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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ministry for the Long Haul 1: Inhabiting the Stories of our Communities and Churches

When your Bishop invited me to speak to you about “Ministry for the Long Haul”, I asked him why he thought I might be at all qualified to do this. It’s true that I am a Londoner, though not from the Stepney Area (even if my son now has a flat in Bethnal Green, so I suppose that gives me a demonstrable connection). Most of my ministry has been in cathedrals, and although I have been an incumbent too, it was in a market town in the far north of England, nothing like the densely urban multicultural sector of London that you minister in. He replied, “well, you’ve completed the long haul, so share some of your experience about making that journey. It’s the human and spiritual insights we are looking for”. I couldn’t argue with that, and indeed today marks the first anniversary of my retirement. So here I am. 

I was ordained in my mid-20s. At that age, you believe you could do anything. But after the first decade and beyond, ministry can feel like a long haul as you look forward and, as I am doing now, back. And as the age of retirement stretches ever further our working lifetimes, it is getting longer than ever, though our forebears would have smiled at the idea that you ever “retire” from the cure of souls. But I have a hunch that for reasons we are familiar with, the sheer intensity of the demands of ministry is greater than it used to be for most clergy. Athletes know that the long haul calls for stamina and survival skills as well as fitness, the hunger to do well and the will to stay the course. That image is familiar to us from the New Testament. That image is about discipleship, not ministry specifically, but that itself tells us something obvious about public ministry, that we must never divorce it from our fundamental identity and vocation given to us in baptism. As disciples it’s our lifelong vocation to live in Jesus Christ, to become like him, and therefore – an important point this – to become more fully human, the men and women God made us to be. And that helps set our vocation as the ordained alongside every other vocation and human endeavour: whoever we are and whatever we do, our purpose is always to be good human beings and good disciples, faithful unto death. Life itself, if we are spared, is a long haul. 

It sounds like a strategy for survival, getting to the finishing line in one piece. That’s how I initially heard the Bishop’s suggested title. And I don’t deny that sometimes, maybe often – we are in survival mode in ministry. We have to be when crises and challenges threaten to overwhelm us and we wonder if are ever going to live to tell the tale. The set texts in these situations are the Psalm laments, the Book of Jeremiah and the Passion Narrative, especially Jesus in Gethsemane. 

But as I thought about it, I realised that this phrase "the long haul" was actually inviting us into a deeper kind of exploration. As I looked back at my farewell preached exactly a year ago today, it began to dawn on me. What I mean is this: that ministry for the long haul has to have shape, design, a sense of purposefulness and direction. I’m not going to reduce it to the corporate language of objectives and goals because that somehow makes ministry a mere function or set of tasks within an organisation. It’s not that I’m denying that ministry often comes down to “jobs”: every vocation is “work” in both a profound and an everyday sense, and activity needs to be purposeful if it is to be effective. In St John’s Gospel, to do the “work” of God is the same as doing the “will” of God. There is a rich theology of vocation there. Because of this, I believe it’s fundamental to a ministry that has depth, that is lasting in its effects and that is fulfilling for us who practise it, that it needs to have an architecture. 

Someone said that we should all become “artists of our own lives”. To which of course a person of faith adds the rider “under God”. To live wisely is, I think, to enter into this process of artistry and design more consciously as literally a “once-in-a-lifetime” collaboration with God as we become the people he meant us to be. I see this as an aspect of being created in God’s image. So if this is true of human life, it must also be true of vocation, of every ministry we exercise, and of public ministry in particular. My experience is that it’s at those times when I’ve been most aware of this that I’ve been happiest, because most fulfilled in what I have been and done as a priest – in the sense of doing the work of God. Though I also know from my experience how God can work through us in our dark times when, perhaps, the light more easily breaks through precisely because we are broken vessels.

But before I say more about this, let me sound a caveat. I can’t do better than quote from a book by Ruth Burrows, To Believe in Jesus. “God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity; all this God values most highly. Into the making of this vase, then, we put all we have, our whole self. It is for God we are fashioning it, we tell ourselves. When it is finished we begin our journey up the mountain. When we reach the top… it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry, common pot… the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us that if we want God we have to go over the other side of the mountain… We can’t go down with anything in our hands; we must drop the vase, still precious though so disappointing. Beautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands. Our spiritual achievement is our most precious treasure. It has to go.” Beware of Pelagianism!

Nevertheless, whether we have completed many decades of ordained ministry or are just setting out, God invites us into this project of collaboration. So how do we become artists of our own ministry, set about designing ministry for the long haul? Ministry, as we all know, has its outward and inward facing aspects. Spiritual, emotional and intellectual equilibrium are vital for our good health as clergy, and this requires us to pay attention to both the inward and outward if we are going to sustain ministry over many decades. Tomorrow I want to say something about inwardness and attitude. Let me today explore this outward-facing aspect of the long haul.

At my farewell service in Durham Cathedral, I preached from the feeding of the crowd in St John’s Gospel, “gather up the fragments so that nothing is lost”. (You can read it on this blog site at 27 September 2015). I linked it with a beautiful line from a poem by Edith Sitwell, “Nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest”. It was harvest time, and the week of the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, Booths or Tabernacles which, says St John was precisely the season Jesus performed his great sign. So I looked back over 40 years of ministry and, so to speak, gathered some of the fragments of those four decades, their harvest. They seemed to me to echo the themes of Sukkot as the great pilgrim feast looked back over the 40 years of Israel’s desert journey from the standpoint of being settled in their own land.

Here, I said, is what has mattered to me over the long haul. “Thankfulness to God because to praise Almighty God, to practise gratitude, eucharistia, is the first principle of religion and the foundation of all it means to be human. Dependence on God because it is as we turn back to him and acknowledge his reign over us that we understand how he made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him. Living close to the earth because reverence for life, treating the world with courtesy and charity is to discover our true place in God’s creation. Remembering where we came from because the story of the great acts of God is the foundation of all Christian life, mission and the pursuit of truth and justice. And solidarity with the poor and needy such as the desperate and voiceless, the refugees and asylum-seekers, because as the sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral door announces, God’s household is a place of refuge, safety and care.”

Those five marks of the long haul belonged to a celebration of a journey. Israel’s wilderness journey to the land they believed was promised was celebrated in all three great pilgrim feasts. It called a community to reflect on its past story, inhabit it in the present in a dramatic ritual way, and allow it to bring expectation and hope to the life of faith and human experience. For us as Christians, it’s precisely the same dynamic that we are familiar with in the eucharist as the three tenses of past, present and future coalesce in a single rite. For the eucharist is a liturgy, the great liturgy in which we act out what we have been as a people, what we are now, and what we shall become in God’s time. Christian faith is to embrace the story of a redeemed community and own it personally in baptism by confessing that we belong, we pin our destiny to that of God’s people, we acknowledge its Lord as ours. “This is our story. This is our song.”

Let’s ask what this means for us as we undertake the journey of ministry purposefully and give it shape. For me in parish ministry, it was eye opening to attend a week’s workshops at the Grubb Institute and learn the distinction between person and public role. Never despise the transforming potential of good training! For all I know, this person-role distinction is obvious to all of you. But what made the difference for me was how it helped made sense of what a parish priest is there to do. I was learning how, as a priest, you are expected by many people to have special knowledge of divine mysteries, a hot line to God, and that at the very least I would be competent to say something intelligible in the face of human suffering and pain, whether brought about by natural disaster, human wickedness, or most often, in the personal lives of parishioners through serious illness or pain, the break-up of an intimate relationship, or bereavement.

My role in these situations, I began to grasp, was to be an interpreter of peoples’ stories. It was my calling to attempt to bring insight to shed light on human experience by looking at it in the light of faith, relating it to the big story of God’s coming among us in Jesus Christ. (I tried to write something about this drawing on the wisdom writings of the Old Testament in my book Wisdom and Ministry.) So when people speak about clergy being “religious professionals”, this is one aspect of what they are wanting to express. You could put it this way. As “professionals” (and I’m aware what questions the use of that word begs), we are embedded in a story that it’s our call to be telling. We are its public representatives, its spokespeople, its official guardians. When at our ordination we are solemnly handed the holy scriptures and told to “take authority”, this is the role that is being conferred on us. We belong, in the great image of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to the House of the Interpreter. 

But the other side of this is to do with the stories of the communities we serve, and the human lives that constitute them. A good pastoral theology and practice requires us to be as embedded in these stories as we are in the church’s story that we rehearse in tell and re-tell in scripture and sacrament. And here is where I think we must be especially intentional as we take on the public role of interpreter in our parish. It’s true that people are the same in one place as another – human life is what it is in all its vicissitudes. But in another sense it’s not true. We are constructed by the communities we live in, shaped for better or worse by the concentric circles of our belonging in family, neighbourhood, town, city, region, nation and continent. There is a grain in the timber of human life, and if we don’t recognise it, we shall get the story wrong in important ways. So paying attention to the local story calls for careful eyes and ears and a good deal of discernment if we are to understand the places in which we work.
As a parish priest in the north, I had so much to learn about all this. And although I have learned a great deal in my ministry subsequently, I am quite clear that it was in my first incumbency that I learned most. In my thirties, suddenly finding myself in a public leadership role in a parish in a strange part of the world, the decades of ordained life ahead felt like a very long haul indeed. At times I found myself very low indeed and wondered how I would ever survive a lifetime in ministry. I can’t altogether explain it, though my uncomfortable discovery that as a priest you are constantly in the public eye and subject to scrutiny was near the heart of it. My difficulty in handling conflict and disappointment were also part of it. So was my fear of failure – not only because self-interest made me need to succeed but also for the better reason of not wanting to fail people, the church, the parish. I needed to develop healthier habits of mind and emotion. I needed to acquire resilience, learn that stamina comes into things.

You’re wondering how it is that I’m still here. There are a number of reasons. The sustaining love of God is at the heart of it of course. It found expression as it always does in many ways, some outward, some inward. I’ll say more about inwardness on the long haul tomorrow. I recall some of the books I read then that helped turn my attitude around from self-absorption to living more generously. Among them were the writings of Alan Ecclestone, especially A Staircase for Silence. It wasn’t just the content but the fact that it had been written by someone who had been a parish priest in a tough urban parish in the east end of Sheffield, a place I was to get to know well a decade later. He only started writing in retirement, not just (he said) because of the relentless demands of parish ministry but because he believed he would only have something to say as a spiritual or theological writer after a lifetime’s immersion in the agony and ecstasy of real life in the church and the world. 

I also remember how the poetry of R. S. Thomas came to my rescue, one of the greatest of twentieth century religious poets. Again, his profound insights were forged (I use that fiery analogy deliberately) in the tough setting of parish ministry in rural Wales. In one poem, he writes of his recalcitrant parishioners, “there is no loving such, only a willed gentleness”. How well he knew himself, and me too! How I longed to move beyond “willed gentleness” to love freely, sacrificially, given, like God’s. But one of the many things I have learned in ministry is that sometimes, maybe often, “willed gentleness” is all we are capable of. Like “good enough parenting” to quote Winnicott’s famous phrase, it may not be all that we aspire to, but rather than flail our poor selves out of guilt, shame and the sense of failure that so easily afflicts us, it is not only sufficient to be good and wholesome, but it is God-given too. Maybe someone can draw out of the gospels how Jesus practised willed gentleness against the temptation to be angry or to judge. Perhaps this turns out to be true love that is demonstrated in a way that is sustainable and practical. Remember that in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is only once said to have “loved” anyone, and that was the rich young ruler after whom the Lord looked with sorrow because the cost of discipleship was too high.

But what I learned from both Alan Ecclestone and R. S. Thomas was reinforced by a highly skilled mentor I was lucky enough to find. At this demanding and at times dark time, he was shrewd enough to see through my confusion and despondency and point me towards a healthier approach to ministry. And let me say before I go any further how essential I’ve found it to be to find the best possible accompaniers and guides in public ministry. If ever there is a fatal arrogance in people in public life, it is to think that they have to lead on their own. Nowadays, most of us take spiritual direction, mentoring, coaching and work consultancy for granted and gratefully avail ourselves of them, thanks to our bishops and dioceses who set aside funds to support us and encourage us to take the time we need to make sure we get the best help we can. I am quite clear that for my long haul as theological teacher, parish priest, cathedral canon and dean, these fellow-travellers were essential to my learning, my insight and my flourishing. And never more so than in the parish.

That particular mentor asked me in effect (and over many months) to do three things. The first was to try to understand what the priest symbolises and represents both in and to a local community. The second was to immerse myself in that community’s story, get to know it intimately, become part of it myself. The third was, in the light of the first two, to try to frame my own ministry intelligently and purposefully, make of it something that was not only of real and lasting value but lovely in its own right. They are of course all aspects of the same thing, but it was helpful at the time to see them as distinct. And I can honestly say that learning to reconfigure my public role in the light of these prompts and nudges was life-changing. They meant I could look back and see those few years as hugely formative – and be proud of the big steps forward that the parish achieved in that time. 

Let me take them in turn.

First, what the priest symbolises and represents. Thomas Mann said: “to live symbolically spells true freedom”. The Greek word means “to throw together”, to lay things alongside each other from which the word evolves into one standing for the other. It’s a rich idea theologically and psychologically and there is a vast literature devoted to it. But we have an intuitive idea about how a symbol opens up doors of perception in our minds and imaginations giving us access to meanings that are beyond the capacity of rational speech. 

We clergy inhabit a world of symbols all the time. We understand, because it is our job, how symbol and sacrament, ceremony and ritual belong to the Christian story we tell and clothe it with flesh and blood, incarnate it in a material and tangible way. This is especially true in the archetypal Christians sacraments of baptism and eucharist. What is less familiar is to think of ourselves in this way, in our ordained roles as deacons, priests and bishops. Now, a symbol (as opposed to a mere sign) is capable of exerting great power. A national flag, a football trophy, a wedding ring, a gift that carries great personal meaning for us because of the person who gave it to us – all these are true symbols in which heart is, so to say, speaking to heart. In church, water, bread, wine, oil, the book of the gospels, incense, lights, music, processions – all these and many more are invested with a symbolic character by the liturgy. They “glow”, as it were, with a quality we can only call numinous. So far so obvious – and so wonderful.

But by extension, the church building is itself a space that is symbolic of many things: the presence of God primarily, of course, and the worship and prayer that belong within it are what make it not just any space but “sacred space”. But it’s much more than that. It holds profound collective memories of a community; even a modern building like Coventry Cathedral where I once worked had rapidly acquired a deeply symbolic identity in just a few years. By the time I went there 25 years after it was opened, there were aspects of it that were as unquestionably iconic and sacred as the medieval bombed out church had been next door. And on top of that, a church is “sacred” to us if we worship there or did once, have been baptised or married there or said farewell to our beloved dead there. This year I walked my daughter up the aisle of Alnwick Church because she had chosen to be married there. It was a strange feeling to be the proud father of the bride in a place I’d known so well as its incumbent. 

For me, the sacredness of the place because of my memories, and of the sacredness of this unique moment in our family story came together unforgettably. All this belongs to the world of the symbol. I’m saying that when we operate in a highly symbolic environment, we ourselves become symbolic people. Like church buildings, we clergy evoke memories, expectations, longings, hopes, fears even. When we stand in the pulpit, when we preside at the Lord’s table, when we visit, when we chair the PCC, when we lead the prayers, even when we make a fool of ourselves in the parish pantomime so that people laugh good naturedly at us, we are functioning in this symbolic world. It goes with the role. It’s true to some extent of all leaders because a leader inevitably embodies and represents their institution or community to itself and to others. If you look at the highly ritualised world that, say, our politicians inhabit, you’ll see the point. In our case as clergy we stand on the elusive threshold between what is seen and what is unseen, between what is temporal and what is eternal, between the church’s story and the local and personal stories that belong to a particular place. We publicly represent and symbolise the values of the gospel, the story and teaching of the church, indeed the very mystery of God by who and what we are. 

I found it liberating to begin to understand that all this was to do with the role conferred in my ordination. I was called to inhabit it in a personal and unique way: we can never divorce person from role even if we need to distinguish between them to save ourselves from being swallowed up by the sheer demands of public office. It made sense of some of the (to me) sharp difficulties I thought I was facing in the parish, matters I now think are largely normal for us in our roles because they so often concern other peoples’ expectations, transferences and projections. It felt, and still feels, highly relevant to the long haul and how I was going to construe my ministry in a healthier way. In last year’s farewell sermon, I referred to knowing where we come from. That’s both a biographical and an existential aspect of ourselves. We need to know who and what we, “where we are coming from” in a pastoral, spiritual and sacramental sense. It empowers us to fulfil our calling to serve by feeding the hungry with good things. Solidarity with the poor in my sermon was meant to include all of human need wherever we find it – physical, emotional, spiritual. “Empowerment” to respond not only because it’s our duty but because it’s our privilege is how I have experienced that insight ever since, at least in my better moments.

The other side of this was to do with the parish itself and its story. This was my second point. For whom was I symbolic as the parish priest? The obvious answer is, to the worshipping community with whom, week by week and day by day, I broke bread and shared koinonia, that infinitely precious communion in holy things. But that was only part of the answer. You know what I’m going to say. Whatever I myself thought about it, whatever I said or did, there was no way that a market town parish was not going to pull me into the life of the whole community. Whether it was baptising, marrying and burying parishioners, national and local celebrations or disasters that the town wanted to observe in church, prayers at town council meetings, schools (not just the aided CofE school), hospital, theatre, music and the arts, trade, the historic Shrove Tuesday football match, the town wanted these activities to be ritualised, symbolised, “blessed”. It looked to us clergy to do this for them, or perhaps I should say, among them, as one of them. 

That was then, a generation ago, and there, in Northumberland. That was traditional Church of England parish ministry with a traditional northern accent. It’s 300 miles away from London and ten thousand miles away from the far more complex metropolitan worlds you are familiar with here in Stepney. But how strange it was to me at the time, schooled as I was in suburban churches in London and never having lived in the north of England before. I had to renegotiate my vocation. And I had to define the scope of my ministry in that parish and try to shape it round what I believed God was asking me to do there. And I believe the response I made, to embrace the wider parish, to be there in principle for everyone as far as I could, was the right one. I learned that the very word parish, “paroikia” means not those who go to church but those who “live around”. 

What this required of me was to develop a sense of place. The parish already had that – in abundance. But I needed to learn it for myself, embed myself in the particularities of that parish in that landscape at that time, learn its story. When we moved into the vicarage I found in the study a copy of the two-volume History of Alnwick by George Tate, published in the early 19th century. Copies are as rare as gold dust. Alas, inside the cover it said “For the use of Vicars of Alnwick. Not to be removed from the Vicarage”. From it I learned a lot about the church and the town, all new to me. I wrote a little visitors’ guide to the church – always a good way of learning about your place of work. This was a medieval building, but every church has a story as I’ve tried to say already. And from there I became fascinated with the history of the town itself, and the North East region in which it is set. All this seemed to me to be part of getting to grips with the story of the place in which I was serving as incumbent. It’s an approach I adopted everywhere else I went on to minister. In the language of my farewell sermon last year, it comes down to living close to the earth and paying attention to the story it has to tell.

And here is the point I want to make. It served me well to develop this sense of place as life-giving in its own right – after all, the parish is also our home and our family’s home: how could we not be curious about where we live? But it served me even better to see it as an essential resource for public ministry. It gained me, I think, a hearing, respect even, that I had taken the trouble to try to recognise the context of peoples’ lives and the stories of their community. It’s not a question of going native because a good parish theologian (which is what a priest is called to be) is not only there to affirm the environment with its narratives and traditions, its myths and rituals, its culture and habits, its self-understanding, its assumptions about what it aspires to be in the future. That goes for the church too, of course. Ministers must ask questions too, critique assumptions, perhaps even help a community reframe the story it tells about itself. But we have to learn and know and understand before we can stand in the House of the Interpreter, especially when, like Jeremiah, we have to pull up and destroy as well as build and plant. 

My third point was about the purposes and goals of public ministry. What did all this teach me about how to reframe my ministry at that time and set healthy directions for the future? I had no reason to think then that I would not spend three more decades in parishes. What I learned there was largely thanks to my mentor’s making me think through what ministry was about; much of it too was thanks to colleagues and parishioners who often without knowing it helped pennies to drop; and I have to admit, much of it was also through mistakes and misjudgements too embarrassing to recall.  But I look back to that experience as a time when better habits of mind and heart became at least the starting point for journeys that lay ahead. And I think I can say that as I have begun to take hold of ministry as something that has both purpose and art, they have largely stood up to some pretty robust testing since. (Don’t ever think by the way that cathedrals are refuges from the hard graft of parish life. If they were once upon a time, they certainly aren’t now.) 

In a report you know well in the Stepney Area, Church Growth in East London, Angus Ritchie speaks about having “a clear vison of goals, engaged in conscious self-reflection on being both faithful and reflective”. I think that is meant as a way of being for a healthy church that is growing and flourishing. But it maps directly on to our roles as clergy. If we are to be, as the phrase has it, “reflective practitioners” (what other kind of practitioner would any of us want to be?), then clarity about purpose and the capacity to be self-aware enough to think about what we are doing, and how, and why, are all indispensable. Indeed, I doubt that with the demands and stresses of ordained life as it is today, it is sustainable in any other way. I wouldn’t have used that language thirty years ago. But I now see that it was what I was seeing through a glass darkly. I can only say that over a lifetime of ministry, that way of thinking, behaving, pondering and praying has served me well. It has made the best of me what I am. 

In my farewell sermon, those insights about knowing where we come from, living close to the earth and solidarity with the poor were introduced by two imperatives: thankfulness to God and dependence on God. They sum up, I think, not only the whole of ministry but the whole of life. I’ll say more tomorrow. But in relation to the big story that we tell about a God who so loved the world, I hope I’ve made it clear that we as ministers are meant to be the public embodiment, the symbol, of those fundamental ways of being before God. Go back to the ordinal and see it for yourself in the emphasis laid on what clergy do and what we are. Austin Farrer spoke about the priest being a “walking sacrament”, or in an older register, "alter Christus", being as Christ to others. 

I said earlier that we can never separate ministry from discipleship. You could say that being ordained sets us up publicly as exemplary disciples. However uncomfortable we may feel about that way of putting it, I’m clear that this is how many see us. It’s where all those “oughts” and “musts” of ministry come from, rules that say clergy should behave like this and not like that. In a month when the sexuality of bishops has once again hit the headlines, we need to examine these assumptions. My point is simply to indicate that when you are an office-holder in the church, your life is up for scrutiny, and everyone has their own ideas about what is or isn’t appropriate for clergy. As symbolic people, we model something that is important not only in the church but beyond. Questions about values are bound to follow. We should welcome it because it shows that something, at least, still matters. The power of story and symbol is still there.

Of course, we know that none of us is that exemplary disciple. We are all broken, fractured human beings. We are precarious, we fall short and we fail God, the church and ourselves times without number. We know ourselves too well to be deceived on that point. This is why these two attitudes of dependence and gratitude are so fundamental to being a Christian. We are people formed by grace, and to live out of dependence and thankfulness is the only adequate way of responding to the God who freely comes to us, finds us, loves us and accepts us in Jesus. I doubt if I have learned anything more fundamental than that when it comes to the long haul. I am still learning it. 

So if we can tell the big story about God and engage with the stories of our communities consciously invoking (because it is our role to) the faith dimension of human life, if we can point to what is of abiding significance for us and give a reason for the hope that is within us, then, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, we do not lose heart. We shall have found ourselves artists of our ministries. They will have been not only useful but beautiful. We gather the fragments with joy, and offer them to God. All in the end is harvest. 

September 2016

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