Toilet dispute boils over into the courts
of bullying and terror, as parish priests struggle
to lead congregations dominated by neurotic worshippers
who spread havoc with gossip and manipulation."
—from The Future of the Parish System report
This blunt assessment of congregational life among our fellow Anglicans was issued last year at the end of a study of the Parish System which described a new illness called, (and I am not making this up) "irritable clergy syndrome" which comes in part from the fact that "one of the most stressful features of ministry is the effort to be nice to difficult people." An article on this is found here: Evil-minded Parishioners Making Life Hell for Clergy.
I bring this year-old report up because of something in current events showed how right that report was.
St. Michael Church, which is in a toilet dispute that could
oust him as Vicar of the church.
It all began when the Rev. Dr. Tom Ambrose sought to modernise with bathrooms the 14th century church he serves as Vicar in Trumpington, Cambridge, England. Ambrose had made other changes before—like moving the day of the Harvest Festival from Friday to Saturday—that had already started trouble brewing, but the toilet issue boiled over into the church courts and therefore the press.
The Daily Mail offers The vicar who may be flushed out of his parish in a row over church toilets, the Telegraph went for Move to oust vicar in loo row, while the Cambridge Evening News said Furious flock puts vicar's job on the line. You can find more about the dispute at those links. But the short version is that it is now headed to an eccesiastical court that could remove Ambrose from his job, or the priesthood. For his part, Amrose says,
This is not doing the Church of England any good - to see Christians behaving like this. I wasn't doing anything particularly radical, I haven't tried to overturn any traditions but I made a few changes which I believed would improve the parish and make it more inclusive."I believe Ambrose and trust that the Church of England will find a way to solve the dispute gracefully. I know that Christian community is messy, but I find that a good thing more often than not. Good because it means that those who gather are different and bring those differences to church. And in a diverse church, we will sometimes rankle one anothers feathers and learn how to love our neighbors in the process of benefitting from the gifts of all in the congregation.
Where ever two or three are gathered, there will be some politics and struggles. I was once on the vestry of a church that spent several contentious months on whether to paint or side the church office. It was unpleasant, yet didn't lead to blood-letting. It did give me a chance to see the nasty political side of things on a minor issue. However, that tempest brewing in a teapot was resolved when a member who felt strongly about paint offered to pay to have the building scraped and painted, ending the cost issue and calming the stormy waters before things got too far. The issue had merely been one of money and so the issue went away.
So I observe that thankfully that while wherever two or three are gathered there are politics, we also find that when they are gathered in Jesus' Name, our Lord is in the midst of it. Thankfully my experience among Episcopal Churches (and other denominations) here in South Georgia is not near so dire as the description of our fellow Anglicans. Yes, Jesus may be shaking his head at why we major in the minors worrying more about little things than big, but I think he is also empowering us to meet the real spiritual and also physical needs of our community.
It is a shame to see churches bogged down in distractions like this toilet dispute when the world is ever more than ever in need of the life-changing Good News of what God has done in Jesus Christ. I pray that Ambrose and the parishioners at St. Mary and St. Michael Church will be able to work past the current issues to get to the part where they are transforming the lives of people in their neighborhood to the glory of God.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor