Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Auspicious times

Thirty five years ago yesterday, I was ordained priest by Archbishop Glyn Simon in Llandaff Cathedral. It remains in my memory as a moment of awesome holiness, despite my deep lack of confidence, and my strong desire to challenge the institutional church and its thinking, as a young 'moderniser'. In those days, wanted to be a worker priest in secular employment. I never made it. Twenty one years ago I trained as a teacher, but didn't fancy schooling (too regimented), so ended up in development education, working with adults, and went back to full time pastoring after seven years of that.

I always fancied getting a steady job and being a priest in my spare time, having boundaries between work and vocation. As it happens, the world of work has been stood on its head. People work less and less in the same thing for a whole career, employment has become a market commodity to be traded, and people retrain several times in a lifetime. And the strange thing is, I've just realised, that pattern is not too dissimilar from being a career parson, with the exception that I have been 'employed' by the CofE, the Church in Wales, and USPG, a church based mission agency, all of which were quite similar in their values and way of organising themselves. I'm now in my eighth job in 35 years of ministry.

In each one I've had to re-learn, re-train myself to requirements of new circumstance, as well as draw on my previous experience and expertise. The world of work has become more like the world of my working it, it seems. For me, it's been adaptation all the way. Never boring, sometimes anxiety making, and I've been luckier than many. Never made redundant, forced out of just one job. Resigned to move on to new work from all the others. I've never been without work or income. And that's a blessing in an age like ours. Yes, it's a privilege in many ways. But with so many people abandoning the church, and no longer seeming to need what it offers, it's easy to feel just a little forsaken from time to time, even though there always seems plenty to do, and not really enough time for the kind of leisurely life of prayer that makes for a good listening caring pastor.

Still feeling inadequate to the task after all these years!

And on this auspicious day? One funeral, in St Teilo's church of a man who died suddenly at 64 of undetected heart disease. A huge crowd there, work and pub mates, extended family. Apparently, he had been a Matt Munro fan, and played a CD of his music whenever his wife was out (she's a Queen fan). Requested to be played during the service was one of his favourites 'Softly as I leave you'. A quiet man, who quietly slipped away in the bathroom early on September 11th. An eerie legacy. All the family howled. The pub extraverts were dumb-struck.
In Cathays cemetery, overlooking the Rhymney Valley railway line cutting, at the grave-side there was a long silence after the casting of earth and final blessing, eventually broken by the widow, who came up to me and asked "What do we do now?" Fighting hard not to read huge chunks of metaphysical significance into the question, I told her "You can go home now, and come back later when the grave's filled in." She'd forgotten what burial custom was. So many deaths end in smoothly managed cremations these days. She had probably never been chief mourner before either.

My chauffeur to and fro was a cheery young man in his twenties, new to the job, from the Heads of the Valleys, now renting a room in the half-empty St Michael's Theological College, to avoid a hundred mile commute each day. He told me he had trained as a teacher, but that it wasn't for him - he already had set his heart on a place in this caring profession. It's got to be a vocation to deal with people's grief in an era when death itself is quarantined away from ordinary life until the time comes for it to force its way into normal routine. Fear, shock predominate. People are bewildered, ignorant and vulnerable. Funeral arranging is a task involving great trust today.

The day ended with an interview with a middle aged couple wanting to get married at St James next year - both with an assortment of broken liaisons and offspring behind them, but both still wanting to make a go of a permanent stable relationship with real commitment to it. People do learn sometimes from their experience of failure in relationships, how to do better next time.
The church doesn't want to compromise on the ideal of lifelong marriage to one partner, but it's so important to encourage everyone who can to make permanent lasting relationships, and if they fail, not to give up trying to get it right. God doesn't divorce us because we aren't successful as disciples. We keep trying because his forgiveness is the last word.

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