The power of privilege


Don't get me wrong - I like a bit of luxury as much as the next person and nothing I say here should call that into question. What has been vexing me a little lately is the relative privilege that is afforded clergy in Sri Lanka. I first came across it during my first visit when I unexpectedly came across seats in Colombo airport 'reserved for clergy'. It soon became clear that, in most public places, areas and seating were set aside for Buddhist clerics as they travelled or ate.

But the phenomenon of clergy privilege is not a sectarian endeavour. Whilst Christian clergy are not afforded special waiting rooms in railway stations or dazzling white seating at Bandaranaike International Airport, within the church there is a strong culture of deference and even privilege. As a guest, it is hard to resist this for fear of appearing churlish and causing offence. But it is difficult to watch as the ordained constantly bump the queue for food or are served whilst others have to fend for themselves.

Participating in an ordination service last Sunday brought some clarity as well as confusion. During the service, three deacons were ordained and, immediately after the bishop had laid hands on them, he took off his vestments and washed their feet. They, in turn, washed the feet of others. It was one of the most moving rituals I have ever seen, especially given the necessity of foot-washing in this part of the world. A powerful symbol of the humility that lies at the heart of all ministry offered in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. That was the clarity ... the confusion being that, after the service, clergy were separated off in the Chapter House to be served tea in china cups whilst the congregation had to make do with plastic cups served in the open air.

Coming to a place like Sri Lanka serves to remind me of the vast privilege I have because of where I was born and now live. Whatever I believe about where clergy sit in the pecking order in the UK, my resources still place me in the top 1% of the world's population. And so the challenge of the Gospel continues to bite of how I am to embody the deep humility of the One I am called to represent. I have no profound answers to offer, only that what I think is being asked of me is not guilt or shame, but an active desire to place myself alongside others and to offer loving, respectful service. A challenge indeed ....

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