Up in my study there is a ‘Wanted’ poster which someone gave to me a few years ago.
“Do you know this man?
He is 40 years old, tall, slim, athletic, and handsome.
He has the vigour of a 25-year old and the wisdom of a 60-year old. He preaches for exactly ten minutes, frequently condemns sin and social evils, but never upsets anyone.
He works from 6am to 11pm, is always available, and spends at least two hours a day in prayer.
He earns no money but gives lots of it to the poor.
He is a man of patience, gentleness, and kindness, but is also strong, vigorous, and decisive.
He gives himself completely to others, but never gets too close to anyone.
He spends his entire day visiting parishioners, comforting the sick and bereaved, and working in schools, but he is always at home when anyone phones or calls.
He is a man of deep spirituality and wide learning, is down-to-earth and practical, a capable administrator, and a wise counsellor”.
It then says that if your priest doesn’t quite match up, you should send him back to the bishop and ask for another one. The right one must be out there somewhere.
The people of Our Lord’s time had the grace of the presence among them of Our Lord himself as their teacher, healer, leader, and his closest disciples as his helpers. But it seems that their expectations were such that even our Lord’s disciples couldn’t match up to them. There were so many people coming and going that they didn’t have time even to eat. It reminds me of a colleague of mine, who was curate at Small Heath in Birmingham about 30 years ago: the priests were trying to eat lunch; simultaneously all three doorbells rang, and someone tapped on the window.
So what do we require of our priests? I would like your views on that, so please do write in or use the parish website to let me know your thoughts. But here I my thoughts.
People need the priest at important events in their lives – particularly weddings, baptisms, and funerals. But the reason people need a priest on these occasions isn’t the same. At weddings and baptisms the priest is needed because people wish to experience God in their lives at these important times – to feel God’s blessing (approval perhaps?) for what they are doing, and to ask for God’s continued help for the future – married life, or the life of the child. If we are looking for the presence of a human person on such occasions, and the promise of that person’s presence throughout married life or the life of the baby, we would be talking about the need for friendship; and this is what we look for on such occasions from God – and we usually call that sustained friendship which God offers us on such occasions ‘grace’.
The priest is needed at funerals for a different reason. At funerals the priest is to assure the people of the enduring value of the life of the person who has died; and to do so in the context of that person as a child of God; and to pray for eternal life – enduring value in God’s sight. So this connects up with our need for the priest at many other times of trouble – illness, for example – when the purpose is to bring meaning into our lives, a meaning which is provided by God, for it cannot be provided by anyone else. Just as there is a name for God’s friendship, so also we have a word to describe this meaning in our lives for which we are looking to God to provide in times of trouble: we call it ‘salvation’. And this reminds us that we need the priest to assure us of God’s friendship (grace) and this enduring meaning to our lives (salvation) even though we are sinners and we know we do not deserve any of it: the grace of forgiveness from God, without which we could not hope for salvation.
In order that we can know where to look for God’s friendship, and how to access the forgiveness which God always offers, we also need the priest to instruct us in God’s ways, to preach God’s word. This is also a matter of reassurance for us: to know that God has a plan, and that plan does include us. This reassurance extends to the knowledge that, no matter how bad things appear to be, God does know what God is doing. This reassurance is vitally important for us, because without it there would be many times when we would be unable to understand what is happening in the world, to find meaning in our lives. When we know that God is with us, despite appearances, when we know that God does have a plan, though nobody else seems to know what they are doing, then it gives us the courage to try things ourselves – to be creative, because in our activities we can feel the presence of God. Again we have a name for this: we call it ‘hope’.
We also need the priest for stability. Our world is changing. Much of this change is out of our control. Most of the time we probably only have a hazy understanding of all that is going on. We’ve heard that scientists claim to have discovered the Higgs boson, but most of us don’t really know what it is all about. More important for us, is that the world is changing in that those we know and loved are becoming older and die. We rely on the fact that certain persons always come up with the goods – but then they are unable to do so, because of illness, or they move away. We all need stability, and we look to the priest to provide that for us as well – the stability of knowing that we are still under the care of the unchanging God, who always loves and cares for his people, whose love is steadfast and everlasting, and will never fail us. A sign of that stability is that the Church continues to be, and the priest is here with us. We have a name for this too – we call it ‘faith’.
We need the priest for faith and hope, for grace and salvation. We need the priest for more than this, but that is a good start, I think. What is important now is that you tell me your views on what we need the priest for, and your views on what that requires from Bishop Malcolm. Please do think about it, and write down your comments and let me have them in the box in Church or through the presbytery door, or on the parish website.
What do we need the priest for?
What do we want the priest to be doing for us?
How do we wish to look after our priest?
What do we do for our priest?
How would this parish maintain itself as a Christian communion
without a resident parish priest?
if we had to relocate elsewhere?
Bishop Malcolm asks us all to reflect on such questions, and to pool our thoughts so that he can discharge his responsibility to make appropriate and wise decisions for the whole diocese.