This reflection is prompted by the reflection of a dear friend and colleague Fr. Tony Clavier. His article can be found here. His reflection concerns how we do or do not do ministry. What is the role of the parish priest in today’s environment, especially the North American context of ministry?
Both Tony and I are from England – he from the north where people “call a spade a spade.” I come from the south where we try, and often fail, to be more nuanced in our speech thereby causing confusion. All in all I prefer Tony’s approach to things. Tony has always been a centrist and I a tad more to the right of things. Having said that he used to be a bishop in part of the Anglican diaspora and has now returned as a parish priest. I am now part of the diaspora having effectively given up on the Episcopal Church as an institution. We both share an abiding passion for the ministry of the parish priest.
Tony’s piece laments “The latest assault on the model of parish priest has been clothed in an attack on George Herbert, whose little book, The Country Parson, it is alleged, created the pattern of priestly life which has now become irrelevant. I challenge that notion.” I wholeheartedly agree.
I spent several years pursuing a doctorate with special reference to “congregational development.” I learned a huge amount. A great deal of the learning was how to do things right, how to avoid all sorts of pitfalls. We learned about such things as how to understand generational groups etc. Sadly I think we missed the main point and that is Tony’s point. In our Anglican world we are called to be parsons and not professionals. Being a professional as I use it here is to be a member of a professional class, educated, trained and generally part of a kind of elite. If that is true then all the degrees and such that I have might make me a better parson – however they do not. My ability and effectiveness as a parson has to do with coming alongside people. In fact, do people connect with me in spite of my pedigree?
In my years as a parish priest and as a college chaplain I used to spend huge amounts of time just hanging about with people. I still do. I also made it a point to be there in my “uniform.” I know that some people see that as a barrier. That has not been my experience. On the college campus I would spend time in the coffee shop. There conversations and relationships were built – some on my initiative but more often because someone was happy to chat. In the USA, in places where I was a parish priest, the temptation was to spend time in an “office” and to expect people to come to me. Indeed when I started in the US in the seventies clergy spent hours with counseling appointments and rarely got out into the community.
Some of the most heartwarming emails recently have come from shop assistants and community folk who say how much they miss our conversations and me dropping in. Sometimes, indeed most often, the conversations were just that. They were nice, friendly and not hugely life changing. A few were really meaningful. Having built a relationship then someone would come to me when a crisis occurred because often they had no other church connection. When in the community people would nod hello or stop to chat, as I would walk around. I have two really interesting examples. One is from Peru last week. The other is from Belize a year or two past. I was in central Lima this week on an errand. I needed to pass some time and so was walking by some stalls by the river. A man asked me if I was a priest; would I pray for him and give him a blessing. I did. I was part of a youth group walking by the market in Belize City. One of the market folk came up to me and asked me to pray for her. In both cases I was in “uniform.”
I believe that our communities need “parsons.” Our ministry as clergy is not simply to be preachers, liturgists and dispensers of the sacraments. We are to be the visible presence of Christ in the communities that we serve. It is not that we are that distinguished, though gray hair helps. It is that Christ has set us aside for this particular ministry of presence. It is not that every Christian is not called to this – we all are – it is that we are given a uniform and a role in the church. We then are representatives of that church’s role in the local community. We are called to relate to people. The temptation is to be professional, elite and sequestered. Again Tony writes, “I suggest that it is precisely because we have turned vocation into profession, and imprisoned clergy in the church plant, that we have lost our sense of mission and identity. What goes on in the church has become our chief concern.” He continues, “it is time we engaged “the village” again, whether it is an urban, suburban or rural “village” or even a cyber “village.” St. Paul spent over two years in one community, waiting, listening, engaging, before he broke through. He hired a “lecture hall.” Perhaps we need to hire space in shopping malls, set up our coffee carts, plonk the priest and some lay people down, please dressed as a priest and not in disguise, not to advertise St. Titus the Tasteful’s bill of fare, but to listen, to learn, to embrace and to begin the task of reclaiming the parish.”
Jesus calls us metaphorically to be lamps on lamp stands, cities visibly set on hilltops.
“let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16)
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1Pet. 2:9 )
Thanks Tony for your reflection – mine is offered as a thanks for yours.