Is today’s clergyperson
a professional?

By Adrian Worsfold

Recent ongoing stories about church decline in the United Kingdom have raised questions again about deployment of human resources. Much of this is based around what the clergy is for and what it does, how it fits into society, and what it can do differently from other people.

The status of clergy has risen and fallen over time. At one time many a family of some land would put a son or two into the clergy, rather as others had a career in the military. What the clergyman did not get as a reward, he received in status. This was also a visible connection between class and clergy, and one reason why the Church of England found itself at some distance from the urban poor and indeed even the urban middle class.

One solution to the decline of religion regarding changing society and the decline of the status of the clergyman was to connect the clergyman with professionalism. By calling him a professional, the clergy hitched itself to a method in modern society of raising status.

In general, the professional receives specialist training that follows on from having achieved a necessary level of education. To some extent, the professional possesses a secret knowledge not available to others. That knowledge gives a surplus value that shields the professional from the changeable weather of market and labour economics. In order to enact that knowledge upon others, with either fees or no fees to the public (as in the National Health Service), the professional needs to be trusted. It is a key relationship. Professionals have clients not customers. This means the professional has a code of ethics. So important is trust, that the professional comes under a regime of self-regulation via the special participatory and regulatory group he or she is obliged to join. Indeed, joining such a group and being accepted as a member is a clear piece of evidence that the individual professional is to be trusted. The salary may or may not relate to the work; nevertheless there is a responsibility in the work and a reward that comes from the work in itself. The professional is a specialist, of course, whereas under the watchful eye of the professional association, it is up to managers to run the mundane aspects of the organisation within which the professional works. The professional may work alone or in teams, but they are always separated off.

Sometimes the professional nature of a group is under doubt. Do they really have knowledge that is unavailable elsewhere? Whatever, a profession creates entry-barriers and looks after its status. It creates restricted areas of practice, and seeks support in the wider legal system for such protection. It attempts to maintain at least a pretence that there is a distant connection with market forces, even though in reality such a claim to profession may be an attempt simply to skew a more beneficial market position.

Is today’s clergyperson a professional? The connection has always been tenuous. One reason why a clergyperson might be is the relationship of trust and a client basis of an approach to him or her. This is why Roman Catholic Church scandals of clergymen and abuse have been so damaging. Nowadays in the UK clergypeople and churchpeople as much as anyone else need to be checked through the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) before coming near children. It is no longer so unusual to see a clergyperson end up on the sex offenders’ register.

The next question is whether they have specialist knowledge. What is it that they have? Well it used to be theological training, as comparatively few laypeople had the university education and then years in a theological college for both specialist knowledge and practice. Nowadays many go to university, and quite a number will do some or even all the topics an ordinand might cover. On top of this, theological training and education is being given more to lay people as lay people simply do more of the work.

Some activities are reserved for clergy. Anglicans have rules and licences about who can do what in church, and the clergyperson is the one who does the Eucharistic service. There may be theological reasons for this, but from the point of view of professionalism it looks like protection for the sake of it. I come via a tradition where the layperson could do anything that the clergyperson did, and indeed they stopped ordaining clerics as a matter of course. I continue to see no reason why lay people properly prepared cannot do all the functions of a clergyperson. This might join my radical liberalism with Sydney fundamentalism, but there we are. Report after report about clergy and laypeople in the Church of England have envisaged more and more lay involvement with some radical solutions; in terms of money, it seems that the radical solution is to make people clerics but not to pay them. They may or may not have been to university; they may have a secular job or even profession, but they do some reduced training (more and more is distant training, not formation in a college) and then they are ordained and can do what other paid clerics do. They join the profession.

I take the view that this professionalism-chasing is all a red herring. A clerical person surely needs to act according to trust, but there is no profession in terms of a speciality. He or she is a generality, a viewpoint over all specialities, a worker among workers, and yet hopefully one who can find time (less so if unpaid) for the other. Such is a person for others.

However, increasingly such a person, not a professional, is a manager. This person does have to be the key paid person, even among the unpaid clerics. There is a special responsibility to carry the plant, equipment and people into some co-ordinated whole in any locality. This person should be the communicator and information conduit above and yet among all others (as well as the person who, pastorally, knows when to shut up and keep confidences – the two actually go hand in hand).

The reason for this is decline. I have noticed, since being in the Church of England again, just how often things that could be managed and co-ordinated are left to drift. Parishes that get joined together are often done so in order that some will close, by some sort of Darwinian process of the death of the weakest.

One may say, “What about bishops?” Of course, these too must be managers. But they are a supervisory management. They should indeed initiate and enact overall purposes and goals. However, increasingly in the UK we have “Minster Church” models of a central church where the staff congregate with oversight for other churches of an area, and here is where “management” must take place. Here is where the education and skills training can take place of local people, of setting up systems of qualitative evaluation, and of having the formal and informal meetings that set up those all important loops of planning and information.

The idea of the cleric as a professional, as a somewhat even lonely practitioner in one place and separated off, should be killed off. In a situation where five per cent of people attend church with any regularity, the team that does attend should be empowered, communicating and sharing. Whatever the diversity of personnel, and whatever variable theologies they have, when it comes to co-ordinated and practical output, good management should be able to produce a situation where, as the saying goes, they are all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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