For myself it’s hard to keep it separate from my personal life journey.
I see the roots of ministry reaching back into my earlier childhood. Like many baby boomers I grew up in a large and vibrant local parish community church, around which much of peoples’ life centred.
My parish church was St. Matthews Ashburton, last Thursday having been that Saint’s day 21st September each year.
Three experiences emerged in that early life that I believe have shaped my life and ministry.
Like most children at that time our parents taught us to pray by saying prayers with us as we got into bed. Probably, as many found that need diminishing in their teenage years, for me it didn’t but continued in earnest to the point of being fascinated by the experience of meditation and contemplation. I was drawn to the experience that many of life’s great mystics devoted their life to.
As a young altar boy I can recall a moment during one Sunday service kneeling at the steps before the altar, and as the priest consecrated the bread and the wine, thinking if I was ever to come to know truth, it would ultimately be found here in the eucharist.
The third experience is best described a few years after ordination. I recall visiting a friend’s place and telling them I had decided to travel to Canada to do some Chaplaincy training in a Psychiatric hospital. They had a neighbour with them who, while being very committed in her own faith, questioned me on why I would want to do that in a psychiatric hospital. From an early age, I had always tried to understand what made people tick. Although I had been trained in college for ministry. I had come to realise that theological theory was hardly adequate for engaging pastorally with people.
Travelling to Canada for that intensive chaplaincy training was one of the greatest decisions I made. The training was invaluable, but I also met Jane and quickly married her. I have regarded ministry as a partnership. She has shared, supported encouraged and very patiently listened to my many theories before I have thrust them upon you people.
Our first parish was a pleasant rural community in Canada, followed by our suburban ministry at St. Augustine’s Mentone .Finally we came here for what I call this inner suburban parish. Three different experiences but each rich in potential ministry.
A DIMINISHING CHURCH
There is so much I could say about each of these but I want to highlight one major point.
From the boom years of the post war years, where many parishes enjoyed an abundance of people and activity, there has been a steady decline.
I have often spoken of the great exodus from the church that broke open through the late sixties, then really gathering momentum in the seventies and the rest is history. Here in Australia, the census tells us that those who called themselves Anglicans diminished from the high forties as a percentage of population at the turn of the last century, 33% in 1966, to the 13 in the recent census. These numbers were even less when referring to those who attended.
Decade after decade our leaders have regularly reminded us that if the trend continued the church would ultimately become non-viable.
Needless to say, the last half century has been a challenging time for the church.
Constantly we have faced challenges, questioned many things, tried new approaches. Each succeeding Archbishop has presented his new mission program, but the trend has not been arrested.
The gap between the church and general society has widened to the point whereby the church sits on the edge of society.
A simple explanation is easy to identify. The emergence of a secular lifestyle. Education and affluence, both of which developed significantly after the war, has had a profound influence on our lives.
Education opportunity developed greatly and informed most people of far more comprehensive understanding of life. Affluence enabled us to utilise the new knowledge to develop a whole new world.
You may think I am being negative, but in fact I am not intending that. I would want to emphasise that this trend fits clearly within the context of the world going through changes to a degree unknown of before.
As a result, only some people are finding nurture in the church, and I do know this nurture is genuine for I still find it myself. So many are now seeking other pursuits for fulfilment as they find their questions and needs not being meet.
The new global world has altered the playing field, to use another metaphor for life, so that new and bigger questions lay before the church us awaiting a boulder response
The globalising world is calling for a new vision of unity, and co-operation.
If God is truly cosmic and Christ is the full revelation of the divine, then this same universal spirit, we call the Holy Spirit must have been working out its purposes in all traditions.
The future will require all humanity to respect one another while noting our differences. We are not enemies but fellow pilgrims, seeking the spiritual truth. This is perhaps the biggest lesson I have learnt and will shape the next stage of my life.
A NEW MISSION
I am planning a good sabbatical year to clear the mind and refresh my energies to prepare for this next state of life. I want to find a meaningful way of contributing to the building of a better world. Heaven on Earth as we say in the Lord’s prayer.
Have I learnt much over the years. I hope so.
You must build trust
Two very early examples taught me this.
In a parish, I had been assisting for a few months while training in Canada, I had just finished with the youth group and realised I hadn’t bought anything for Jane for our wedding Anniversary when I spotted the beautiful yellow roses on the Altar. I figured that now Sunday was over no one would be needing them. Even though I carefully took just half a dozen from each vase the eagle eyes of the ladies quickly picked up a thief had been around. It took some time to rebuild any semblance of trust they may have had fin me
The second followed a the first vestry meeting in my fir. I was asked if we were happy with everything in the vicarage. I commented, yes, its great. But I had expected a swimming pool.
On the Sunday morning, a warden who hadn’t been at the meeting, approached me with a rather stern looking face to express his concern that I was expecting a pool. I had to reassure him it must have been my Aussie humor. It took twice as long to earn the men’s trust.
I soon learnt I had to be far more decisive:
In this same small rural parish there were three churches with no more than 300 in each village. The houses were well spread out. Sadly, in one village a family had suffered the tragic suicide of a teenager. They were a big family with many aunts and cousins etc. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy visit. I wondered If I should wait until I thought it would just be the immediate family present.
I set out on the night time drive.
When I was almost there I talked myself into believing it would not be profitable visiting that night and turned around on the highway to head home. I had gone only a few klms. when I realised I was being silly. So I turned around and resumed my journey to the family.
You’ve guessed what I did. I resumed my self argument to put it off until the next day, so did another u-turn. As I now recommenced the journey to the vicarage, I realised I could at least visit another parishioner who lived just where I had been doing my series of u-turns . Two ageing sisters lived along this country highway where I had been doing my series of u-turns and drove up their laneway.
As I pulled up at the front of the house and opened my car door two great headlights turned on at the back of my car. It was the police.
They wanted to know what I was up to, trolling up and down the highway. I tried to suggest I was the priest come to visit two parishioners. They pointed out that there were no lights on in the house. As honest as it was my explanation that the two ladies were blind and didn’t need any lights on in the house.
They took all my details etc, checked that my car wasn’t on the stolen list, said they would be in touch with me and insisted I move on. As I drove home with my tail between my legs I did wonder was I cut out for this role.
Get your Diary right
The years went by and there were always more lessons to learn. I do recall coming home from a meeting in the city and stopping at Southland for a few minutes to wonder around, clear my mind and buy a few incidental things I needed. Just as well we had mobile phones. The office called me to say there were people at the Cheltenham cemetery waiting for me. Fortunately, they were very forgiving when I finally arrived.
Work on names
Diary and Names are very important, get them right. I was approached by one of daughter Heathers school friends from to marry her and her fiance. I took the details. I knew him from the school. We all called him Dougie, I didn’t even know his name was Mark.
A few weeks before the wedding she called to ask could she and Dougie catch up with me to discuss the details of the wedding. We arranged the time. Shortly after I checked the folder and saw I had Jess and Mark. Panic hit, I thought I had double booked and it was only a few weeks to go. I called Jess to see if should had any flexibility with time. Why Panic, I knew once Heather found out I had messed up her friend’s wedding with all her other friends going to be present, I was going to be in real trouble for a very long time. Imagine my relief. It was as great as at any time in my life when I realised, Dougie was Mark. Even to this day I still shudder when I think of that one.
Yes, it would have been 45 years next February since I started out on this ministry journey. I have have had a lot to learnt. These were a few that came to mind.
Despite the church dwindling in numbers over those years, It has not minimised the rich experience I’ve had, for I’ve often said, you can really only deeply engage with one person at a time. That has been the heart of my approach, every person is sacred. I have been privileged to share life in a unique way with many, many wonderful, faithful and inspirational people.
I trust I have ministered faithfully within the restrictions of my competencies.
I am ever so grateful for the many treasured relationships Jane and I will carry memories for the rest of our life. I began speaking of the roots of ministry, worship, prayer and care early in my life. I have been fortunate to have been able to build a life around these core spiritual gifts.
As I have given so have I received in greater abundance from you people. Thank you for joining with me today as I take this opportunity to give thanks to God for daring to call me to walk in faith with all of you.