It is twenty years ago, the first Sunday in October, that three members of a church in Dublin travelled to Northern Ireland to attend the church where I was the clergyman, to talk to me about moving to their parish. Only two and a half years in the large Ulster parish where I was rector, there was a sense of already needing to move on.
My gentle English liberalism grated with those whose views were conservative and unionist. My ecumenism was repugnant to those who regarded Roman Catholicism as an erroneous religion. My attempts to engage with the alienated and the paramilitaries only annoyed the middle class conservatives of the parish. My dislike of Protestant evangelicalism won no friends in a community where to speak of evolution was to question all that they held dear. Being told that I was “the worst clergyman we ever had” might have hurt at the time, but, from the perspective of two decades later, was objectively and subjectively true.
Objectively, other clergy who served in the parish went on to high office, one becoming an archbishop. I finished my clerical career in a parish which was kind enough to take me after the place to which it was intended I would move decided that I was not of the calibre they desired. I shall always be grateful to those who welcomed me when I was left with no place to go.
Subjectively, I was the worst clergyman they ever had because I could never accept that the church’s first loyalty was to itself. The line in the Creed about believing in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church was always said with fingers crossed. The church was not one, it did not seem holy, and it didn’t seem to resemble the church of the time of the apostles. However, criticising the church from within was unwelcome. Loyalty and solidarity with the institution was valued highly, sometimes it seemed to come at the cost of the truth. In the ensuing years, there were encounters with the church turning a blind eye to abusers, to routine cases of spurious tax claims and outright evasion, even to a case of credit card theft and fraud. (Lest anyone imagine such things are not possible, the case of Bishop Peter Ball in England showed that concealment took place at the highest levels).
Twenty years on, to have been assessed by a woman, who was one hundred and five years old at the time, as “the worst clergyman we ever had” seems a worthwhile achievement.