Saturday, September 29, 2007

You don't have to be depressed - but it helps.

During a televised interview the novelist John Updike was asked why his books contained so many parsons, and why they appeared in such a bad light. Updike replied that most clergymen he had met were not particularly deep human beings, and that he was fascinated by people in bonds. Parsons, he added, are men in very visible social bonds.

I retired from stipendiary ministry as an Anglican priest in the year 2000, ostensibly disabled by anxiety and depression. I have since come to see that depression had become a condition of my ministry. It was the treatment for depression, initially in my case a course of Prozac, which led to my resignation. As, with help of medication, I came to identify and admit the misery I had long felt, the possibility of a return to my clerical office receded.

I had for some time resisted the conclusion that there is necessarily a conflict between the claims of professional ministry and personal integrity. Now I found myself wondering aloud, not least to clerical friends and colleagues, whether it is possible to be entirely honest, as a Christian and a priest, about what I think, feel, believe, do not believe, about who I am, and how, as we grow, that changes. The demands of clerical office (e.g. performing church services, giving comfort and assurance) seemed to require ever more feats of mental and emotional gymnastics. I was beginning to feel that the arts of pretending, condescending, posturing, play-acting, more pertinent to show business, had subverted the Church's more serious agenda.

My doctor, concerned about my mental state, asked whether I ever had thoughts of suicide or self-harm. I never did. It occurred to me however that accepting early retirement, which by now I had begun to consider, might be described as 'professional' suicide. His advice I found helpful. He suggested that leaving a job that threatened to destroy me as a person was the very opposite of suicide. It could be necessary for my survival!

As I understand it, and have experienced it, depression is, among other things, a means of self-protection from the sometimes-painful intensity of feeling fully alive in a fragile, fleeting, complex and morally ambiguous world. It is, in particular, a defense against uncertainty. Thus in this sense the opposite of being depressed is, I suppose, to be honest, open, out and free. It is also to be uncertain.

At an early stage of my troubles I had sought the support and understanding of my professional colleagues. I figured, naively, that the project of liberated life would be meat and drink to the Church in which I had been an ordained priest for thirty years. I seem to remember a time (in the seventies?) when this would have been true. So I set out to find, first among my brother priests, the kind of open, honest, adult, serious, and generous human beings I had in mind.

Whether their embarrassed reaction to my difficulties is better described as a failure of friendship or of pastoral care, I am still not clear. Those senior members of the diocese, with whom I was emboldened to share my religious doubts and sense of vocational crisis, often betrayed an alarming cynicism.

One excused himself with "Sorry, I don't do deep." (this from a priest who hears, presumably only shallow, confessions.) He was busily promoting a daily parish mass whilst confiding to me that he looked forward in retirement to never having to go to church again. I was urged repeatedly not to take religion so seriously. Another priest, with responsibility for training the junior clergy wrote, "I can't make any useful comments about your tension between faith and the Church. I suppose that having lived with being selective with the truth for most of my life, I find it quite natural - even if constricting - to juggle hypocrisies. The Church as an institution claims almost none of my allegiance and I simply plough my own furrow, as far as possible."

Cynicism Rules - OK! But what is at the root of it. For one thing, I believe, perhaps surprisingly, that it is somewhat connected to the Church's policy of discrimination against gay and lesbian clergy, a large minority, and the enforced celibacy it imposes. The concealment and deceit that is a necessary part of maintaining this fiction, for more often than not it is a fiction, about one's personal life sustains a culture of fear, evasion and denial which undermines the essential integrity of office. What is no less damaging to morale, is that those who choose to conform to the celibate ideal and live the single life may, unless it is a choice they are comfortable with, suffer great loneliness. We should not underestimate how injurious this is to the soul of the Church, and how corrupting of its internal politics.

A few years ago Elizabeth Templeton highlighted some of these issues when she wrote, 'We live (in the churches), if not with an active conspiracy, at least with a terrifying collusion of public silence about questions that need to be asked', which in turn leads to 'the isolation and furtiveness which people feel about their own wonderings, doubts and alternative understandings.'

And what is true of the churches is true a posteriori, and with knobs on, of its clergy. There must be no public inkling that they have any such unfinished agenda; that for them the search for an honest and credible faith is still on. Those who persist in their search are likely to find their distress compounded by the addition of guilt, and with guilt the fear of disclosure, stigma and opprobrium.

Templeton continues, 'We are learning from the courage of minorities who come out of their closets that fear is a sapping and festering overload on anyone's system." Should we not accept that "everyone wrestles with major questions about faith, unless they are brain-dead or bullied into concealment."

The conclusion I came to was that, although you do not have to be depressed, cynical or homophobic to be a clergyman, it can improve your chances of success!

No comments: