Yesterday I had cause to reflect on the way in which the meaning of the word ‘professional’ has changed over time. In origin, it meant someone who gave their life to the honour of a vocation in the service of society, who, having professed their intention in a solemn oath (such as the one doctors of medicine still take), continued in their commitment as a lifelong learner of their skill. Today, while training is still an important factor, a ‘professional’ is first and foremost someone who gets paid to do something that others do as a hobby or pass-time. It can also reflect a gulf or barrier between those who are considered professional and those who are not, as in what is considered professional or unprofessional behaviour.
I was visiting my parents recently, and we got to talking about the village where my grandparents lived. Even as recently as my childhood (careful, now) the village doctor ran his surgery from a room in his home. This was once common practice. The same was true of vets. People would come to the doctor in the mornings, and he would make home visits in the afternoons, and be on call through the night. But he was known, and respected. The vicar lived a similar pattern, the doctor caring for people’s physical needs, the vicar for their spiritual needs. The other professional in the community, the school teacher, also lived in the community she served, cared for their children. You’d speak to them not at a rare parents’ evening, but in the playground.
Today, the vicar is the only professional who still lives in the community among which she practices her profession. And if she shares with her bishop the cure of souls of several parishes, then she lives only in one of them.
I’m not prepared to look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. But neither am I prepared to swallow the lie of progress. What we have lost, the growing gulf and the breakdown of trust through the pursuit of efficiency, through elevating money over all else, must be reckoned alongside the gains. What we have lost may be what we need to rebuild, and it will be far harder to do so now.