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In praise of incompetence

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

June 6, 2019   4 mins

It was a perfect English summer’s day at Lichfield Cathedral. My Mum was wearing a new fancy hat. And secular-minded friends who had turned out to support me fidgeted nervously as the service dragged on past the hour mark. But they were still, I think, carried away by the sense of occasion. It was also the day on which the first cohort of women was priested in the Church of England. It was a historic day, full of joy and promise. It was on this day, 25 years ago, that I was ordained a priest.

As I emerged from the great west door of the Cathedral, sweaty and itchy in my bizarre new dressing-up outfit, the local Roman Catholic parish priest, an elderly gentleman of many years in Holy Orders, knelt down before me and asked for my blessing.

I had no idea what I was supposed to do and so rather mumbled my first words of blessing, rapidly invented: “May Jesus bless you Father, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” He stood up and smiled. I wasn’t sure what I had just done. What was this thing that had just been done to me? I felt like a total fraud. Who was I to pronounce such words?

As the years went by, this sense of being an imposter has never entirely left me. But also, nothing has defined me more than this service, nothing has come anywhere close to shaping my sense of direction or purpose.

You might think that by the time the Bishop came to place his hands upon my head, I should have been much clearer about what it was that I was being called to be. True, theological college had prepared me a little for some of the varied competences that are required of a priest: the ability to preach a half decent sermon, conversance with the liturgy, an aptitude for pastoral care etc.

They hadn’t, though, explained that I would spend a lot of my time as a building’s manager and finance officer. But being a priest can never be reduced to a set of competences. Indeed, the very heart of the job – job being entirely the wrong word – is something that it is not possible to be good at.

So, to put it bluntly: I am an incompetent priest. And I suspect that this is the only way it is possible to be one. ‘In Praise of Incompetence’ was the title of a brilliant lecture on ministry by the Baptist theologian, Ruth Gouldbourne. And she was spot on.

This needs some explaining. And there is no way of explaining it without talking about God – that embarrassing mood-changing subject that feels a bit like over-sharing and makes the grown-ups fall silent. Because the core to any priestly identity is that one is being asked to stand in a doorway between God and humanity – which is a ludicrous idea to those who suspect that the door opens out onto nothing but empty space.

Priesthood is not the only doorway. I emphasise “a” doorway: because there are many other points of contact, and the old idea that the clergy stand as the sole gatekeepers to the divine, controlling access, has long been a way that religion has secured and manipulated temporal power. That was why we needed a Reformation and the revolutionary idea of the priesthood of all believers.

But, nonetheless, whenever I stand behind the altar before bread and wine, I am acutely aware that an inordinate number of impossible expectations flow through my actions. And that the possibility of God faces back at people through my pathetic efforts. “But play you must a tune beyond us, yet ourselves”, as the poet Wallace Stevens put it, not thinking about priesthood. But he couldn’t have summed it up any better.

That’s why I describe the priesthood as a job for the incompetent: to emphasise the impossibility of standing in this liminal space between God and humanity. And the barefaced cheek of doing so can only be justified by a sense that God might be employing a useless, fickle, lazy, selfish, arrogant person like me – like you – to convey something of His presence. In other words, the job can’t be done and the only way to do it is to fail at it.

Indeed, if you don’t think you are rubbish at this job, then you haven’t properly understood it. Because those who are apparently ‘good at it’ might easily be tempted to think they are good priests through their own ability. And that is the far deeper failure. Give me the terrible preacher, the badly organised, bad tempered and pastorally inept priest anyday, if s/he also models a human incapacity that can also be recognised as a broken sacrament of something other than themselves. God save us from popular ‘successful’ clergy with full churches and a winning manner.

To put all this in less fancy terms: to be a rubbish priest is to know that you live by confession and forgiveness. Every day, precisely because of the impossible place in which people like me have been called to stand, we are obliged permanently to live by the rhythm of sorry and thank you. Sorry, because I have been rubbish once again. And thank you, because I have been assured of the grace of forgiveness, the resources to carry on. No functionalist definition of priesthood, can possibly begin to describe this extraordinary pattern of life. It represents what the inspirational priest James Allison once called “The joy of being wrong”.

None of which is absolutely unique to being a priest – it is just that the impossible job we are called to do radically dramatises human incapacity and failure. I have a poem permanently pinned to my study wall. It is not written by a priest or even by a Christian. But it has served for me as a kind of spiritual justification for the life that priests are called to undertake. It is by the genius Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood

Priesthood is a ruined house that contains a whisper of God’s peace. And for 25 years it has been the guiding principle of my life.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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