For anyone who has graced the often dingy rooms around the back of a church, the red-carpeted set with authentic old-style cushionless church hall chairs and books stacked higgledy-piggledy on cheap shelving was very real. All it needed was the smell of damp!
The vulnerability of the minister at the centre of play was authentic too.
Firmly in the school of why use three words when fifteen or thirty would more precisely surmise the situation at hand, Church of Ireland minister Jonathan (Richard Clements) faces challenges and questions from the friends and strangers he meets. Challenges and questions that few other occupations encounter.
“Is my [abusive relative] in hell?”
“I haven’t been able to sleep for weeks over this …”
“I worry if I don’t talk about it I’ll do something I’ll regret”
[head tilted to one side while motioning finger towards the minister and back to self] “We have a problem …”
“We know where your sympathies lie …”
“I’ll do everything I can to destroy whatever remains of your reputation in this community”
“People don’t like you; they never have”
Your GP in the local health centre will face some of these statements, but hopefully with less venom and threat.
A minister’s vulnerability only increases when they attempt to respond to or answer these utterances. Immediately launching into a description of your theological doubts about the existence of hell will be a tough sell to an abused parishioner, never mind explaining to another your belief that homophobia is unacceptable and admitting that you take the odd drink and have been known to swear.
Dealing with multiple ongoing crisis situations, people in stressful circumstances, conflicting time pressures and other people’s sense of priority and urgency; getting many sides of a story but still being in the dark as to the whole truth; being played (consciously and not); and yet being expected to park your own emotions and frailties in order to “fix” and pacify everyone else … even while you’re being verbally attached and threatened.
In the case of Jonathan, but like quite a few young ministers who are not long ordained, this pressure is only added to by the lack of release and going home to an empty house without the support of a partner and close family.
David Ireland hasn’t written Jonathan as a saint. He can be a right tube, naïve and gormless. But based on the limited information he has, and trying to remain true to his calling and beliefs, for the most part he acts in good faith.
Even with its minimal cast, it was as if Joe (Ivan Little), Isaac (Ryan McParland) and Judith (Victoria Armstrong) were circling around the minister, binding him ever tighter in gaffer tape, slowly suffocating him as he tried his best to serve them.
Do our local churches and theological colleges prepare ministers for a role in which no one might speak up for them, and in which they may be left to work alone under the mental and at times physical stress of what they encounter? Are accountability and support mechanisms tangible or simply good intentions? Is a denomination’s or congregation’s duty of care taken seriously? Or is it left solely in the hands of God? Belief in prayer and God’s sovereignty doesn’t excuse negligence.
I didn’t spot any clerics in the audience on Tuesday evening. From experience of the read through of the play earlier this year, they are easily identified. They’re the men and women who quickly stop laughing and are consumed in empathy as the pressure cooker of misery and pain builds up without an obvious escape route.
Perhaps one answer is for ministers to stop playing the super hero. Maybe even to stop playing God and to be human instead. To be slow to offer answers and quick – and confident – to admit that there aren’t easy answers to every pastoral situation or theological issue. To seek help from trusted colleagues and support from friends. And to seek out and find colleagues and friends before crisis hits.
Summertime also deals powerfully with the critical issue of how a family copes with abuse and the consequences of not properly dealing with a potential abuser in their midst, as well as giving a gentle nod to society’s illogical hierarchy of vices.
Amongst the threat and the haunting tragedy, Tuesday night’s audience giggled and laughed, enjoying the absurdity of conversations, and at times chuckling in discomfort at the silences and misunderstandings.
If you’ve got a strong constitution, I recommend a trip to The MAC before Summertime’s run finishes on 16 November. Bring a friend, just in case!