01 November 2011

A candidate for rector of the Old Catholic parish in Frankfurt...just one

It genuinely saddens me that the Frankfurt parish, which is in a search process for a new rector, has only had one priest apply (see story in Germany on alt-katholisch.de). The deadline has now passed, and the election is therefore more or less a formality (unless of course the parish decides they don't want him, but that's not terribly likely).

Naturally I wish the candidate, Armin Luhmer, currently in Blumberg, blessings and much success with the Frankfurt parish, so I hope I'm not unduly causing offense by complaining about the lack of candidates. That isn't the issue at all, but rather, I'm concerned that this may be a sign of things to come – just one (or none) candidates for a rector position.

At the last synod, there was some discussion at the fringes where concern was shown about the likelihood of a shortage of priests in the near future, but little formal debate and few if any proposals. The thing is, "native" Old Catholic rectors, i.e. those ordained Old Catholic and who became a rector as such, are in the minority, as I'm informed. The bulk of Old Catholic rectors in Germany are those who were Roman Catholic and who changed jurisdictions at some point. There is a seminary, which is part of the University of Bonn and which is integrated into that university's Roman Catholic and Protestant programs, and there is a small number of students there (five or six, I believe). But there is a large wave of priests who will be retiring, opening up all sorts of vacancies that we simply cannot fill, at least not by full-time clergy, and the seminary won't produce enough replacements – compounded by the fact that Roman Catholic priests in Germany are increasingly hard to find anyway, so that supply is also dwindling.

There is one possible stopgap solution, which is non-stipendiary (i.e. volunteer) clergy. The Old Catholics do in fact have a theology distance learning course that qualifies people to become ordained as deacon or priest, but only on a volunteer basis, since under German law, an officially state-sanctioned church must require their rector to have a university-level theology degree and to pass the state exams. We do have a fair number of such volunteer priests and deacons, who could preside at services. But there are some major drawbacks to this.

First, in many people's minds, "priest" is synonymous with "rector", meaning that if there is a priest available, the unspoken expectation is that the priest will run the parish, which is a full-time job at least. Volunteer priests simply would be unable to invest that kind of time.

Second, without a strong and clear leadership in place, the parish government could quickly fall apart as the parish lacks direction. Again, there could be the unstated expectation that any volunteer priest would step into this role, which he or she will just plain not be able to do, neither legally nor practically. Meanwhile the sad truth is that parish vestries, which are also made up of volunteers, are often hard to motivate to invest enough time to govern and manage the parish, and again that requires leadership – and the rector is the logical person to do it. Without a strong rector, the vestry can quickly lose direction or motivation.

Third, having a priest available can make it too easy to just sit back and not bother getting a rector. A kind of "what, me worry" sets in, and people become too comfortable with the band-aid solution, rather than trying to get back to the original healthier state before. It wouldn't take long for the supply of stipendiary priests for rector positions to dwindle under such circumstances.

Thus while this "solution" would solve problems short-term, in the long run it would weaken the church further. Somehow, we need to motivate more young people to study theology and to become rectors. The problem is that there seems to be a cultural reluctance to encourage this at all, for fear of offending or stepping on toes. But I think it is better to openly state the problem and to ask people to step up and help out, either by choosing to enter discernment or to pray for those who do and include such prayers in Eucharist services, not just to ask God's help, but to remind people that the issue still exists.

Sad to say, I have often thought I would like to try to enter the seminary, but at my age it is unlikely I could expect to be placed as a rector. By the time I would graduate I'd be pushing 50. But surely there are others contemplating the idea who are better positioned than I, and who could use a few extra nudges from their fellow Christians to try to follow that path.

We will, with God's help. Kyrie eleison...