Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Knowing and being known

Diocesan Missioner Canon Val Hamer dropped into St John's for lunch and a brief but much appreciated chat today. She's in the process of reviewing last year's 'Back to Church' Sunday promotion, and wondering how best to proceed with it in future, given the mixed responses to it in different places. It's not as easy as it looks, because a phrase like 'back to church' carries with it all sorts of assumptions about what people want from church and get from it, or would like to get from it. Indeed, in a secular culture such a phrase may hardly be intelligible, if you've not been there before to go back to it. Or if you have been before just enough to be thoroughly deterred from returning. It has to be thought through in every different kind of social setting, and that's a big undertaking.

Lunch concluded with an interruption from a gentleman enquiring somewhat imprecisely about the location of a memorial stone belonging to an ancestor, which had been mentioned in an inventory of the churchyard taken in 1895, and published on the British History online website. I was unable to help him, and the time it took to eliminate the possibilities inside and outside the church made me late arriving for David Lees' fourth CACEC lecture. This week he revisited an interesting social study undertaken, forty years ago, as part of a review of his time as the first chaplain to the Abbey Steelworks at Margam. This was executed by an independent professional researcher with statistics and evaluation of the varied responses to the regular presence of a priest in a heavy industrial environment. These were broken down, department by department throughout the works, from managment through the steel mills and furnaces to the coke ovens. Questions were asked with a view to establishing what proportion of the workforce a) knew there was a chaplain; b) had seen the chaplain about the place, c) knew the chaplains name. d) had spoken to the chaplain. There was axiliary questions about subject matter for those who had spoken to the chaplain.

David could account for variations from one department of the Works to another by the amount of time he spent in free social interaction with workers. Some environments, where a degree of slack or waiting was intrinsic to the activity, made interaction easy. In others, the sheer noise and intensity of the activity was the limiting factor. He explained how he understood his role there as being essentially a pastoral one. He was not a welfare officer, nor did he represent the interests of workers, nor management, but the stranger in the plant, the Church, interested in people, and what they did with their working lives - knowing people, being known for this.

He found that the most difficult people to relate to in the world of work were church members and officers, who found his presence an embarrassment, whereas non-churchgoers, after incredulity and curiosity to start with, were more able to accept him and understand his mission. How readily men compartmentalise their lives - religion and domesticity on the one side, work on the other. But which bit is real life? Especially when there's a priest around crossing boundaries. Why does he do that? Can't he find enough to do in the domestic zone?

I can relate to many of David's industrial observations from my own experience of taking an interest from the margins in both retail and local government. The difference between now and then is a) how much fewer people have a place for religion in their lives, either at home or work; b) how much less an idea anyone has of the 'real' work of a priest in a secularised multi-cultural multi-faith social environment. The latter is one of the reasons why I write this blog. And at the same time, writing helps me understand better what it is that I 'do', and a part of.

How interesting it would be if a similar independent survey was conducted these days of a cross-section of ministers and clerics working in different spheres, community pastorate, gathered congregation, chaplaincy work, to see what awareness there is today of those whose work begins with knowing and being known, which takes them wherever that may lead. For all its routine stuff, a great deal of ministry is still about following up the unexpected lead.

No comments: