When write something a bit controversial in the newspapers I get a flurry of emails and letters informing me that I have flushed my career down the lavatory. “You’ll never be a bishop now,” they say. Well, some of them, anyway.
What depresses me about these letters is that they assume that the ambition of the clergy is limited to who becomes the next Bishop of Grimthorpe or Archdeacon of Bunty. If this is the extent of clerical ambition, then it is nowhere near ambitious enough.
There is a phrase that stuck with me long ago after reading R. W. Church’s history, The Oxford Movement (1891). He described the stereotypical genial broad-church clergyman, before Keble’s great theological revolution, as “not fully alive to the greatness of his calling”.
There could hardly be a more damning condemnation of a priest. Or any disciple, for that matter.
No, what we need in the Church is not less ambition, but more. We are charged with the most ambitious calling of them all: to be agents of God’s all-transforming love to the world. There is nothing modest about this commission.
“Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to lose his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales?” says Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons to his betrayer, Richard Rich, who has been made Attorney-General of Wales.
Now, I mean no disrespect to Wales (that would be an unnecessary piece of career suicide in the present dispensation), but More is right to tease Rich for his pathetic lack of ambition, just as Rich thinks he has made it.
None the less, it would be too easy and high-minded simply to contrast bad “personal ambition” with good “gospel ambition”. The reality is so much more complex, because all of us are amalgams of good and bad, with personal ambition and gospel ambition fighting it out in a continual battle of the soul.
Sometimes, the restless energy of the ego can be requisitioned for the good of others. Sometimes, selfless unworldly “gospel ambition” can be used as an alibi for the failure of the new church-hall project, or the fact that fewer people are coming to your church. I admit it: it is (partly) my ego that wants my church full. Good ambition and bad ambition weave in and out of each other.
I may be wrong about all of this, but because we so rarely have a grown-up discussion about ambition in the Church, we allow this great spiritual battle to take place in the dark. And spiritual battles in the dark allow evil a mighty head start.
(c) Giles Fraser. The author is Anglican Team Rector of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy. His most recent book is Christianity with Attitude.