A friend who spent her working life as an international management consultant told me on Friday evening that she thought clergy spent too long in places and that this wasn’t good for them or for the parishes.
I think she has a point. I think being a stranger is important to caring for people. The most difficult people to whom to talk are often the people nearest to you. There will be times when something should be said, something that should be discussed, something that should be resolved, but it is the last thing anyone is going to mention. We play along, perhaps thinking that the problem will go away if we ignore it.
Families often do this when a member is seriously ill. The family know their loved one is seriously ill; the loved one knows the illness is serious; but no-one will say what is on their mind. Being the priest caught in the middle of these conspiracies of silence is not easy; when people expect you to speak the truth it is hard to know what to say.
Most people find it easier to talk to a complete stranger about their thoughts. We feel that if we talk to someone close to us, then what we say will come between us, they will think less of us, or they will hold it against us, or they will be hurt, or they will not trust us as much. If we talk to a stranger, then there is not the same danger. We will probably never see them again, so it doesn’t matter what they think.
One of the reasons for the effectiveness of the Samaritans is that they are anonymous. People can talk to them without feeling threatened. There is space, an opportunity, to talk about the most difficult things, in the knowledge that it is all heard in complete confidence.
Just as it’s easier not to talk to people close to you, so it’s easier to cope with the problems of people who are distant from you, who are distant from the people and the things you hold dear.
I ministered for seven years in a very rural parish in the North. They were very traditional country people and, while they held the clergy in the greatest respect, there was also an arm’s-length relationship with whoever was the Rector. I was addressed as “Mr Poulton” by virtually everyone, including people older than my grandparents. It was all a bit disconcerting at first, I was only 28 when I went there and wasn’t used to being called “Mister!. What this distance did create was space that allowed them to share their thoughts and their worries.
The problem of putting a distance between yourself and others that leaves you very isolated. When a friend of mine died of cancer at the age of 62 at Christmas 1997, a friend whose little grandson I had buried at Christmas 1993, there was no-one to talk to. It was my job to handle such situations, that what I was there for. When I tried to talk about it at a small group meeting, there was a sense of embarrassment. People close didn’t want to hear anything awkward said.
We don’t ask difficult questions of the people around us. We talk about what we need from Tesco, or whether football or Coronation Street should be on television, or what the traffic was like in town, or 101 other pressing concerns.
We don’t ask the difficult things of people near us, nor do we expect to be asked difficult questions.
Perhaps this is why my friend thought there was a time to be moving.