The chimney sweep was brusque at the best of times. In the Co Down vernacular, he was “pass remarkable”, he could rarely complete his task without some complaint or criticism. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine what his complaints might have been about, but there was hardly an occasion when he hadn’t something to say.
Why did we carry on getting him? Because he was a good sweep. There would be hardly a loose flake of soot left inside the chimney after his vigorous efforts and, after he had gone, there would not be a speck of dirt inside the room. Maybe he subjected himself to the same critical attitude with which he approached the world, who knows? The important thing was his quality as a sweep; personality factors were entirely incidental.
An economist friend used to tell me that the church was now in a market economy, that with the decline of traditional allegiances in Ireland, the church must now compete for customers.
Without getting into talk of market share and product branding, he’s probably got a point. There are no certainties anymore, everything demands work and enterprise and without them a church very quickly slips into a downward spiral. Even in rural Ireland, there is competitive edge, new churches waiting to recruit people who are often the younger and most dynamic members of a parish.
But what about the chimney sweep?
Are there grounds for being like the chimney sweep, doing the job well but not having to worry about being nice all the time? Reading the reports from the Church of Ireland General Synod, there is a sense of niceness, blandness; of people who would leap to say how offended they were if there was anything approaching a robust exchange of views.
Even at parish level, there seem frequent moments when smiling through gritted teeth is a requirement of ministry; being nice to everyone on all occasions. It’s not a particularly biblical way of doing things, Jesus was angry when necessary, and sometimes it has to be asked whether being nice is even effective. Media coverage of the synod was minimal; who is interested in the dull and the predictable?
Sometimes, don’t things need to be called as they are, even at the risk of people protesting that they are offended? Is telling the truth necessarily incompatible with good salesmanship? In a market place, isn’t there a niche for distinctiveness as well as niceness?