

Based on her article in The Times on 6 January Anne Atkins would have us feel sorry for the poor vicars who give up “decent income, chance of promotion and career structure, mortgage and home…public recognition, financial security” an d that she and her husband expected “appreciation” from “intelligent Christians” for making this sacrifice.  More appreciation than nurses, or firemen, or teachers or firefighters or any other of the vocational workers who give up all the same things for their chosen path?  Clearly, yes.  But why?  She wrote, among other things, about unfair and unca ring bosses, intransparent decision making, unreliable pension arrangements, blackballing and blacklisting – all of which an employee of British Airways, Royal Bank of Scotland Group , or Corus Steel would recognise immediately.  So what makes vicars so special that we need to feel sorry for them, in particular?  And what is it about a career in the Church that is so c orrupting?  Is the Church a microcosm of the vicious, rather than the virtuous circle in which horrible employment conditions lead to embittered employees?  The article did make me think: maybe some of those vicars I met last year doing research for the virtue project are not necessarily mediocre, wounded birds who depend on their dog collars for some sort of reflected glory.  Maybe, just maybe, they are victims of their environment and it i s the environment that needs to be tackled from top toe in order for the church to rise again in a twenty first century environment.  People go into the church for lots of reasons, just as people go into the city for lots of reasons and “I had no idea what I wanted to do” is as good a reason as any.  Except that in the city, that kind of reason gets weeded out p retty quicky, whereas in the church it does not.  What the two share, however, is this:  you don’t get to the top if you don’t want power.  Never forget that.  The Archbishop, just like the CEO wants power badly, very badly, or he would never get there.  If you don’t accept that, you are starting off on shaky ground.

For various reasons, most of which connected to the virtue project, I met a lot of vicars last year.  In fact, I met more vicars last year than I have ever met in my entire life before that.  Granted it was a small sample (and it still is) but I have to s ay that in general, I am no more impressed with vicars than I am with any other professional or vocational group.  There are a lot of vicars.  Some vicars are lovely and some are not, just as some non-vicars are lovely and some non-vicars are not.  I found some vicars generous and kind and others narcissistic, boastful, selfish and irresponsible.  And I was shocked because I thought, some how, that vicars could not be like that.  I understand from the article, that Anne Atkins is shocked too and thinks that “good” vicars are suffering as a result .  What I don’t understand is whether she can identify what we should do about it. Further I take issue with the fact that she seems to think vicars get a particularly raw deal. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think anybody deserves any of the above.  Nor, however, do I think that vicars deserve any more respect or admiration than any one else.  Althou gh many of the vicars I met clearly believe a dog collar comes with a neon sign that shrieks, “I am a nice, kind person, respect me”, the reality is far from the truth.  This i s exactly the same as the CEO who believes the corner office comes with a sign that says “I am a powerful and important person, respect me”.  In both bases, the human behind th e screen – be that a cassock or a corporate card – is just that:  a human, subject to all the same human frailties as anyone else.  The clergy, with all the recent negative pre ss, has a PR job to do, just like the bankers.  Forgive me if I don’t see a great difference.  Abuse of power, flagrant disregard for the well being of others, gross irresponsibility :  this is a catalogue of sins attributible to small populations with both groups.

I think Anne Atkins is brave to debunk the myth that behind every dog collar sits a virtuous person and clearly the fact that her husband has left the church frees her to write this boo k.  I just think that the clergy is not so special and that junior and middle executives in other organisations (for that is what her husband was) often get a similarly raw deal.  We need to face up to that too and not get beguiled by the mystique of the dog collar – for if it is that which causes publishers to print the book or people to buy the book, it is as clear an example of “use of a public position (by proxy) for personal gain” as I have ever seen.