The Bishop sighed as we discussed the probable fate of six tiny Somerset parishes that had refused to be “reorganised” involving breaking up the tiny group that had only recently been “reorganised”.
The authorities tend to think they have control over such things, expecting parishes to fall into line with their wishes; the truth is that none of this can really be carried out, unless the parishes agree. The only people who can “close” a parish church are the Churchwardens if they feel they no longer have a viable set-up.
Discovering that they felt (there were only a total of 675 people (with six parish churches to maintain), as one Churchwarden said, that “they had been abandoned because they wouldn’t agree to this scheme!” and left priest-less.
Taking a service in the interregnum I was very angry at the rural Dean’s comment that “We will leave them to stew” leading to my writing a letter (2 sides of A4) to the Bishop that I thought this attitude was unacceptable, especially in that the parishes had said that all they wanted was a priest to conduct and possibly lead them, and they would run themselves.
Because of depression caused by the work load at Wootton in trying to bring a parish from the Victorian era into the present day, I was exhausted in that like so many clergy, they hated to delegate even the simplest of tasks, so had I, to the detriment of my physical and mental health.
Not receiving a reply to my original letter, I sent another copy to the Palace, “assuming that my first letter didn’t reach you as I have received no reply”, receiving a quick postcard saying that my first letter had been received and would receive a reply.
That came in a summons to “wait upon the Bishop” at the Palace to discuss the matter, which I duly did.
“I don’t know what to do with the “Six Pilgrims” said the Bishop, “would you consider going there and try and solve the problems, we will meet all your expenses”?
Although I lived at Glastonbury, 10 miles (20 mins.) away I thought it would be possible and so arranged to meet the Churchwardens (12 of them!).
Like the Methodists who largely run their own chapels, leaving the Minister to conduct the worship and provide pastoral care, I presented the gathered worthies with the proposal that we would draw up a contract; they would take on all the day-to-day problems and anything that didn’t need a clerical collar, and I would provide leadership, pastoral care and the conduct of services. The rest was their responsibility.
So I relinquished all those unnecessary jobs that clergy take on and glory be (!) because Iwasn’t formally licensed there were no clergy meetings that I was obliged to attend!
They were as good as their word, and my approach was to model our partnership on Methodist lines, which meant that at least I had the opportunity to be a real parish priest with time to visit and meet the people.
They had agreed that to make it work properly with 6 parishes, they would need to “work and worship together”; so with the slogan “One Church with 6 churches”, happily moving around and sharing everything (including fund-raising) as far as possible, and leaving me to be a priest and pastor.
I had agreed to be there for a year, not the 6 months the Bishop had suggested, for I expected there to be some teething troubles, but there were few of these, and Hazel and I had the happiest Ministry a priest and his wife could enjoy.
As I said to an astonished Archdeacon “I’m not being paid to do all this work as I have a pension and don’t need the money, instead if I had to, I would willingly pay for the privilege of serving such a united and supportive family of people”!
We need to seek to change from “going to Church” to “Being the Church” with all that entails.
“Are you the new minister?” a lady asked as I was coming out of the parish church; I was slightly abashed, for after all, surely, it was only Free Church clergy who were described as “Ministers”.
“No”, I replied, “I’m a priest; one of the curates”.
“Oh, you’re a Roman Catholic” she said.
I tried to put her right. Being newly ordained, I was rather proud of my new status. There is nothing to be said for cocky young curates (of which, sadly, I was one).
Discussing this with Alfred, the senior curate, he agreed with me, until we were discussing it with John, our Vicar, who quickly disabused of such pretentious notions.
“Yes, you are priests, (he said), but there is no mention of them in the whole of the New Testament, only Bishops, and if you know your Church history, you will only find them, and any assistants were the forerunners of the priesthood. Eventually they were called “Presbyters” meaning “Elders” who were called into being to assist the Bishops as the local congregations grew.
Remember, that the Early Church was very much an embryo body, meeting in each other’s houses, and it’s quite possible that the host might have presided over the worship”.
Luke in the “Acts of the Apostles” describes the first mention of other assistants in the creation of the Deacons, whose task was primarily to oversee the day-to-day running of the pastoral work.
They presided over the organisation of the distribution of the shared goods to the Christian members.
However, as John the Vicar pointed out, Jesus described His role, as “One who serves”, also “I come among you as one who serveth”, to minister to God’s People and it follows from that, they in turn were to “serve” wherever there were needs, whether spiritual or just distribution of food, clothing, shelter, etc.
Therefore, if we are to think about the role of the congregation, not only are they to be ministered to, but in turn they are to be “ministers”. Servants who are to follow the example of our Divine leader.
I may be a priest, but foremost together with you, the gathered People of God we are “All in it together”, we are all called to be “Ministers”, servants; our Ordination is in our Baptisms, and unless we realise this and accept this role and seek to find our place within the Church where we can “Minister”, The Church has no future.
“The trouble with the Church of England” said my neighbour, John an ex-army officer, “It isn’t that we have no resources, we simply are not using what we have to the best possible end”.
I nodded in agreement, for it was (and still is, true).
We were discussing the future needs of The Church in providing pastoral care and leadership, when often there are problems that could be easily solved. These require the removal of prejudices and for common sense to prevail, especially among the upper echelons of The Church of both clergy and laity.
This was the late 1980s, when it was clear that not only were fewer candidates appearing for the Ministry, but more seriously, if we had the number of clergy really required, we couldn’t afford to pay them.
From the time that I was ordained nearly 70 years ago, there have been no less than 3 reports to deal with the problem. What happened to them?
Simply that the final one was too radical for some of the clergy to countenance?. The result? They were all left on shelves, gathering dust, which was also the fate of an earlier brilliant report on Evangelism in the 1940s, which was set aside so that the Church Assembly could discuss Canon Law revision!
Strangely, much of the opposition sprang from older clergy (including Bishops and the rest of the hierarchy) who saw them as an attack on their positions and standing.
After I had been installed in Holy Trinity (Taunton), after a couple of years, through careful planning, good pastoral care and innovations, there were no less than 120-130 communicants each Sunday at the Parish Communion.
My curate had gone to pastures new (London’s east end) as he thought that Taunton was too soft for an enthusiastic youngish priest.
There I was, with no one to administer the chalice, meaning I had to rush up and down the altar rail, first with the hosts and then the chalice. It was expected that this would usually be done by someone who was ordained, being at least a Deacon.
I saw help coming because the Church Assembly had decided that Licensed Lay Readers might administer the chalice, provided the diocesan Bishop approved. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, didn’t, so this relief wasn’t available, although the service was unnecessarily long as a consequence.
There was a fear that this might be the “thin edge of the proverbial wedge” and so in some way lessen the gap between ordained and lay folk.
Yet, we had at that time many parishes often with more than one Reader, so we struggled on, until common sense prevailed (too late) and provided they were authorised, anyone, not necessarily a licensed trained Reader, could assist in this important role, as they do today.
This reluctance to engage with anything that might lead to real changes, positively using our human resources in what currently might be unorthodox ways seems endemic in the Church of England.
The days when congregations could sit safely in their pews without being involved too much are past; priest and people, we are all in it together and we’ll think about that next week, if you can bear it.
How strange this is when we look at the early Church set-up. Compared with our present bureaucratic system (which was based on the political structures of the Roman Empire), in its infancy the Church was people-based. No longer so.
We’ll talk about this again, if we may, next week. Subject “Every Christian a Minister”. GCR
Now that I am the age that I am, like many of my peers, I find myself going into the kitchen and then standing, wondering “What on earth am I doing here?” then returning back to the sitting room in the hope that I can jog my memory.
I realised that I had problems when I found myself putting my under pants into the ‘frig. Instead of the washing machine!
Yet, memory is a strange thing, for I have just finished writing my memoirs, dating back to the very beginning and names and events that I have forgotten come flooding back in incredible detail.
Vividly, although I was little more than 18 months old, I can remember the stormy night when a piece of cast-iron guttering plunged through the bedroom window, my mother (with whom I had been sleeping), snatching me up and leaping over the end of the bed.
“Poor old chap! He’s going back” you may say, but I’m not “going back”, for memory is when we are able to pull events of long ago into the present, experiencing even the smells and sounds of some particular place.
When we “remember” we don’t “go back”, but rather bring the past into the present.
Looking at photos of a Durham coal mine, where as a “Bevin Boy” I worked for 4 years, as we descended into the depths, I can still smell its particular odour although it is 72 years since.
Any who were serving in the forces then, when prompted, can relive events of long ago, particularly people whom they met in challenging circumstances.
Only those who lived through those years can truly “remember”, for that experience has been etched into our memories so that we cannot forget.
When we stand for 2 mins. silence, we who lived through those years will be re-living experiences which are but stories to later generations, and inevitably, to some extent, unreal.
Sunday by Sunday, Christians “remember”, for Jesus said that by taking and sharing bread and wine we “remember” Him.
“Do this“ He said, “in remembrance of me” but it’s not a memorial action, for what we are doing is bringing that Jerusalem Upper Room of the first century into St. Mary’s, or wherever and whenever we do so.
Many who were our contemporaries are no longer with us, but Chrstians are not “remembering” a dead Christ, but one who was raised by God to be with humanity for ever, with a promise that we too may share in the benefits of His teaching, His life, death and resurrection.
Jesus said, “When two or three are gathered together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them”.
John Wesley in a hymn he wrote for singing at the Communion, reminds us that in that service, Christ is present;
“Lo, God is here, let us adore and own how awe-ful is this place”! Let all within us feel His power, and silent, bow before His face”.
I sometimes feel that many, even church-goers fail to appreciate what a privilege it is to be sharing in a service, where the central figure is the Risen Lord who comes among us, not in mighty splendour, but humbly through the medium of simple bread and wine.
“Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand,
Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessings in His hand,
Christ, our God descendeth, Our full homage to demand”
So sings a very ancient Christian Greek hymn.
It is in the confidence that this Remembrance-tide, we through our prayers, and by the mediation of Jesus and His cross can be reunited with “Those whom we love, but see no longer”.
Climbing onto the ‘bus that was taking me to Wells for the Ordination Retreat prior to my becoming a Deacon, the happy Somerset ‘bus conductress urged me to “Pass along the ‘bus ‘m’dear’”.
M’dear duly obeyed.
On the return journey, now a “Revd.” with my shiny new clerical collar, she greeted me with “Please pass along the ‘bus, Sir!”
I confess to a certain glow of pride, being thus elevated to my new status, yet realised that this wasn’t right; I had only the day previously began the first phase of my Ministry.
I had little more status in the eyes of The Church, when only after my ordination as a priest a year later could I celebrate the Eucharist or even give a Blessing or Absolution.
I could only do what I had already been doing as a Licensed Reader; true I was empowered to carry out pastoral duties (which I loved), such as regular home visiting, but little more.
It was a parish where the priests were called “Father”, which implied that I had to have a father-like concern for everyone whom I met, and it was a title that I thought should be earned, rather than arbitrarily bestowed.
Incidentally, thinking about that, I remember a fellow priest, calling on our large Council estate, the door opened revealing a rather large rebellious lady. She greeted him, with “Oh, it’s you; I’m not calling you any B****** Father”, to which he replied, “You may call me Mother if you wish, as long as you are polite!” She slammed the door in his face and wrote a letter of complaint to the Bishop for him “being rude”!
It used to be commonplace that clergy were treated with great respect, the higher they rose in the clerical “pecking order”. Not so much so now and perhaps that is just as well. It belies the words of our Master, “I am among you as one that serveth” as He carried out the menial “Slave’s task” of washing the guests’ feet.
There is a favourite Hymn where we sing “Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you”, but how much do we carry that out when we get outside the confines of the church?
I remember a newly appointed priest, who at his first meeting with me and a fellow priest, bade us stand and sing that hymn and I have yet to meet a more dictatorial “Priest in charge”, for he liked to remind us (his colleagues), that he was boss!
Fine singing it, but different if you have to go out and live it.
Our Free Church friends describe their pastors (people who care for sheep) as their “Minister” and it was a while before I realised that this was the right title, for we clergy are here to “Minister”, to “serve” God’s children (of all ages).
Paul reminds us often that we are to be Christ’s Body here on earth to carry out His work, the first of which is to proclaim the “Good News” of the Father’s love, for ALL.
We, priests and people are here to serve the community in which we are set; although many of us do not live in Brading or Yaverland, we are gathered as the Church, to be Christ’s Body wherever we are. We are all called to be “Ministers”.
The question we need to ask is “How can we be Christ in our communities, where we daily meet those for whom Jesus died, even if hey don’t know or appreciate it.?
People outside The Church are often asked to “help” (usually with money) but do we ever seek to find ways in which we may help our parishioners?
Priests and people are, like Jesus, to be “Among people as ones who serve”. He performed His greatest act of service for our benefit as He hung on the Cross, where He, the Lord of all, became servant of all, bringing salvation.
Think and pray as to how, we here can be “Like Christ to them” as the hymn says.