I enjoy watching rugby, or at least I do when my team, Northampton Saints, win. Okay, I haven’t enjoyed my rugby very much this year! Over recent years, since the advent of the referee saying to the players ‘last play,’ it has become common for the side in possession, if they are winning, to boot the ball high into the stands. The referee then blows the final whistle; job done and four points in the bank. If I could choose one word that I would like to be kicked high into the stands and off the church’s field of play it would be the word ‘senior.’ I just don’t think its a church word. In fact I would go further and suggest that its use represents the ultimate capitulation to a culture that endorses, promotes and celebrates success. Yet, it is a word that is used with some extravagance in the world of the church.
Over the last few weeks I have seen an area bishop described as a ‘senior bishop,’ I have heard a member of general synod being characterized as a ‘senior member of General Synod,’ I received an invitation to a conference to which ‘senior pastors come free.’ And so it goes on: the bishop’s staff is now frequently referred to as ‘the senior team’ and special MBA style (apparently) training is being provided for those identified for senior leadership. For those of a gentle, middle management, disposition escaping the word senior is impossible. It is a word that just won’t be kicked into touch. It should be because it’s a dangerous, toxic, word. It’s a word that begs to be idolized. It’s also a highly secular word. Its close cousins are ambition, status, reward and career. Its closest ecclesial relation is clericalism.
It is true that the church operates on the basis of a hierarchy. But, surely the church’s hierarchy should be based on those old-fashioned notions of vocation, functionality, and (mutual) accountability? I would like to see more stress on these, especially accountability. I also think that the church would be better, healthier, place if bishops, priests and deacons simply focused on being bishops, priests, and deacons fulfilling the basic functions as described in that work of genius: the ordinal. The church’s hierarchy shouldn’t be about seniority because at heart it is a functional hierarchy in which men and women take their place following a sense of calling to a specific ministry; vocation in other words.
Seniority is in many realms regarded as a good in its own right and something to be strived for. Seniority can also be a gift, granted for good and impressive behaviour. Seniority confers status. It is often assumed that those who occupy senior positions have higher powers or greater abilities. Seniority is frequently granted on the basis of perceived success. It is often assumed that those occupying senior roles have a greater ability to develop strategy. No wonder those occupying senior positions frequently want to develop a closed network to advise them, and work with (but in reality for) them. Demarcation, the drawing of non porous borders, and the encouragement of unfettered ambition and pride can be the toxic results of an excessive drive to be regarded as a senior, for seniority is best served through the creation of an exclusive club. Clubs comprised only of seniors are by their nature exclusive, divisive, prone to group think, and possessed by a tendency to protect the club and its interests at all costs.
Matthew 20, 21-28 perhaps reveals the problems of a focus on seniority. Traditionally James, John and their rather pushy mother are presented as suffering from pride, and ambition but what they are really asking for is a place at the top table, one on Jesus’ right the other on his left. Their desire is to be considered senior. No wonder the other apostles are angered. The apostles are supposed to be equal in status. The idea of senior and junior apostles was for Jesus’ contemporaries an anathema. It should be for those of us who continue to walk in the apostolic tradition. The idea of a senior bishop, synod member or pastor is, when seen in the light of this account, silly.
The Rule of Benedict also stands opposed to some modern notions of seniority. Benedict for sure demands a functional hierarchy, but he also insists that virtue, not success, should be the determinant of status within the monastery. Being an abbot, prior or steward isn’t regarded as a reward for success neither does it assume a greater ability to make strategic decisions. In fact Benedict warns against the very idea of the senior team for in Chapter Three of the rule he writes:
‘When any business of importance is to be considered in the monastery, the abbot or abbess should summon the whole community together and personally explain to them the agenda that lies before them…….we have insisted that all the community should be summoned because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the younger members.’
If the church is to flourish and grow, if it is to organize itself in a profoundly counter cultural way, if it is to be outward looking, if it is to minimize the risk of group think and clericalism and, if it really is serious about the well being of its members, then it really does need to kick the word senior off the pitch and high up into the stands.