JD Salinger anniversary: being The Catcher in the Rye

The title of Salinger’s classic comes from Holden Caulfield’s redeeming vision of a worthwhile life, late in the novel.

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.

In Last Rites, I describe the scandal of how the future clergy of the Church of England are trained to see themselves in Caulfield’s role, as the only responsible ones around, with the laity running around in danger of falling over the cliff at any moment.

Ordinands are subtly inducted into this [hierarchical] culture during the selection and training process by the repeated use of Isaiah chapter 6, the story of the call of the prophet Isaiah. In a godless era God seeks a prophet to go to a godless people, and Isaiah says, ‘Here am I, send me.’ This is the self-image force-fed to the future clergy: that the clergy have received God’s call and responded, and like Isaiah will carry God’s message to a godless people. The laity – if not quite godless – are nevertheless clearly defined as the ones who have either rejected God’s call or been unfortunate enough never to have received it. It was our universal presumption on ordination day. We expected to keep on moving every few years, carrying God’s message to one needy congregation after another. If we were ever to stay in one place for a longer-term ministry it would be in the role of catcher in the rye, pretending to play with the children in the grass while assuming that the children are foolish and in danger and that the catcher alone is capable and wise. It is no wonder the clergy end up addressing their adult congregations – in both content and tone – as if speaking to a room full of children.

Twenty years later, I regard the laity, not the clergy, as first amongst the people of God.

(Salinger died 27 January 2010 aged 91)

More on the Salinger anniversary here

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