Sept 2011 Whose Church is it anyway?

The complaints in my Greenbelt blog were, I confess, a bit mischievous.  I've been thinking a lot about ownership and belonging recently so I wanted to find out if regulars would take offence at a newcomer voicing opinions. Top marks to the Greenbelt veterans though, they were all very gracious in their responses.  I doubt if I would be as kind if some Tom, Dick or Harry wandered into our little village church on Sunday and started listing all the things that they thought were wrong with it. Even though they might be right.  For the record, I loved, loved, loved Greenbelt even though my complaints weren't made up ones.  But what about this ownership thing?

A couple of times in my life I’ve been called, to my face, ‘any Tom, Dick or Harry’ and in both cases it was over a church key.  As in ‘We can’t let any Tom, Dick or Harry have this key’. The first time was very many years ago when I was refused access to a manually operated duplicating machine housed in the church tower in order to produce some minutes for the PCC. The churchwarden felt that only she and the Vicar were worthy to use this valuable piece of cutting-edge technology.  However if I thought that being a member of clergy was the way not just to be a Tom, Dick or Harry I was wrong.  Some years of theological training later, as a curate, I wanted to use a side-room of the church hall during a Holiday Club.  The only key-holder was a Sunday school teacher.  I may have been one of only two stipendiary full-time priests on the staff of the church, but according to that lady I was still ‘any Tom, Dick or Harry’ and I was not getting my hands on her key.

Still, you might think, on achieving the status of incumbent one ceases to be a mere Tom Dick or Harry. But no. Two of the three parishes to which I was subsequently sent happily handed over full sets of keys, but one protested that I didn’t need them.  They didn’t actually use the TDH words but I knew what they were thinking.  ‘Just come and ask if you want to get in,’ they said, with the slightest hint of a mistrustful glare.  They knew in theory that, since I was the Rector, I was not just any Tom, Dick or Harry; but deep down, to them, I was.  It was their church, not mine.  They had seen plenty of Rectors come and go.  I did not belong there like they did.

Of course none of the above is really about access to a building.  It’s just that keys are instruments of power, ownership and trust.  The holder of the key gets to decide who comes and goes, who has access to information and resources, who is included and who is excluded.  That feels safe.  If I give someone my key they might just change everything around, mess things up, take things away, they might even move in and look at me like I’m the one who doesn’t belong; they might change the locks and then I will suddenly be an outsider.  The safest thing is to hang onto that key.

There are a zillion ways to hang onto power in church life, and only a few of them involve actual keys.You can do it, for instance, by parading your theological training (‘I think you’ll find that in the original greek …’), or by withholding skills (like an organist I once knew who would refuse to play anything welsh, just because he could) or these days by omitting to copy someone into an email, or – well, I’m not going to list them all, you get the picture. The thing is, we are all prone to do it when we feel threatened for some reason – clergy and laity, we all do it.  I sometimes wonder what Jesus was thinking when he handed St Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Didn’t he realise the kind of conflict that ensues when one person gets more authority than another?  Oh yeah - maybe that's why he also said  “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant." (Mt 20:25-26)

When are we going to get the hang of that one?