The demands are many. A typical day for a member of the clergy begins with morning prayer, reading from the Bible and mentioning to God the needs of the whole community. They can then find themselves going from a lively school assembly to a visit to a bereaved parishioner to plan a funeral service. They may then attend a meeting to discuss repair works to a listed building, take a communion service in an old people’s home, liaise with organists to choose next month’s liturgical music, report a potential safeguarding concern, and in the evening chair a meeting of the parochial church council. No day is quite the same, which is one of the great things about being a vicar. But a schedule requiring such mental, spiritual and emotional agility can take its toll.
One of the things that is sometimes forgotten is that vicars are (or should be) theologians. It isn’t good enough for the vicar simply to have his or her opinions about God and the world. Theology is a serious academic discipline. So what the vicar says about God has to be doctrinally defensible. But it also has to be kind and accessible. Sometimes that seems like a tall order, which means tired clergy either retreat into well-worn platitudes or become regarded as ivory-tower intellectuals in a society increasingly suspicious of experts. It is exciting to be a person of study and prayer in a community, pointing to God and the possibility of new creation in an often weary world. It is also incredibly draining, and sometimes the pressure becomes a bit too much.
I don’t know the specifics of what made Thewlis write the letter to his congregation. But all the clergy I have spoken to know how it feels to want to write that sort of letter. In particular, he says he perceived a lack of warmth among the people he served. That can be very painful for the clergy, who have often moved significant distances to live in a community they don’t know very well, to do a hard job with a lot of public exposure. It doesn’t take more than a few people who are adept at finding fault, or who resent a new person in their community exercising leadership and making decisions, to feel vulnerable and isolated. A throwaway unkind comment or a hastily written angry email can eat away at a parish priest for days.