In Poland, where I often work as a correspondent, it is routine to see priests and nuns in their cassocks and habits in the shops, queuing at bus stops or hurrying between tasks. That everyday presence of real people remains crucially important in signalling Christianity’s openness and availability.
Yet here, even those in the public eye, while bemoaning the demise of church attendance, are likelier to be seen in jackets and ties, jeans and T-shirts, than in anything identifying them as clergy.
Oxford, a city of 150,000 people, is home to some 400 full-time priests and ministers, including chaplains and lecturers at its university and members of its religious houses. Its landmarks include St Giles, arguably the most religious street in Britain, where Balliol, St John’s and Somerville College, with their stately chapels, stand opposite two large parish churches, alongside Dominicans, Benedictines, High Anglicans, Quakers and Christian Scientists, as well as a whole theology faculty and Oratory – all in the space of 250 yards. Yet visitors are far likelier to see Muslim preachers in their Taqiyahs, talking to shoppers and handing out leaflets, than anyone in a clerical collar.
Those who question the comparison with Poland, Europe’s most avowedly Christian country, should think again. Poland is currently home to 31,500 mostly Catholic clergy. That is actually fewer than in Britain, which boasted 37,500 clergy of all denominations last year, according to UK Church Statistics. Poland’s priests, furthermore, are more thinly spread in relation to active church members, with a heavier workload and weaker parish infrastructure.
Not so long ago, it was normal to see clergy mixing and fraternising with their communities. Professional expectations have since clearly shifted, while pastoral commitments have declined. Clergy today spend less time visiting parishioners than in previous generations and few involve themselves deeply in life outside their churches, where a single Mass on weekdays and perhaps two or three on Sundays has become the norm.
Most Anglican dioceses have reduced the profile of clergy still further by allowing their private lives to take priority over their mission. And in 2015, a General Synod paper agreed that Anglican clergy should be allowed to dispense with vestments, apparently not realising this was already common practice. Some argue that public attitudes have hardened – against Catholic clergy because of abuse scandals, and Anglicans because of their internal feuding. Yet Pope Francis has proved popular in Britain, as has Archbishop Justin Welby.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection