We were privileged to have Preb. Marjorie Brown, Vicar of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill as our retreat giver this year. Here is the text of her talks – noting that the spoken talks were partially ad-libbed:
What drew us into ordained ministry and how do we keep going? Self care, stability zones, Sabbath
When Fr Richard did me the great honour of inviting me to address you on this retreat, I demurred at first because I am not a typical Sodality priest. I’ll nail my colours to the mast immediately and confess that I serve the parish of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, where the principles of good English religion as taught by my distinguished predecessor Percy Dearmer still guide our corporate worship. I may fumble my lines and gestures a bit as I join your worship this week. But I am enormously delighted to among you, with many here who have been my friends for years. And I applaud the seriousness with which you take your priestly obligations. The growth and success of this Sodality demonstrate the need for such a fellowship in the life of our Church.</p>
I believe the reason I have been asked to speak to you is a simple one. I am a survivor. It seems only yesterday that I was ordained, but in fact it was 23 years ago, and I have been doing parish ministry throughout that time. Some of you will have been ordained much longer and I am not claiming any seniority of experience or wisdom as a parish priest. All I can say is that I remember the joy with which I woke up nearly every morning of my curacy, and I still get out of bed most days with gratitude for the calling I have been given. Parish ministry makes me happy.</p>
Perhaps I have just been lucky. I have certainly been blessed in the contexts where I have served. I was an Edmonton Area ordinand in a time when being female was an automatic exit visa. Bishop Richard Chartres, then the Area Bishop of Stepney, offered me the best title post in London, in the Poplar Team Ministry with team rector Alan Wynne, a team vicar and a parish assistant. Every day for four years our team laughed and prayed, worked and played, and modelled for me the joy of the kingdom.</p>
Then I moved from the rapidly changing East End to another extraordinary community, when Bishop John Sentamu asked me to go to the parish of St Thomas, Clapton Common in Stamford Hill. For the next ten years I served a faithful Afro-Caribbean congregation set amongst the largest Haredi Jewish community in Europe. We were the third religion in terms of size, because the parish also had a strong community of Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, several of whom became real friends. During those years I was also involved in leading POT, helping to introduce Common Worship, and later serving as Dean of Women’s Ministry. I also did an MA in systematic theology and took a sabbatical break to walk the Camino of Santiago de Compostela with my daughter.</p>
The time came to move, and an ad in the Church Times for the parish in Primrose Hill became an annunciation for me. With complete trust that this was where I was called to be, I applied and was appointed to the role. Those who know Primrose Hill mostly through Hello! magazine have no idea of the diversity of this parish. A quarter of its young people and a fifth of the elderly live in poverty. We host a winter night shelter and a community youthwork programme that mentors young people who are at considerable risk of involvement in the deadly gangs of Camden. Recently we opened a craft brewery in our crypt, the profits of which support our youthwork. But of course we also have a wonderful tradition of music, liturgy and preaching to maintain, and a well-educated and diverse congregation to keep the clergy on their toes. I have the privilege of working with outstanding colleagues, and of serving as the Area Director of Ordinands, meeting the next generation of clergy at the earliest stages of discernment and formation.
I’m giving you this potted CV because I want you to know some of the influences that have shaped me. Of course I have left out the most important one of all, which is my family life. I’ve been married for 40 years and I have three children in their 30s, so I was a wife and mother long before I was a priest. I believe deeply that God called me to this state of life, and I have tried to give those commitments the priority they deserve, even in the midst of the conflicting demands of parish ministry. I can claim only very mixed success in this, and even that would be subject to the judgment of those nearest and dearest to me. My memories of parenting teenagers with the ups and downs that are part of adolescence at the same time as I was trying to learn how to be the incumbent of a parish are by no means entirely happy or to my credit. But those experiences have deeply shaped my ministry. And they probably help to explain my discomfort with the priestly titles of Mother and Father, which I am happy to expand on if anyone wants me to.
And going back even further, I have been shaped by my upbringing in the American Midwest by devout Presbyterian parents. My imagination was formed by obsessive reading from as far back as I can remember. The stories of Winnie the Pooh, Dr Doolittle, Narnia, Charles Dickens, the Brontes and Jane Austen gave me a longing throughout my growing-up years to come to England. I could say with my hand on my heart that the conviction that I was meant to live here was as strong as the sense of calling I had to Primrose Hill. God often leaves me guessing, but not in those two cases. So I had a very significant year at Durham University as an exchange student, which led ultimately to my marriage to a Yorkshireman and an adult life spent entirely in London.
My Midwestern upbringing was something I wanted to escape for many years, but recently I’ve come to appreciate what a gift and an essential part of me it is. That really came about through reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead and the sequels Home and Lila. I know you have been warned that I may be referring to these books. If you don’t know them, I can tell you that they are set in a little town in Iowa in the 1950s and Gilead tells the story of the final days of a Congregationalist minister who has spent his whole life and ministry in the church where his father and grandfather served. We learn about his childhood and his late marriage and fatherhood. The two sequels tell the story of his best friend’s troubled son and the appalling poverty suffered by his wife in her earliest years. I know how downbeat this sounds as an abstract. But these books are simply luminous. They are written by an author who strives to see the purposes of God in everything, without any sentimentality. And to me they are the best fictional representation of Christian ministry that I have ever read.
Gilead, pp. 50-1: “A great part of my work has been listening to people, in that particular intense privacy of confession, or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me. Not that I thought of these conversations as if they were a contest, I don’t mean that. But as you might look at a game more abstractly – where is the strength, what is the strategy? As if you had no interest in it except in seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it. By ‘life’ I mean something like ‘energy’ (as the scientists use the word) or ‘vitality’, and also something very different. When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want,’ and whose object can be ‘something’ or ‘nothing’ and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.”
Marilynne Robinson also writes thoughtful and learned essays about philosophy, politics, education and theology. I commend her to you as someone who will keep your mind and spirit as well as your imagination stirred and nourished.
And that brings me at last to the themes I want to focus on throughout this week. What Fr Richard suggested was that I should reflect on the ministry of the occasional offices. I have interpreted this fairly widely to cover the ministry of care at special times throughout people’s lives – birth, baptism, First Communion, confirmation, discerning calling, marriage, illness, dying and death. Nothing ambitious then! I’ve grouped them into four topics: initiation; landmarks on the journey; dealing with pain; and letting go. What I want to share with you is my conviction that engaging with these life events can be not just a routine but a joyful sharing in the narrative arc of people’s lives, the sort of experience that the narrator of Gilead is talking about. We are witnesses to the profoundest moments experienced by the people we serve. We will have at least a bit part in the memories they treasure or mourn over for their whole lives. So we need to be comfortable with our own narrative arc if we are to be genuine in our ministry. We need to embrace our own mortality, and the changes that life inevitably brings.
This requires realistic self-acceptance and self-care. You will all have been advised countless times in your formation and early ministry about sustaining yourself for the long term. I hope you have had role models as good as my training incumbent to help you learn patterns of ministry that would keep you healthy and happy. Occasionally I am alarmed to discover that some curates are expected to live as if they are characters in Call the Midwife rather than the Poplar I knew in the 90s. My predecessors in the old days, always single young men, occupied spare rooms in the Rectory in order of seniority – there were a lot of them – and the latest to be ordained had to stoke the church boiler before dawn every day. From Morning Prayer until Compline they were expected to be doing parish visiting if not engaged on other duties. Their intercessions at Evening Prayer provided the boss with a list of the people they had called on that day. Private life was a luxury for their one day off, which I am sure they must have spent in a state of exhaustion.
We have learned a few things since then. One of them has been to look at the model Jesus gives us of ministry. He surrounded himself with friends, readily accepted hospitality, enjoyed meals, took time out by himself, delegated tasks to his team, sought and gave feedback, and withdrew with his closest associates for times of R & R. He often answered questions with a question rather than telling people what he wanted them to hear. They had to work out for themselves what they really desired. He was honest with God about his fear and loneliness. At the heart of his human interactions, always, were words of peace and forgiveness.
It has been wryly pointed out that Jesus’ public ministry lasted for three years whereas we may be in a dog collar for 50 or more. And of course there are limits to the kinds of comparisons we can draw between the work on earth of our Lord and our own feeble discipleship. But the gospels give us good grounds for some basic self-care guidelines, and here are the ones I think we should all observe.
First, and you don’t need me to underline its importance, is faithfulness in prayer and engagement with the Scriptures. I have found that the Daily Office and the Bible have become more important to me with every passing year. Of course there are times when it is sheer drudgery, or when I rush through distractedly or make an excuse to skip an office. But the slow, faithful, lifelong building of this practice in our lives is the skeleton on which everything else depends. You have had other speakers on this subject and I’ll leave it there.
Again, I am sure that it doesn’t need saying to this group that the regular reception of the sacraments we administer is vital. Whatever your personal pattern of celebrating the Eucharist and Reconciliation is, it is vital to keep to it. And that goes for the annual retreat – and here you are! – as well as the other spiritual disciplines that you have made your own. I’ve certainly found that having companions on the way, whether it is my spiritual director or fellow members of a society such as this one, have also been an enormous help.
And then we come to the gift of the Sabbath. Now I’m going to quote shamelessly from a speaker, Mark Scarlata, who addressed the Edmonton Area clergy a few months ago on this subject. Our starting point is the imitatio Dei as we model our practice on that of the Creator who rested from labour on the seventh day. The Israelites in the wilderness had to learn how to structure the rhythm of time. Even before the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai, they had been instructed to gather a double portion of manna on the sixth day so they could cease from work on the seventh. Our day off, as clergy, is not a day of religious duties. It is a day to stop, to get off the roundabout and receive the gift of free time. By accepting and observing the Sabbath principle, we model for those we serve resistance to the relentless economic pressures of our society. It becomes a day, not for housework and shopping, which belong to the working week, but for rest and relaxation with friends and family or on our own. It’s a time to reflect, to reconnect with creation. It is a celebration of time rather than space and things. Abraham Herschel says that when we observe the Sabbath we build temples in time.
The early Church, until the time of Constantine, observed both the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday and the Day of Resurrection on Sunday, a day of rest followed by day of rejoicing, the culmination of creation followed by the new creation in Christ. As someone who has normally had Saturday as my day off for 23 years, I see the beauty of this. I was the observer of hundreds of Sabbaths in Stamford Hill, and I recall the hectic activity of Fridays turning suddenly into quiet and peace before the sun went down. Men carried home flowers for their wives in preparation for the great weekly feast. The next day there would be virtually no traffic. People in their best clothes walked to shul, dignified bearded men in huge hats holding the hands of their elderly fathers, small children being encouraged by their mothers to toddle along because pushchairs were forbidden, single-sex groups of teenagers laughing and talking together. This was the day when no phones would be used, no money would exchange hands, no business would be discussed.
The Jewish practice is to light candles on a Friday evening to mark the gateway into holy time, and another candle on Saturday evening as darkness falls, giving thanks for the day of rest and preparing for the new week. For a Christian on a Saturday this could mark preparation to celebrate the Lord’s Day, but the same practice could be extended to a day off on another day of the week.
Consecrate time. Take breaks. One useful practice I’ve come to depend on is to plan stability zones throughout the working week. Depending on my current enthusiasm, this could be an early morning run or an evening of communal singing. On a daily basis, coffee breaks feature strongly, and I am a devotee of taking a proper lunch time, preferably with the cryptic crossword. For some people, time is consecrated by taking the dog for a walk or going to the gym or having a regular phone conversation with a friend or watching a favourite programme. Don’t neglect these little oases. Don’t go to bed exhausted, feeling like a martyr. The best advice a spiritual director ever gave me was to read fiction before sleeping. Entering into someone else’s imaginative world enables us to slough off the preoccupations with our own working day. Of course Compline or the Examen also help us lay down our burdens before going to sleep, but that extra bit of going outside ourselves is spiritually very healthy.
In a previous life, when I was training to be an antenatal teacher, I was encouraged to write a list of ten things that I loved doing that brought me joy and relaxation. When I had completed the list, I was told to note the last time I had done each of them. I’ve never forgotten how surprised I was when I realized how long it had been in some cases. I commend that little exercise to you as well, with the follow-up: start ticking that list!
This has been a long talk and we’re all tired. The first day on retreat, I was told once by a wise monk, is like setting down a glass of beer on a table. The glass stops moving, but the beer continues to slosh for a few seconds. For the first 24 hours on retreat we’re usually still sloshing.
So tonight I urge you to rejoice that you have consecrated this time to rest. Accept the gift of this week of Sabbaths. Be thankful for whatever gives you joy in your ministry and in your life. Remember the last words of the old narrator of Gilead, echoing King Lear: I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
Sacraments of initiation: baptism and admission to Holy Communion
I hope you have all slept well and the sloshing has begun to settle. You’ll be relieved to hear that I don’t propose to speak as long in any of these subsequent addresses. Today we are beginning at the beginning, with birth, baptism and admitting children to Holy Communion.
This part of parish ministry came very naturally to me when I was first ordained. I had had three children of my own and gone through the whole business of organizing their baptism. In the case of my first child it was an emergency ritual at midnight in a special care baby unit, with a medicine glass full of water, the hospital chaplain, a very kind nurse, and me in a wheelchair, feeling terrified. Her heart rate had been erratic during labour and I simply had no idea whether she was seriously ill or not. After a long and draining labour and the emotion around her safe delivery, my husband had gone home to weep on the phone to friends while I tried to sleep. I remember saying that if my baby was in any danger I wanted her baptized, and to my surprise and slightly to my alarm I learned that the chaplain would be summoned forthwith.
Why did I feel this was so important? It certainly didn’t come from my Presbyterian upbringing. In fact my mother rather disapproved, in retrospect. But for me it was instinctive. I wanted to claim this little person as a child of God, with a name and an identity and infinite value. I had known her intimately for nine months, though she was quite new in the eyes of the hospital staff. And I have to say that it brought me great peace to hear her named as Alison Mary Lydia and welcomed into the family of God. Everything turned out well, and when more senior doctors arrived on the morning shift she was declared perfectly healthy. A few months later we organized a liturgy of reception for in our parish church, with anointing and a candle and the presence of her father and godparents. It amuses me to remember that I had to explain to the vicar how this should be done, because I had researched it. He had never done such a liturgy before.
Then, and years later when I had amassed experience as an antenatal teacher at home and on the Mother and Baby Unit in Holloway Prison, I came to realize that parents rather than priests are the experts when it comes to spiritual needs around birth and baptism. Giving birth is usually the profoundest and most frightening and exhilarating event a couple have shared. The joys may be obvious but the fears and griefs are often hidden from sight. Many apparently happy mothers are struggling with depression and anxiety. Many partnerships undergo terrific strain around the time of birth because of fertility troubles, financial demands, medical problems, family circumstances or emotional changes. It is an immensely grown-up experience to become a parent, and yet people often feel desperately unprepared or ambivalent about this new role. Memories of their own childhood and upbringing will surface, relations with parents and in-laws will be affected, questions of identity and purpose will come to the fore. When there has been a recent bereavement, whether of a family member or a previous pregnancy, everything becomes even more complicated.
So what part does the vicar play in all this? I am not talking here about the theology of baptism, which you are all well versed in. I’m suggesting that the pastoral role is especially important in this sacrament. It must start with listening deeply to the circumstances surrounding this birth. Often, nowadays, christening is delayed until a year or two or three after the birth, when the highs and lows of the birth experience have receded but other considerations have become important. But every family will need appropriate responses to their own situation, and perhaps a liturgy that is shaped to be apt for them.
Here are some of the situations I have faced as a baptizer over the years. Several times I have baptized a baby whose older sibling had died at birth. This has required careful consideration of how the earlier loss can be acknowledged at the same time as the present joy. A candle burning for the previous baby, with or without specific words, may help. Understanding how deeply fearful and anxious the parents are feeling is important.
Other special circumstances have involved the child of a lesbian couple who had received a very cool welcome to their enquiry at another church, and a toddler who had been baptized and chrismated in a Russian orphanage before being adopted in the UK. Here’s where the liturgy of reception came in useful again! A baby who has been born after intensive fertility treatment is highly likely to have a mother who subsequently suffers from postnatal depression – it’s important to be aware of this risk. And I am sure we have all had cases where one parent has been absent or hostile to the whole idea of baptism. There can of course be theological challenges. In the East End, christening, as it was always called, was often seen as a sort of magic vaccination against anything bad happening to the child. And I’ve had families who were uncertain where they stood on the subject of God and didn’t fancy a Common Worship service of thanksgiving, but they definitely wanted some words of welcome and blessing to be said over their baby, perhaps in a non-church setting.
This is where who we are as representative people of God becomes significant. We do something with authority and assurance that marks a landmark in the life of this child, and it changes us too. We know instinctively the importance of it. Even children know it. John Ames in Gilead recalls how, as children, he and another serious-minded boy decided they ought to baptize a litter of barn kittens. He writes, [pp. 25-7] “Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained… I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feelings its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little of this aspect of the calling in the literature.”
I can’t leave the subject of baptism without one more short extract from the same book. This one is a gentle reflection prompted by the sight of the old minister’s son jumping with a young friend in the spray of a garden sprinkler: “When I was in seminary I used to go sometimes to watch the Baptists down at the river. It was something to see the preacher lifting the one who was being baptized up out of the water and the water pouring off the garments and the hair. It did look like a birth or a resurrection. For us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor’s hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection. I’ve always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it.”
Whatever Anglican shimmer and splash we can provide, let’s go for it. If we’ve been to the Holy Land, we can add a few drops of Jordan water to the font – people love this symbolic gesture. We can certainly use more water than a reticent Congregationalist does. We can invite the parents and godparents to repeat the anointing we do on the child’s forehead with the oil of catechumens. I have seen expressions of awe and delight as people have done this. We can invite older children to ring the church bell if we have one or pull the plug from the font and watch the water drain into the ground. We can invite parents and godparents to choose music, read a lesson, introduce the family to the congregation, bring some sparkling wine to change up the after-service coffee. None of this is rocket science and I am sure you can all add many ideas to the list. And I’m sure you’ve all been sent photos afterwards of yourselves baptizing a baby whose name you will not remember in a year or two, but your presence and action on that day will forever be a part of a family narrative.
I’ve included in this section not confirmation, which perhaps controversially I see not as a sacrament of initiation – baptism is complete in that regard – but as a landmark in a journey towards Christian maturity. So I’ll save that until this afternoon. Instead I want to conclude this morning by considering the admission of children to Holy Communion.
This is a development that seems to be sweeping the Church of England, at least in its more Catholic expressions, and for very good reasons in my view. I remember that we tried to bring it in during my curacy in Poplar, and I tried again when I was the incumbent in Stamford Hill, but in both cases the resistance of the congregation made it unworkable. Finally, when I came to Primrose Hill in 2009, I set out my reasons for wanting to introduce it, and after consultation with the PCC and then the wider congregation, we were able to apply to the Bishop for permission, which was granted. Every year since then we have admitted a group of six to twelve children on the feast of Candlemas.
You’ll be familiar with the arguments. Baptism is our complete initiation. How can we unite someone to Christ in his Body and then deny them a place at his Table? The Eucharist, like Baptism, is a gift and a mystery and not an exam to pass or a reward to earn. We are fed by the Lord as a mother bird feeds her chicks or a human mother suckles her baby, because we need this nourishment to live and grow. And there is the psychological argument too – children of eight or nine are full of awe and wonder, and they want to be part of the community and do what adults do. When they are 12 or 13, their task is to question and argue. We all know from experience, perhaps our own or our children’s, what a passing-out parade confirmation can be at that age, and yet children are often pushed towards this sacrament in order to be able to receive Holy Communion.
Feeding a little one hand to hand or hand to mouth is another profound experience for both parent and child. Back to Gilead and John Ames. He remembers a rainy day in his boyhood when the whole community helped to take down a ruined and burned-out church. “My father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch,” he writes, “and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. His hands and his face were black with ash – he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs – and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt, and he did break it, that’s true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then… It is not surprising that I remember that day as if my father had given me communion, taking that bread from his side and breaking it for me with his ashy hands. But it is strange that I remember receiving it the way I do, since it has never been our custom for the minister to place the bread in the communicant’s mouth, as they do in some churches. I think of this because, on the morning of communion when your mother brought you forward and said, ‘You ought to give him some of that,’ I broke the bread and fed a bit of it to you from my hand, just the way my father would not have done except in my memory. And I know what I wanted in that moment was to give you some version of that same memory, which has been very dear to me, though only now do I realize how often it has been in my mind.”
Speaking now as a parent as well as a priest, I think this passage says something deep and true about our longing for children to be fed with the sacrament. We want them to remember being fed, when they were too young to fully understand the significance of what was being offered to them and by whom. I love the tradition we have of bringing children to Communion on the feast when we remember Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple. Somehow it connects our action to the whole community – the old rejoice, the parents give thanks, the young are welcomed and recognised as unique and precious in God’s eyes.</p>
All of this goes beyond rational explanation. It is part of the mystery of love and grace.
Confirmation / ordination / marriage
This afternoon I want to think about discernment. This is a gift of the Spirit that we all need. The landmark sacraments that I would like to group under this heading are confirmation, marriage and ordination. Perhaps it is odd to place them together in this way. But they are all adult commitments and threshold experiences. All of them involve lifelong vows.
I invite you to think for a moment back to the time when you decided to take two or three of these particular steps in your own life. Were you surprised by the decision? Did it seem hard or easy? Was it timely? Did you ever regret it? Who influenced you, and who helped you to prepare?
My decision to be confirmed as an Episcopalian was made in my early teens, but while I lived at home in my Presbyterian family I delayed acting on it. When I was 18 years old and away at college, I sought confirmation and was prepared by a lay reader who happened to be my English professor. His special subject was Milton and I have more vivid memories of our seminars on Paradise Lost than of my confirmation prep. But I do remember him saying that he and his great hero Milton had been on opposite religious journeys – Milton from the Church of England to Puritanism and then to Separatism, while Professor Coolidge had journeyed from his Congregationalist youth to a settled commitment to the Episcopal Church. I remember also asking about Episcopal church polity and how it differed the Presbyterian structure. That’s the kind of nerdy teenager I was. In due course I was confirmed alongside a group of twelve-year-olds and a couple of middle-aged men and it was a moment of deep significance for me.
At St Mary’s, with our policy of admitting children in Key Stage 2 to Holy Communion, we have made a rule that the minimum age for Confirmation is now 16. Every year we have a number of adults coming forward for Confirmation, or for reception into the Church of England from the Orthodox or Roman Catholic traditions. Many of them are entirely new to the Church and are baptized as part of the same service. This year, for the first time, our policy of admitting children has begun to bear fruit in adult commitments. Several of those who were brought to the Sacrament in childhood have now chosen to be confirmed. And some of our youthworkers, who mentor young people who are in danger of being recruited by Camden gangs, have also asked for Confirmation, to our astonishment and delight. I am more convinced than ever that Confirmation is for those who have reached adulthood and decided to follow Christ, and who are prepared to see it as the beginning and not the end of a journey of faith.
The challenge for us as clergy is looking out for and inviting likely candidates to come forward and surprise us and say yes. But nearly all of them need a repeated personal invitation. And the ideal preparation in my experience is a faith-sharing group over many months. I suppose because of my background in antenatal courses, I am strongly of the view that groups of people sharing a profound liminal experience don’t need a crash course on the Creed but rather a long-term group that builds mutual trust and offers a safe space in which to explore questions and share stories.
Some years ago a friend of mine underwent the RCIA programme to be baptized and confirmed as a Roman Catholic. I was deeply impressed by the liturgical landmarks during the long period of formation. In the past I have used the somewhat similar Emmaus course, with 16 or 17 sessions, and we observed some of the rites along the way, which were very effective. In a bigger and busier parish, it has been tempting to do the Confirmation prep in a more off-stage manner. And chasing up busy people with family and work commitments often means that six or eight sessions is all that we can manage. My curate colleague this year did a heroic job of tailoring confirmation preparation for four different constituencies – young mums, community youthworkers, older teenage girls, and an outlier who was a young professional man. It wasn’t until the vital quiet day and rehearsal the day before the Bishop came that they all got to meet each other.
Parish ministry, as we all know, is the art of the possible, and we mustn’t make the best the enemy of the good. We are currently trying yet another model, with a whole year of fortnightly meetings after the parish eucharist, and we have a core group of six adults – French, Italian, Korean, Iranian, and a couple of British – who hold lively discussions based on the material in the Pilgrim course and ask really hard questions. We’ve used the Pilgrim booklets for several years and find that the framework of beginning and ending with liturgical prayer and starting each session with a period of lectio divina has worked well.
So how do adults discern that they should join a Confirmation group? I have never attended or led an Alpha course so that is not a route I can speak about. What I have found is that our church school is where many parents get to hear about us, and coming to the school services in church is the first step of the journey. Half our places have no church attendance requirement for admission and so rather than lose families once they get a school place, we meet and encourage those who find themselves at the school. Our community projects also bring people in. Others are invited by their own children. Some have been sitting on the sidelines for years, waiting for an invitation. And some seem to appear in a completely random way.
In the Gilead novels, Lila, with whom John Ames enters into a late, unexpected and happy marriage, simply steps into his church on a Sunday morning to shelter from the rain, and on that tiny decision the rest of both their lives become transformed. What was it that drew you into an adult commitment to the Lord? Perhaps spend some time today remembering and giving thanks. I’m sure that for many of us it was a connection with a faithful Christian, in person or through a book, that tipped the balance. Could you be the one who issues the challenge or invitation? Do you have some good mentors and role models among your congregation?
Of course the same approach goes for ordination as well as confirmation. London clergy are heavily focused this year on encouraging vocations to ordained ministry. We have all been asked what we are doing to spot the unrecognised vocations among our congregations and beyond. As an Area Director of Ordinands, I have been struck by how often candidates tell me of a sense of calling in childhood. But it is the encouragement or discouragement they had from clergy and other Christian leaders that determines when or if that call is responded to. This year I have been working with a woman who believed she heard a clear invitation to serve God when she was at Lourdes at the age of eight. More than 40 years later, she is finally being invited to test her vocation. In the intervening years, too many clergy looked at a minority ethnic woman and did not see a potential priest.
We meet candidates from a variety of educational and ethnic backgrounds, candidates with physical or learning disabilities, candidates who have a history of mental health problems, survivors of abuse, people who have been Christians for about five minutes and people who have been faithful since the cradle. All the variety of God’s glorious creation passes through our doors. The discernment and selection are rigorous but we try not to prejudge even the most unlikely candidates at the beginning. I’m sure we all know how the Cure d’Ars was turned down initially as too thick to be ordained. Two of the very best priests I know, with extremely high emotional intelligence quotients, were not recommended by their BAPs and were sponsored anyway by astute bishops. Every human institution, even a selection conference praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can and does make mistakes. Sometimes they may even recommend people who should never have been ordained – I’m sure we’ve all met one or two of those.
We are all strongly encouraged to revisit and renew our ordination vows at a Chrism mass every Holy Week. Many of us also keep the anniversary of our deaconing and priesting as personal feast days, going public at significant moments like silver and golden jubilees. We know how different we felt after the laying on of hands. Something new began that day for us.
Marriage used to be the great threshold moment for young adults, with many customs surrounding the transition from one state of life to another, and in times past a good deal of bawdiness about the sexual experiences that lay ahead for the couple. Nowadays of course people delay marriage or bypass it altogether for a variety of reasons. The vows may frighten them off or seem meaningless. The cost of the expected celebration is seen as a waste of money. No one needs to get married in order to have a sexual relationship. In over 20 years I have never married a couple who didn’t live together before the wedding day. And although the state now recognises marriage equality, we are all aware that marriage is still a distant dream for same sex partners in the Church of England.
The upshot then is that Anglican vicars marry fewer and fewer couples. Those who do marry in church are often our own committed parishioners. I’ve probably officiated at more wedding blessings or renewal of vows than actual legal marriages over the past ten years. While weddings may have been a bit of a conveyor belt in years past – I still have nightmarish memories of a Saturday when I officiated at three weddings as a curate, and the middle bride was 40 minutes late – nowadays they will often be lavished with personal attention and planning. This must be a good thing. The latest development seems to be the portmanteau celebration of the children’s baptism and the parents’ wedding all in one go, to save money on the party. I haven’t done one of those yet but perhaps some of you have.
I love telling engaged couples that they will be the ones who celebrate the sacrament, while I simply witness and bless their exchange of vows. They always seem surprised and delighted to learn this. We speak so glibly of lay ministry and the priesthood of all the baptized, but it is only at church weddings that we seem to enable Christian women and men to claim their full stature as speakers of performative words. We are the ones who get to say I baptize you, I absolve you, God bless you, This is my body, Go forth on your journey. But it is the bride and groom who say to one another, I take you to be my husband or wife, and I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. I am not trying to be mischievous or anti-clerical. I simply wonder if we may be missing some opportunities.
In Russian Orthodox circles people bless each other all the time. In Roman Catholic cultures – and no doubt in many of your parishes – laypeople lead the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross with natural confidence. In Jewish homes the mother prays over the candles and the father blesses the bread to bring in the Sabbath. Is there perhaps an opportunity to encourage more lay-led domestic rituals? The family worship round a piano that I grew up with was distinctly old-fashioned even in my long-ago childhood, and I have certainly not attempted to recreate it with my children. But the popularity of Advent wreaths and Epiphany chalk and palm crosses all indicate an appetite for bringing the Church year into our homes. We feel the need I spoke about last night to consecrate time and to connect with a larger reality.
And there is a real need to mark threshold experiences, such as weddings. We who are in the business are always ready to hear newly wedded couples tell us of how different it feels to be married. Friends of mine have just tied the knot, for financial reasons, after nearly 25 years together, and they are basking in the joy this step has unexpectedly brought them. People instinctively know when a ritual is needed.
Over the years I have been asked to devise liturgies for a variety of threshold experiences. One was blessing a room that was to have been the nursery of a child who was sadly stillborn and now had to be given over to another use. Another time for someone who needed to let go of rage and shame after years of sexual abuse. A woman who was divorced wanted her friends around her while she marked the end of her marriage in church. Once I passed a holding cross around a group of women so each one could pray with it in her hands before we gave the cross to the husband of a dying young mother, who was buried with it. It has often been necessary during my years of parish ministry to take holy water round a home where an evil presence or unhappy memories afflict the occupants.
I would remind you of John Ames’ words quoted this morning: “Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you.”
Blessing, creative liturgies for life events, spoken prayers in time of need, domestic rituals, encouragement to take a step like confirmation or discernment of a vocation – these are all part of what we are for. The transitions of our lives need landmarks, and we are the people who pile up the stones and mark the spot. We are the ones who give a hand as people step over the stile. We are the midwives who stand beside and encourage those in whom God is bringing something new to birth. There is a wonderful blessing for us too in all of this.
Dealing with pain
Ministry with the sick and suffering
I’m a natural optimist. After all, I am a midwestern American. It’s in my DNA to look on the bright side and to be hopeful about what is possible and confident about the future. I have to remind myself regularly that the Christian perspective is rather different. With God, of course, all things are possible, and we are the people of the Resurrection. But the world is full of pain. Suffering is not an unfair assault that someone needs to account for; it is a normal fact of life. We are not entitled to a comfortable and happy life just because we are people of faith.
I know this is stating the perfectly obvious. But how often we meet this assumption in those we serve, and if we are honest in ourselves too. God is the magician who fulfils all our needs, and if something goes wrong we will punish him by not believing in him any more. When we look at that squarely it is obviously ridiculous, but it is a pattern of response I have seen again and again. God is blamed, and often we too are in the frame. We have let people down by telling them that they are loved by God, when clearly they are not because something bad has happened to them.
We sometimes meet, in convinced Christians, another perspective that also fills me with alarm. That is the attitude that says, God has sent this suffering for a purpose. It’s a test of faith. He doesn’t give us more than we can cope with.
While I am in awe of the trust in God shown by people who say this, I am deeply disturbed by their image of a God who chooses to kill a small child in a road accident, allow a teenager to die from knife wounds on a London street, or take a mother from her young family by giving her cancer.
It is frightening to say that bad things that are contrary to God’s will happen all the time. It makes the world a very scary place. But is there any honest alternative? The good news that we offer to people is not that God will fix everything for them, but that God will be with them whatever happens. Who knows what surprising resurrection may follow the worst experience.
The second book in Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy is called Home, and it is told from the perspective of a woman named Glory. She is the daughter of John Ames’ fellow minister and lifelong best friend. Her brother Jack is his father’s favourite child in a large family and John Ames’ godson. He is also its black sheep. Jack was a boy who delighted in malicious mischief. As a college student, he made a very young girl pregnant and then disappeared, leaving his parents and sister to deal with the aftermath. He has been away for twenty years. When he unexpectedly returns home, to his father’s joy, he is trailing a story of misery and failure. He is an alcoholic who has been in jail and has no steady work. There is a generosity of spirit in him, and his good upbringing shines through in his natural courtesy, but he can’t help wondering if he was born for perdition. Again and again he lets down the people he loves. He is afraid to reveal his mixed-race marriage to his father, and he cannot support his wife and son. At one point he attempts suicide and is interrupted and saved by his horrified sister. He makes numerous attempts to have a meaningful conversation about God with John Ames, but they never seem to come out right, though he does accept the old man’s blessing at last. Jack seems to be a hopeless case.
Finally he leaves home again, just before his siblings assemble around his father’s deathbed. He has given up all hope of saving his marriage. He takes himself off to an unknown and bleak future. It is an immensely sad story. But it ends on a note of hope. Glory sees a car drive up with the woman she instantly knows to be Jack’s wife and with her is a young boy, their son. They have come to look for him and to see the home that he spoke of so often with affection. There is no guarantee that Jack will ever find her, or she him, again in the future. But the child may grow up and come back. Imagining this encounter, Glory thinks, “He is young. He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment. That he has answered his father’s prayers. The Lord is wonderful.”
We cannot know from the outside the meaning of events in other people’s lives. It takes us our whole lifetime to find out what our own lives mean to us. But as priests we can listen to the stories people tell. We can ask questions. We can be witnesses and encouragers, midwives if you like, as they make sense of their own pain.
When I was an ordinand I was fortunate to have a long-term placement with one of the best hospital chaplains in the country, Peter Speck at the Royal Free in Hampstead. I remember coming down to the chaplaincy department in the basement of the hospital, time and again, feeling battered by the suffering that I had seen on the wards. And Peter would offer no word of explanation or comfort. He would simply say, Sometimes life is just shit.
But I noticed than when he spent time with people, they almost always felt better for it. I tried to watch and learn from him the pastoral skills that made this possible. There was something about what he represented that was at the heart of his effectiveness, I could see. Sometimes it put him in the line of fire. Once he was called to A&E to meet the parents of a child who had been killed in a road accident, and as soon as the father saw Peter’s dog collar he punched him in face. Peter had no rancour about this; he knew that at that moment he stood in for the God who somehow allowed this terrible thing to happen. Another time on his rounds he met a junior doctor who had not been able to save the life of a young man he was treating. When Peter asked him how he was, the young doctor burst into tears and they went into a side room so he could pour out his feelings.
It was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic when the diagnosis was still a death sentence. There was a ward filled with young men who knew they were mortally ill and who, in many cases, were, like Jack in the novel, estranged from their families. On Good Friday I was sitting, for the last time as it turned out, with a patient I’d visited several times, and I read Psalm 139 to him. In my inexperience, I failed to omit the cursing verses that unexpectedly appear towards the end of the psalm. The man I was visiting looked puzzled and said he didn’t feel like that. He didn’t hate anyone with a perfect hatred, or blame anyone for his condition. Young as he was, he had made his peace with God and life. It was a humbling moment that I have never forgotten.
People must find their own meaning. But sometimes we can help with a question. Another patient in the hospital was waiting for a liver transplant which would not come in time. Her regret, she told me, was that she had not had the kind of experience of God that some people described. She had longed for a vision but never been given one. This time I had the sense to just listen as I asked her to tell me about her life. It seems she had many friends whom she loved and who loved her. I asked her if perhaps her experience of God had come through that gift. And then she recognised this as true and began to weep.
Suffering is only allayed by giving it meaning in our own particular situation. Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning about his survival in Auschwitz through imagining a future with a purpose that he could live for. He said that we should stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life. A member of my congregation, whose spouse has died prematurely and whose only child is suffering from the very worst form of ME, is sustained in her suffering by her faith in God and also by the practical application of this approach. We cannot choose what happens to us but we can choose how to respond.
We encourage our confirmands to pray for the gifts of the Spirit as listed in Isaiah, which are all about discerning meaning. If we have wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence and wonder, we will see things aright and be able to choose and carry through our response with God’s help.
I have seen remarkable instances of all these gifts in people who are suffering, as I am sure you have. It makes me ashamed to think how pathetic my own self-pity is in the mildest kind of pain or anxiety. Although I do not believe that God plans suffering for us, it certainly seems true that God can bring about great spiritual growth in those who suffer and endure.
A book I recently found helpful was Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree. He spent years getting to know families that had to deal with unusual challenges in their children’s lives, ranging from physical and mental disabilities to situations of extraordinary talent or criminal behaviour. What he found, over the years, was that most of the parents concluded that though they would not have chosen to have children with those particular conditions, they would not now change anything about how their lives had unfolded, because they had discovered strengths and capacities for love in themselves that they had never imagined possible. Their lives, as parents of unusually challenging children, had a profound purpose and meaning.
I said most of the parents felt this. Not all did. Some were simply overwhelmed and defeated by the situation they found themselves in. And this brings me back to the mystery of suffering, and my strong belief that evil it is never sent by God but only allowed as the natural consequence of life in a fallen world. Even something that hurts us and those we love can be the occasion of flourishing – that is where God’s loving purpose can be seen. But where no meaning can be found by the sufferer, then we can do no more than sit in silence, alongside the one who is struggling.
I know it is fashionable to talk down pastoral visiting as the expectation of a bygone age, and books like If You See George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him! try to puncture the impossible expectations of 17<sup>th</sup>century parish ministry in a 21<sup>st</sup>century context. But though we may have other things to do than those Poplar curates did in the fifties, knocking on doors from morning to night, we should not neglect to visit the sick and suffering. They may have every care and treatment that is possible. They may be surrounded by family and friends. But what we bring is what we represent, the possibility of finding meaning in their situation. We can listen and ask questions. We can hold hands and pray. We can lay on hands and anoint. We can simply be there.
In fact Being There is the title of Peter Speck’s excellent book on hospital chaplaincy. We may have to endure our own sense of helplessness. We will certainly have to acknowledge that we have no easy answers or miracles to offer. But just showing up is usually enough. One of my most treasured memories of my time as a chaplaincy intern is a bedside chat with a retired priest, who said when I took my leave, I am so glad now that I was a faithful visitor in my ministry, because now I know how much it means to receive a visit. In those few words, he not only found meaning in his own past life, but he gave me enormous encouragement for the work I was about to begin.
In today’s time of quiet, you may want to recall your own experience of finding meaning in suffering, and give thanks for the growth this has led to. Perhaps this is also a particularly appropriate time to focus on intercession, however you perform that priestly task. I find a repetitive tactile prayer such as a Jesus Prayer rope or the Rosary is sometimes the best way to intercede. Or I think of the wonderful description someone once gave of intercession as simply picturing the person you are praying for while sitting in the presence of God. We don’t need words to come before God with someone on our heart. We just need to consecrate the time to share their joys and sorrows.
Let me end, as usual, with another bit of Gilead. John Ames, knowing he will die soon, is writing a letter to his little son that he hopes will one day be read. “For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, which I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.”
Ministry at the time of death / funerals / facing mortality
A few weeks ago I went to spend several days at Gladstone’s Library in Wales in order to prepare these talks. If you haven’t been to the library, I can’t recommend it to you highly enough for a combination of retreat and study week, and you may get CME funds or support from Sion College if you’re a member.
Just before I started to work on this subject, ministry around the time of death, I went for a short walk. It was a beautiful warm spring afternoon. St Deiniol’s Church is next door to the residential library, which is based in William Gladstone’s family home, and it was the church he attended and where many of his family members are buried. In fact the church is completely hemmed in on all four sides by gravestones from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and inside there are numerous monuments to the particularly noteworthy departed. Praying in this church means truly being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
Perhaps those of you in rural parishes still have the experience at least occasionally of leading a coffin out of church and proceeding directly to a nearby grave. I envy those who do. For us London clergy, the doors closing in the crematorium is usually the last time we have any contact with the remains of the departed. Sometimes it’s best not to ask what happens next, but I know that urns sometimes stand for years on a mantelpiece or ashes are made into pieces of jewellery or divided and scattered in a number of places. We say solemnly earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but the reality is often rather more complicated.
And that I am sure is because we are so deeply uncomfortable with mortality in our generation, unlike those robust Victorians. If Grandad is on a shelf at home or in a necklace, or if Granny’s remains have been shared among three or four of her favourite places, then the stark fact of death is covered with a pretence that they’re still here, sharing our everyday lives. We are steering closer to ancestor worship than to Christian faith.
The hard fact is that the Church of England has a rapidly declining share in a shrinking funeral market and there is plenty of competition. My generation, the baby boomers, are now the people who are dying, and all our lives we have been shaped by the idea that we can throw out old conventions and make our life events creative and personal. Entrepreneurial and often very pastorally sensitive secular celebrants are ready and waiting to help us do this.
But even in these days of shrinkage, we still have something unique to offer, as I expect you will agree. Some years ago I heard Anders Bergquist, the Vicar of St John’s Wood and a former member of the Liturgical Commission, give a list of eight things that a Christian funeral does:
First, the body is decently and reverently disposed of.
Second, the deceased is at the heart of a social occasion for the last time, his or her christening having presumably been the first time.
Third, comfort is offered to the mourners.
Fourth, thanksgiving is made for the life of the departed.
Fifth, the gospel is preached in the context of this particular life.
Sixth, the person who has died is commended to God’s care.
As with the care of those who are sick and suffering, articulating meaning in the shape of a life now ended is one of our principal opportunities. As we weave the family’s memories, or if we knew them our own memories, into a coherent narrative in the light of eternity, we offer not that dreadful concept “closure” but the great Christian virtue of hope.
We aren’t shy of talking about death at St Mary’s. We’ve had a good many requiems for long-term parishioners in recent years and many of our older folk have begun to discuss what they want or don’t want for their own service. We keep a folder of funeral service plans in our sacristy safe. Every year near All Souls and Remembrance we host a Grave Talk. Tea and cake are provided while people sit around small tables and pick up cards with open-ended questions about dying, death, funerals and bereavement. We invite contributions from those with special knowledge – a funeral director, a solicitor, a palliative care consultant, even our resident amateur thanatologist whose house is a very cheerful museum of mortality.
We follow the normal practices of providing a candlestand, year’s mind prayers, annual intercessions at All Souls’ Tide, and reminding people about wills and legacies.
All of this is the ordinary stock and trade of a Catholic minded parish. As a curate I probably did at least 150 funerals – the East End then was still traditional enough for nearly every local to believe that hatching, matching and despatching required the services of clergy. I am very thankful for the breadth of that experience. I can still remember vividly the wave of awe and terror I felt the night before I officiated for the first time. A woman who had lived a life of more than 90 years was to be laid to rest by this callow deacon. How could I possibly do justice to the complexity and richness of her entire life?
Over the years the terror has receded but I hope I still feel at least some of the awe. It is an immense privilege to consecrate the time and space for the final leave-taking. Our words will probably be quickly forgotten in most cases, but our manner of conducting the service and relating to the family will be remembered for a long time. We provide a structure for the tasks we need to accomplish, but we also need very sensitive feelers for what is pastorally apt. A clumsy poem or cheesy song or a funny anecdote in the address may be exactly what the family most values, but they will also note the reverence and dignity with which we conduct the commendation and committal. And sometimes the followup visit leads to an ongoing pastoral relationship.
We all do funerals, if not as many as in years gone by. We are less often called these days to minister to people before their death. In the Middle Ages, of course, that was the principal function of the clergy: shriving people on their deathbeds to save them from hell. Priests were judged by how assiduous they were at administering the Last Rites.
But nowadays dying people or their relatives may no longer see the point of calling in a priest, as they have no belief in an afterlife or at least very little fear of judgment. The priest’s old sacramental task has become redundant for the vast majority. But the need for pastoral and spiritual care remains and it is often frustrated by a conspiracy of silence around the process of dying. Medical staff keep offering treatments that may or may not prolong life by a few weeks or days, and no one wants to admit that death is just around the corner. Even if the patient and the relatives are all aware of the true state of things, they protect each other by not speaking of it. And so the vital opportunity to make sense of a particular life, to mend broken relationships and leave messages and say thank you and forgive me, can be lost, and the regrets of the survivors are often bitter.
I know I mention books rather often, but I do strongly commend to you Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. The author is a surgeon in Boston who reflects on the way our physical longevity nowadays often far outstrips our meaningful mental life. He also discusses the difficulty doctors have in being honest with their patients about terminal diagnoses. Instead of acknowledging mortality and helping people complete their narrative and prepare for a good death, money is thrown at treatments in an attempt to extend life just a little longer at all costs. Seldom are the relevant questions asked of the patient: How much are you prepared to endure to live a few more weeks or days? What makes life worth living for you right now? This discussion is often left until it’s too late and the relatives have to take decisions they feel unprepared to make.
Where do we come into all this as priests? I believe ministry to the dying is central to our work. We can make it known in our congregations that we expect to be called upon to visit people who are seriously ill. We can form good relationships with chaplains in local hospitals and hospices. We can emphasize healing ministry in our normal parish worship, which will make it easier for us to be thought of and called upon when the end draws near.
I love to remember a woman in my Hackney parish who had grown up in rural poverty in the Caribbean and then lived for many decades in Britain. When I knew her she was in her late 90s, with almost no flesh on her bones. She lay in bed in her daughter’s house in great discomfort, longing to be at the end of her journey. She said to me several times, “I think Jesus has forgotten about me.”
The time came when she was admitted to hospital and the doctors told her children that she had very little time left. In their distress they panicked and decided to shield her from this news. When I came to visit, I asked if I might break it to her and they reluctantly agreed. I’ll never forget the broad smile that spread across her face when I told her that Jesus was finally coming for her. Everyone’s mood changed and that old lady began to reign from her bed like a queen. The family gathered round and sang and prayed and shared memories. We even had a bedside liturgy of taking leave of her. To everyone’s surprise, she survived not just days but several months. She died peacefully with her family beside her, and she had a terrific funeral with Candlemas readings.
If I were to pick one aspect of ministry over the past quarter century that has been most rewarding, I would instantly say that it is ministry with dying people. It has required me to face my own mortality and my own fears. As a young mother I lived in daily terror that my children would come to harm. Looking back, it was when my faith began to be renewed and my vocation started to unfold that I was able to live with the uncertainty of life. I resolved to talk openly about death and dying within my own family as well as within the congregations I served.
What I have discovered is that young people want to think about the big issues of life and death. The pretence that we will be consumers forever, endlessly buying things we don’t need or even want, is no longer attractive. My generation has tried to ignore the reality of death, but Millennials face it head on.
I discovered this through my hobby of singing shapenote music. This is a folk music tradition from the American South that involves groups of people sitting facing one another in a hollow square and belting out 18th and 19th century hymns fortissimo and in six-part harmony. Many of the words come straight from the Bible or from the pen of Isaac Watts. If there is one theme that dominates the hymnbook, it is death. It’s faced squarely and openly and without any pretence. Often the tunes are very cheerful even though the words may not be. One of our favourite songs that always leaves us smiling because of the joyous tune says “Our youthful days will soon be gone, for time is flying by. Our days and years pass swiftly on, we’ll soon be called to die.”
The people who gather to sing these songs are mostly young and more than half of them are male. It’s like no other singing experience I’ve ever taken part in – it certainly doesn’t bear much resemblance to the average church choir! And although people of all faiths and none join in, there is a marked respect for the old religious tradition that gave rise to these songs, so that prayers are said at the beginning and end, and people who are sick or recently dead are remembered in a formal way. I could almost call it a fresh expression of Church, but there is no mission strategy. It just happens because people love to sing the music.
I want to end by thinking about how music can play a part in ministry with dying people. Iain McGilchrist’s thought-provoking book The Master and His Emissary argues that music, a right-brain activity, is evolutionarily prior to the left-brain activity of language. We all know from our own experience how emotionally charged music can be. Whether it’s “our song” that means something to a couple, or the song played at a funeral that turns on the taps for everyone, music touches us in ways that words can’t reach. I imagine we’ve all played the game of choosing our Desert Island Discs, or the playlist for our own funeral.
Our early musical memories are powerful ones. Mine include traditional hymns, Broadway musical numbers on LPs, my father’s favourite operas on the radio, Bob Dylan songs sung to a ropey guitar accompaniment at campfires, and the sheer energy of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Simon and Garfunkel as they burst onto the scene. When I became a mother, it was the most natural thing in the world to sing nonsense rhymes, pop songs from the 60s and lullabies to my babies.
When I began to attend deathbeds, I didn’t plan to start singing, but it felt completely right. Singing a dying person on their last journey is not so different from singing a child to sleep. We run out of spoken words after awhile, but hearing and touch are the last senses to leave us. Holding someone’s hand and quietly singing Amazing Grace or Michael Row the Boat Ashore can be immensely calming and intimate. When it’s not welcome it is quickly obvious, but often I’ve felt a return grip and heard the whispered word “More” when I’ve paused, and that has given my confidence to continue. You don’t have to be Pavarotti to do this – you don’t even have to remember all the words, because humming is nice too.
I’ll close, true to form, with a vignette from Gilead. “Lacey Thrush died last night… She was a maiden lady. She died promptly and decorously, out of consideration for me, I suspect, since she has been concerned about my health. She was conscious half an hour, unconscious half an hour, and gone. We said the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm, then she wanted to hear ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ one last time, so I sang and she hummed a little, and then she started nodding off. I am full of admiration for her. She’s given me a lot to live up to, so to speak. At any rate, she didn’t keep me awake past my bedtime, and the peacefulness of her sleep contributed mightily to the peacefulness of mine. These old saints bless us every chance they get.”
Talk 6 (summing up) – much of this was ad libbed so these are just indicative notes.
Laying down the burdens
We are coming to the end of the retreat and getting ready to return to the coalface of ministry. I hope that you have been refreshed by this time of prayer and reflection. I know I have enjoyed having a Sabbath time to give thanks for the privilege of ordained ministry.
It is wonderful, but it is certainly draining too. My hero John Ames writes,
“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.”
So we have to find ways to deal with those burdens, or we’ll be weighed down and crushed by them. I’ve been to a great many ordination services over the year, and I always love to hear these words in the bishop’s charge to the ordinands:
“You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
How do we keep going in parish ministry for 10, 20, 30 years without being crushed by the dread and guilt and loneliness that is disclosed to us? Only by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
A Yorkshire MP once told a group of clergy what one of his Muslim constituents had said about prayer. Five times a day, he said, I bow down and remember that I am not the centre of the universe. It’s not all about me. God is in charge.
Of course we know that. But the daily office, the presidency of the Eucharist, leading intercessions can all become things we become proficient at, things we train others to do well. The professionalisation of the clergy as leaders and managers is a process that has many advantages for the Church but also some clear spiritual dangers.
We have to remember that we are really just holy fools. The grace of orders is real – I know it for myself and have seen it in others. But it is a grace of discernment, not of empowerment. We have been ordained in order to see clearly, and to help others see, that all is gift. That feeling of being a fraud? It never goes away. Because it’s true and right. In our human rags we stand in for Christ, the one in whom human nature is fully revealed as perfectly united with the divine. The amazing promise is that one day we will no longer be frauds. One day we will be entirely transparent to God and we will shine with reflected glory. But we won’t have earned that day by our spiritual endeavours and successes. We’ll be welcomed as the beloved, diverse, flawed and struggling children whom God loves beyond measure.
Helping people to believe that is the most important task of parish ministry. It’s also the hardest thing for us to believe about ourselves.
Bishop Sarah’s inaugural sermon quoted St Augustine who said “for you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian” – in the same way we are called to be priests for the people and Christians with the people whom we serve.
Rowan Williams remarked once on the difference between holiness and goodness. In the presence of a good person we feel ashamed of ourselves, seeing how much better we could be. In the presence of a holy person, we feel better about ourselves, because we catch from them the joy of the fullness of life. The Church needs holy priests because we need priests who can radiate this joy.
We must never forget the power of story – letting the narratives of other lives, and above all the gospel narrative, shape the meaning we give to the story of our own lives. Return regularly to fictional narratives in order to keep our sense of story alive.
Every day, let’s lay down our burdens where they belong, before the Lord. And every night, let’s remember the example of King Lear and the Reverend John Ames. “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.