Sermon: No More Reverend Nice Guy
Preached on 4th February 2007
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
I am always attracted to the little lists of virtues that we find in the letters of Paul. The one we heard in the second reading was typical:
‘As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.' (Col 3.12) Those five words would make nice titles for a sermon series in Lent, or titles for talks at an ordination retreat. For these are pastoral values. They come across as soft and gentle. Taken together they give a good feel.
But take them apart and the feel is not so uniformly cosy. Compassion can be a very demanding value. Compassion - suffering with - means travelling with people through the more painful and distressing parts of their lives. It means hospital and prison visiting. It means holding hands in the valley of the shadow of death. Many people given the choice would avoid occasions that demand compassion - which is why those who are going through a hard time often suffer from loneliness. Fair weather friends are those with a compassion deficit.
And humility. That's not exactly straightforward or easy. Humility is the virtue which allows us to see ourselves as we really are. It is the attitude of the person who not only knows his or her place but rejoices in it. Humility is the ultimate down to earth virtue. The one which underlies our capacity to accept and respect those who are different to us.
Humility is no more about self-deprecation than compassion is about pity. Humility is about honesty and connectedness. We are humble when we are honest and honesty from others is often the occasion of our genuine humbling.
Add to these two patience and we have three of the most demanding traits you could imagine. Patience is the discipline of not setting the pace but accepting the pace of others. Just as humility is the gift of knowing ourselves and our neighbours, patience is the gift of knowing the time.
Arrogance, pride and self importance are the enemies and opposites of patience. These traits nudge us to insist that our sense of timing is the best.
It is interesting to reflect on how our capacity for patience is diminished in the modern world. Those who use computers know the enormous frustration caused when the programme slows down or if an internet connection is disrupted. Drivers often experience something similar when the lights turn red or the motorway traffic grinds to a halt. We are tested by telephone answering devices that invite us to consider the options of all possible departments before allowing us to speak to a human being. If we have no patience we cannot cope with a change to our plan of action. If we have no patience we cannot accept that we are not in charge.
But the virtue of patience is one that allows us, from time to time at least, to have the grace to wait. Wait and see perhaps. Wait and let go of our anxiety and busyness. Wait and forget our self importance and relax into a moment's contemplation of something that matters rather more than our self flattering to-do lists.
But if compassion, humility and patience are obviously very demanding and solid virtues - what of kindness and meekness? It seems to me that their defence indeed their healthiness is not so straightforward and I want to spend a few minutes exposing some of the problems that might be wrapped up in meekness and kindness. And I want to do this by focusing our attention on a word which you do not find in the Bible but has become such a mark of Christian ministers that a recent writer has spoken about it as the norm. I speak of course of the norm of niceness.
This phrase appears in a powerfully perceptive essay by the psychologist Sara Savage in a recent book called The Future of the Parish System. (Ed Steven Croft Church House Publishing 2006)
‘Clergy,' she writes, ‘are expected to be nice. This softens the impact of hierarchy while preserving it.
‘The norm of Christian niceness is ubiquitous, despite the portrait the Gospels paint of Jesus as an assertive, sometimes acerbic personality who readily confronted people in order to pursue their spiritual welfare.'
Savage is no proponent of the opposite of niceness but is helpful in seeing that it can have complex and negative consequences.
‘While nastiness is clearly unproductive, the norm of niceness can tie churches up in knots. This of course in the context of church life heavily reliant on the good will of volunteers and many in official but unpaid roles. Volunteer workers, for example, are, in general relatively intolerant of conflict in comparison to paid workers... Volunteer workers expect appreciation and a good deal of freedom to carry out their activities in their own way. They do not expect to be confronted by the ‘nice' vicar over a procedural disagreement.'
She goes on to pinpoint the problem with niceness more precisely - saying that it is an aversion to conflict that causes real trouble. Interestingly her analysis includes the observation that in parishes there is often a very uneven relationship: ‘clergy desperately need their lay workers and volunteers, of whom there is a limited supply.' She goes on to depict a variety of sources of conflict and suggests that the unwritten rule is that clergy should never upset anyone. She goes further into the matter when she says that ‘without the skills to resolve conflicts directly, indirect hostility is an easy way for congregations to control their clergy. Gossip is usually the weapon of choice. In response, the pulpit can offer clergy a safe place from which to tell people off.'
Part of the answer to all this comes, of course, from appreciating that conflict is itself a sign of life and health. But the norm of niceness blinds us to this truth. This means that within the culture of the church, enormous efforts are made to head off moments that are not going to be pleasant, to avoid conflict. And this empowers some people enormously and leads, in more than a few cases, to the clergy being emasculated if not bullied.
‘An acidic tone of voice can alone swing the vote of a PCC meeting, as everyone present, peace-loving Christians one and all, seek to avoid an impending conflict.' The message is clear. Niceness leads to manipulation as spring leads to summer.
So where does that take us? ‘No more Reverend Nice Guy' perhaps.
I think that is indeed part of the process. Parish clergy are a dying breed. The role has not attracted young people in the numbers needed to sustain the parish system in recent years. That trend like any other can be reversed. But not in my view as long as the norm of niceness persists in making the role so uncomfortable and incumbents so vulnerable to manipulation and so prone of passive-aggressive forms of behaviour.
I have argued that compassion, humility and patience are robust and solid virtues. But what about meekness and kindness? Do they really require of us that we become nice in the unhealthy ways that we have identified?
My feeling about kindness is that it is not the same as niceness. The saying that ‘sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind' is a rough and ready guide but it is not based on a mature understanding of either kindness or cruelty. It is truer to say that being kind does not always come across as niceness.
Genuine kindness overlaps with humility and compassion. It is based on a delicate balance of empathy and objectivity. Like politeness, kindness can ease a situation and allow possibilities of truth telling and non manipulative use of power to open up.
If anyone ever says to you, 'that's kind' they will be thanking you for your courtesy, tolerance or magnanimity. This we can rejoice in. If on the other hand they say, ‘that's nice' we should perhaps be more on our guard.
But what of meekness? ‘Blessed are the meek', said Jesus in the beatitudes, ‘for they shall inherit the earth.' And Mary in the Magnificat speaks of the humble and meek being exalted while the rich are sent empty away. Does the use of this word in the New Testament finally clinch that to be Christian is to be nice?
Blessed are the nice for they shall inherit? He hath exalted the humble and nice? It doesn't work, does it?
It seems to me that meekness is a closer cousin of humility than is niceness and that the closest word in more commonly used English (and meek is not a word often on our lips in everyday life) is ‘gentle'. Blessed are the gentle for they shall inherit. That's more like it. The humble and gentle... yes, I can live with that.
It is very possible to be both gentle and firm, gentle and honest, gentle and effective. There is nothing sentimental about being gentle. It is indeed a good way to handle delicate and sensitive matters. If a parish priest cannot be gentle with people - whether in their vulnerability or in their aspirations (tread softly because you tread on my dreams) they do not understand their role. And there are times when people who think of you as nice because you have been gentle - or humble or compassionate or patient or kind. But these practices, these habits, these virtues do not of themselves lead to the saccharine spider's web of niceness in which far too many Christians - especially ordained ones - have been and are trapped. Rather they are robust, earthy, strong, humane virtues the practice of which renders us as potent but also as vulnerable as Christ. The practice of niceness, on the other hand, is actually a form of both avoidance and self defence.
So then, I encourage you to follow Paul's suggestion and ‘clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.' (Col 3.12) But don't worry about being nice.