For cheap laughs you should look at the situations vacant column of the Church Times — pages of jobs for Anglican clergy. The language, with its dreary emphasis on compliance and its neglect of individualism, may help to explain why the Church of England has become the Labour party at prayer.
Number one word in these adverts is ‘team’. Applicants need to be ‘team players’. Other hot words: ‘passionate’, ‘change’, ‘management’ and ‘skills’. A couple of weeks ago the Diocese of Lichfield needed a ‘team rector’ near Tamworth — ‘a visionary, imaginative and inspirational team leader, passionate for evangelism and discipleship, with experience of managing change and able to enjoy modern styles of worship’. ‘Managing’ change may be a euphemism for ‘enforcing’ it.
The Diocese of Oxford, plainly feeling the Cross to be insufficient, illustrated its job ads with a multicoloured baby-bricks corporate logo saying ‘Living Faith’. The subtext might as well be, ‘Don’t come here if you are looking for grown-up worship.’ Oxford was looking for a rural mission dean — ‘an effective communicator who understands the complexities of envisioning traditional structures’. After reading that several times I still haven’t a clue what it means. Meanwhile, Chelmsford’s archdeacon was seeking a priest-in-charge for the Southend area — ‘a strong collaborative and compassionate leader who can grow mission and outreach’. The use of ‘grow’ as a transitive verb for anything other than fruit and veg always worries me. The Southend job will include ‘nurturing and discipling all in the church for every member ministry’. You may wonder if the Archdeacon of Chelmsford is an ‘effective communicator’. Is English even his first language?
Our village church in Herefordshire — Prayer Book, Hymns Ancient & Modern, no sign of the peace during communion, thank you — needs a new vicar. Our last one retired in the summer. Since she left we have made do with a handful of retired chaps and a couple of services have been taken by members of the congregation. During that time, attendance has risen.
An advertisement for our church’s vacancy will be placed in the Church Times quite soon. Church regulars have asked us to attend a meeting with a church official to explain what sort of priest we want.
I might just hand over a book I recently read. It is The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat, who in addition to being the man who wrote The Cruel Sea also happened to be a distant relation of mine. Kappillan is Maltese for ‘chaplain’ and the hero of the book is Father Salvatore. A shuffling, shambolic figure, he likes to eat and drink, has a twinkle in his eye and is loved by his people. I’m not sure he would tick many Church Times boxes.
The novel is set in the second world war during the siege of Malta. Justin Welby recently agonised over what RAF Bomber Command did to Dresden. Malta probably suffered as much as Dresden. In two years the Italian air force and Luftwaffe mounted 3,000 raids on that tiny island. Some 30,000 buildings were destroyed, including 111 churches and 50 hospitals. More than 17,000 people were killed at sea, another 1,300 civilians on land. At the start of the siege, Malta was allegedly defended by just three creaky Gloster Gladiators nicknamed Faith, Hope and Charity.
Down on the ground in Valletta, under the bombs, works Father Salvatore. The people despair. He assures them that God loves them.
With his encouragement, the people shelter in the ancient catacombs where many centuries earlier monks were buried. In the evenings, as they huddle under the bombardment, Salvatore performs Mass with dignity. He tells them stories from Malta’s noble history — stories about how St Paul was shipwrecked there, how the Knights of Malta defended the island, and how Malta shrugged off the depredations of Napoleon. While never glorifying war, he celebrates feats of arms. His vivid tales stir the morale of his frightened flock.
Salvatore is well-read and high-born — the second son of one of Malta’s great families. He understands that private wealth can be a source of good: it can build churches and can buy a barrel of wine for the wedding feast of an impoverished couple. Salvatore has the social confidence to walks with princes and peasants and treat the two alike. Though impertinent to his notional superiors, he is a not an itchy revolutionary with ‘experience of managing change’. He respects the traditional ways and prays devoutly. Unlike the C of E bishops with their recent letter about the general election, Salvatore steers clear of party politics.
Fr Salvatore inspires and re-assures his congregants because he is constant, unimpressed by fashion, humorous, pugnacious, patriotic, unambitious. At personal risk he rushes to the dying. Salvatore is practical, haggling with black-marketeers, chiding swindlers and pessimists. He walks everywhere in a pair of workmen’s boots. He loses his temper, not least with his church’s hierarchy. He runs out of money (oops, no management skills). He is prey to human longings. This man is real.
One day he has lunch with the Governor of Malta, Lieut-General Sir William Dobbie. Monsarrat did not invent Dobbie. Dobbie was a keen member of the Plymouth Brethren. A veteran of the Boer War, he was once sent to quell some rioting in Palestine in the 1920s. ‘We will have to fight only four days a week,’ he said. ‘The Arabs won’t fight on Friday, the Jews on Saturday and I certainly won’t on Sunday.’
Mountbatten, a naval commander at the time, complained that Governor Dobbie ‘prays aloud after dinner, invoking the aid of God in destroying our enemies. This is highly approved of by the Maltese, who have the same idea about God, but I would prefer an efficient air force.’ I’m not sure Fr Salvatore would have liked the urbane Mountbatten as much as he liked Dobbie.
Salvatore eventually comes unstuck because the local bishop and a sly monsignor decide he is getting too big for those boots he wears. And because he is exhausted. He retires to a monastery and grows things — not ‘mission and outreach’ but beans and onions and melons. Never again is he seen in public.
It is unlikely we would ever find one but I wish we could advertise for a Fr Salvatore for our next vicar. It would at least make for a more interesting Church Times advert than all that lefty management-speak rubbish.
Quentin Letts writes for the Daily Mail.