Sunday, 17 January 2010

The vanishing ODC conundrum

I bumped into one of the island’s ODC (Ordinary Decent Clergy) yesterday, and the news was not good.
Like too many of his fellows, he had over-worked himself into severe illness. Unlike some he hadn’t taken the management’s kind offer of ‘retirement on health grounds’ and worked part-time (by his usual standards) until nominally well enough to put in 100 hour weeks again. To paraphrase his analogy of current ‘working conditions’, if clergy were butter, most Manx parishioners get dry bread.
But why should this concern any humanist/secularist/atheist, especially a hardcore one like me?
Because what he and other ODC experience is about more than the decline of established churches and organised religion. It’s also about what isn’t filling the gap left by retiring parish priests, who in their turn could never fill the gap left by the dismantling of the Welfare State right at the point when, entering a recession, all government departments are being told to cut back anyway.
Like it or not as atheists, full time clergy helped hold small traditional communities together and were on hand for more than just churchgoers. For example, in the case of this particular ODC I know in winter he almost weekly discovers injured pensioners forgotten by social services or neighbours. By comparison, ‘hobby vicars’ turn up on Sundays, do a service and go back to their other interests.
As I’m blogging regularly about the irritating stitch-up of ‘community laison’ between evangelicals and the Manx government, or the refurbishment of key Anglican churches with public money written off as ‘heritage’ or ‘community and educational facilities’ it is clear money (mostly from the public, not the faithful) is being thrown at the problems and so (in theory) public services exist.
In practice the public services do not exist and we can never, ever, expect that government will provide them. And the much reported ‘third sector’ involvement which was meant to replace them is a bigger myth than the invisible friend of the faith-led spongers reporting it.
What we actually see is the church (especially evangelicals) adopting good free market practice. They calculate which ‘public service’ requires little or no actual physical work and bid for it through government friends who are glad to farm it out. Politicians don’t care about junkies, alkies, unconvicted prisoners or ex-convicts because that doesn’t get votes. They don’t care about the old, disabled or poor either because such losers have no executive directorships to offer lying toe-rags when the public doesn’t re-elect them.
So, it doesn’t matter to either dishonest politicians or dishonest evangelicals that proper services are provided. It only matters that caring noises are made, and that the cost to the public is apparently cut by the contracts going to faith-based amateurs with no overheads (having no qualified professionals to pay and no back-office or infrastructure costs).
Similarly, while full-time clergy acting as hospital chaplains tackle, unpaid, all the incidentals missed by the NHS (tracking down distant relatives, liasing with social services or undertakers, etc.,etc.), the vultures move in instead on the Hospice, where the desperately wealthy and their legacies are easily parted.
The broadcasting of a new film about Quentin Crisp over Christmas caused me to re-read his New York diary, Resident Alien, where I was struck by a comment on a letter Crisp received from an anonymous young gay man who complained that while there was much talk about “gay community”, sadly(in Crisp’s words) ‘this happy confederacy does not exist’.
So, we have many lifestyle models, including Lifestyle Christianity and even Lifestyle Atheism or Humanism. But community (as in that thing where you help your neighbours and those with similar interests or problems get by) is as big a myth as the Imaginary Invisible Friend.
The difference is that we need not only to imagine it, but to make it happen.

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