Do Church leaders believe?
We discussed a report in the ‘Church Times’ that at a recent conference a speaker quoted statistics suggesting that “one in every four male clerics did not believe in the Trinity, or in the Holy Spirit, or that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world”. If clergy, the leaders of congregations, have such doubts, we asked, how can ordinary church members have any hope of being confident in their faith?
But closer scrutiny perhaps suggests that the speaker (or at least, the report) was not giving a completely fair picture. The statistics quoted seem to come from a survey commissioned by “Forward in Faith” (one organisation within the Church of England) and carried out for them in 2002. That survey asked clergy a number of questions about their beliefs- and gave them a range of options to choose, including “believe unequivocally” (in other words with absolute certainty). The “one in every four” represents those who did not tick that box, but expressed some level of doubt or questioning. Interestingly, the proportion of those refusing to claim absolute certainty was higher for women clergy.
Absolute certainty- “believe unequivocally”- surely represents a very high standard of belief. There must be very few church members, including clergy and church leaders, who can honestly claim that degree of consistent certainty at all times (and perhaps women clergy are more honest in confessing their doubts than are male clergy). And would we expect clergy to be more “certain” than lay people? We would expect clergy to have a deeper understanding of the faith- that is, after all, their task within the Church. But the fact that clergy are perhaps more likely to be asked challenging questions about the Christian faith than many lay people must surely mean that, if they deal with these questions honestly and realistically, those questions inevitably force them to question their faith.
In some Christian churches (for example, some Eastern Orthodox churches), the role of the priest is seen as separate from the role of the theologian. The task of the ordained priest is to maintain faithfully the tradition of the Church, its doctrine, its worship and its structure. The task of the theologian is to develop the Church’s understanding of the faith, to deal with the questions put to it by the modern world, and thus to enable the Church to grow in its appreciation of the Gospel. The theologian is usually not an ordained person, but a member of the laity.
In the Western European church these two roles have been combined. Clergy are expected to do both- to maintain the faith “as it has been handed down to us”, and also to face the questions put to faith by today’s world. It is a rare person who can undertake both these tasks effectively.
But the Church must make provision in some way for both tasks to be done. Members of the Church need both to be done- at different times in their lives and experiences with an emphasis on one or the other. A Church or congregation which neglects either will betray its members. And expecting the same person to do both tasks is bound to fail.