Those who come close to the life of a priest, particularly friends outside the Church, soon find that day-to-day ministry is far from uneventful and rarely dull. Yet, it remains hard at times to put into words a coherent answer to that curious question, “But, what do you do all day?” Like a parenting the ministry can be exhausting, demanding, a juggling of the diary, and lots of driving about, as well silent contemplation, and privileged pastoral encounters. And, more so these days, every institution and profession finds the avalanche of paperwork at times overwhelming even with skilled paid help.
A friend of mine dug out an advert from the Church Times in the 1980s advertising full stipend post for a single church parish in the Yorkshire Dales that read as this.
‘One service on a Sunday
with occasional requirement to give the sacraments to the sick in the week.
Ideal for a man with a serious hobby.’
Oh – for the luxury of such days! The readings today I confess are a bit of mish-mash. I remain unclear how I chose them all those weeks ago. Stepping back it struck me that the juxtaposition of these parables, epistles, great narratives are like the myriad stuff that exist in a priest’s head and probably is buzzing around in Ruth and David’s consciousness at this very moment. There will precious memories of that initial call to God’s work and how we, the Church, like Eli testing Samuel put you to test, put you through it. I was fortunate that in my teenage that an elderly Anglican priest, the then vicar of Ivybridge, took me under his wing and helped me interpret what was happening in my vocational life. One of my memories is skipping to that grand vicarage and brushing my hands through the rosemary bushes. In his study, packed with books right up to the ceiling, he said that rosemary was God’s aftershave. He also gave stern warning from St Matthew’s parable of the banquet: ‘Many are called – few are chosen.’
Other bits of mental furniture resident in the priest’s mind is the comprehension of the cosmic nature of God’s plan. One of the current perils of the modern liberal church is to domesticate the Gospel, to neuter the message, to refrain from giving any vision of the future glory promised. This is to give credence to secularism and militant atheism who propose nothing of the future of humanity beyond an eventual extinction with the universe going down the plug hole. We must reclaim a bold vision of our future in God. Bring back the sci-fi bits of religion. It cannot all be "East Enders!" and a sort of dull social Gospel which does not stretch our vision of humanity swaps salvation with an equality & diversity social Marxism. We need a supernatural faith. In this I therefore propose that the Church has three crises, two of which have already happened and make our schisms and issues even in Anglicanism seem like mild skirmishes. The first is the crucifixion, the second is the resurrection, the third will be the return of Jesus Christ and the completion of all things. As the liturgy proclaims – this is the mystery of Faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We should all be looking over our shoulders to the Tsumani of the Almighty’s presence. "Run to the hills," because what we think is a tide receding is in fact, the precursor to a mighty wave coming in. To quote the Narnia Chronicles Aslan is on the move. God is on the move and we do well to know this in our hearts as priests! Our job is not simply to be a village chaplain, or museum curator, let alone a sort of religious social worker, but we are called to be a prophet amongst our people - calling them to salvation. So in the priestly life embrace the groaning of creation and the cosmic nature of God' work. We are in spiritual warfare.
No day as a priest is the same. You could be at the hospital bedside one minute giving the last rites, the next hearing the confession of someone who has buttoned up stuff for years, then a school assembly, a PCC, and then folks coming in and out of the vicarage. On top of that there will be the pressures of orchestrating services and writing sermons. I recall my first day in post as a priest - the incumbent went for a two week break leaving me with a largish parish in Kent. I sort of relish this kind of challenge but by the end of the night I was exhausted. The day had included school assemblies, prison visits and finally my bleeper going off at my own commissioning as a part-time hospital chaplain. I got back at 1am having had to anoint a man who had a angina attack after I told him his wife had died. It was tempting to go for the whiskey bottle. Lovely serendipitous events come too. It's not all rush-rush and doom and gloom. A lady wrote to me yesterday thanking me for a book (The Extra Mile) I wrote and how she felt my words were helpful. This came out of the blue. I also get couples send pictures of their weddings months later and announce that children are on the way. Sometimes I am also able to hear people's faith stories and help them in that spiritual journey. That is one of the best privileges ever!
The parables in tonight's Gospel to me speak of this kind of clutter of the work of the Kingdom. The priest has lots of things coming in and out of his or her life. Sometimes it is someone writing to thank you for something or knocking on the door and wanting to talk about faith, like the pearl of great price they have come upon something so amazing in the things of God and they need you to interpret it. Many of those who trip upon faith are so surprised by it all. "Why did no one tell me about this before?" Other times ministry it is sorting through a drag net of the good and bad of life, the trivial and the glorious, examples.
We are also compelled to hold both ancient and modern hand in hand like the scribe of the Kingdom that Jesus describes. That it in itself is a task. For how we model that in ourselves will speak volumes to our flock. A lot of this takes place within the realm of services as they are our shop window. I am increasingly aware that a sort of insidious consumerism is infecting our liturgies like a virus where brothers and sisters in Christ seek not so much what they confreres want and need but what they want for themselves. Our communities can then become a clash of rights with whoever speaks loudest winning. In once threatened to put everything we don't like about worship in a bucket in front and drop in a match: BCP, Common Worship, Mission Praise, the projector, thuribles. What would be left? Nothing? Perhaps that would be a sobering moment? The first murder in the Bible was over liturgy and so the scribe of the Kingdom has to work for a better vision where we are not persecuting each other in church over the subject of worship.
Bishop Robert said that his vision for a rural dean was that of a contemplative. Although part of me wants to say sarcastically "yeah-right" I know in my heart he is right not just of rural deans but of priests. We must invest in prayer as if our lives depended on it. Priests should be first, contemplatives. We must gamble wasting time with God. This is an act of faith in itself because the temptation will be to reach for the emails or the in-tray. Prayer must come first. Miracles will not happen, project will not get off the ground without prayer. To Ruth Frampton (and Giles) and I am greatly indebted because in 1988, as a young couple they gave me the keys to Ermington Church to open and lock up. In this daily routine I found great peace and the discipline of morning and evening prayer. It set me on a good discipline. Priests do well to make time for God.
We should also waste time with our people. Let us be holy wanders around our towns and villages, folks of whom time can be wasted with. My wife, Frances does her best pastoral work not behind a desk but at the coffee shop. With this I am glad to say that I often bump into David Bond in the supermarket or the high street at Kingsbridge. This is getting a bit of a habit! My one bit of advice to David is keep this up.
Sermons are difficult to conclude. I am not that agile at this art. I do not always "land the plane". Today, tonight, I am not going to supply some surprise erudite quote to wrap it all up beautifully. I have in my past heard some real awful sermons including a university chaplain who started a 45 minute rant with "I have 15 things to say." The best sermons are not from pulpits or lecterns but are the lives of others. And, your best homily, Ruth and David, will not be some carefully crafted essay but your ministry, your life as Christians. In this they will, people of God, your support, your encouragement. My prayer is that you will make this real for them as they make God's message real for you.