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The cult of “busyness”

The cult of “busyness”

Why did the bishops of the Church of England differ so strikingly from their clergy in their voting about the Anglican Covenant? Sam Norton, an English priest argues that it’s because the Church of England’s “stupid and ungodly culture” honors being busy more than it honors the work of the discernment of God’s will.

“[…][It seems to me that a significant part of this is the culture inhabited by the hierarchy which prevents a genuine and honest conversation from taking place – homosexuality is the presenting issue but the issues go much deeper than that. Put simply I don’t believe that it is possible to be a Bishop and to tell the truth (with some honourable exceptions).

The roots of this are manifold, but I want to draw attention to one in particular – and that is the cult of overwork that has taken hold in the Church, in mimicry of the surrounding culture. It is this cult of overwork and ‘busyness’ that I see as stupid and ungodly. It is this cult that has radically diminished the capacity of the bench of bishops to exercise holy discernment. After all, how many Bishops do you know that are not absurdly overworked? The research is pretty clear that overwork leads to a significant decrease in productivity and is self-destructive – but appreciating that requires the application of wisdom, and it is precisely that wisdom that flies out of the window when a person is exhausted. We cannot expect our Bishops to exercise holy discernment and godly leadership if at the same time we are also expecting them to work 70 and 80 hour weeks (the same thing applies to clergy of course).

Of course, as Christians we are more than usually vulnerable to this cult of overwork because it appeals to our co-dependent culture and masochistic minister syndrome – if we are not suffering then we are not being properly godly. This is pernicious nonsense, and rooted in some very bad theology (not least the doctrine of penal substitution). It is as if we equate the way of the cross with the decision to mimic the world’s obsessions, when a proper understanding of the cross would lead to precisely the opposite conclusion. The development of the stipend was originally to allow at least one person in a parish to have time for prayer; it is a sad irony that, as with many salaried posts, it has become an excuse to extract the maximum amount of labour for the minimum amount of expenditure.

In Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels there is one character, a thaumaturge, who carries around a small child on his back, called a croyel. The child never grows up but does, periodically die – and is then replaced by another. As the story develops it becomes clear that the thaumaturge is simply siphoning off the life-force of each successive child in order to preserve his own immortality. It’s a frightening image, but one that I feel captures the way that the church treats all those who work for it – full-timers, part-timers, volunteers. What we expect from our bishops and clergy is exactly what happened with Microsoft – use up the resource until it is a dry husk and then discard and replace with another. The needs of the institution – keeping the show on the road – is paramount, and the church continues to sacrifice its children on this idol’s altar. It’s long time past for us to stop.”

Twitter is lighting up with Church of England people saying that Sam has this exactly right. I expect there are a number of TEC people who’d signal their agreement as well.

So, as we prepare to enter Holy Week, what are we doing to play down the busy and play up the discernment?


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Lois Keen

I’ve felt that the busyness we clergy get into came about as an effort to prove we’re worth paying a living wage and benefits. Opposite this I choose to believe that taking my “day off”, my vacation time, and my continuing education days and retreat days, in short, breaking into the busyness, is to fulfill the ordination vow to be a wholesome example. Busyness, working 70 and 80 hour weeks, is not healthy for anyone. Part of my calling as a priest, then, is not to give in to it.

And then I wrote my homily for the Easter Vigil and thought, “I think I shall preach this on Easter Day as well, instead of trying to come up with a separate sermon. So the 15 or so people who come to the Vigil and to the service the next day hear it twice. It’s worth having the Easter Day people hear it as well.” And immediately the guilt began to creep in – as in, “getting away with it” guilt.

“Will you… be a wholesome example to your people?” “I will.” I will work smart, not hard, because back-breaking hours are bad theology. Bad for me. Bad for all people. And easy to say in this privileged Western culture, and busyness itself is a Western cultural construct.

No conclusion. I shall preach the same sermon at the Vigil and Easter Day. I shall take my two days off after. I shall do my best to take care of myself. Maybe it will make a difference, somewhere, somehow, for someone, sometime. Sometimes one just does the best one can to be faithful.

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