I still read the Western Gazette most weeks. It is probably a grand title for a weekly newspaper that covers south Somerset and north Dorset, but it conveys a sense of place and a sense of rootedness.
The headline stories this week included the funeral of a talented young woman who had been serving in the British army when killed by a roadside bomb at Basra in Iraq. It seemed a terrible waste of life in a war that in the end cannot be won. I did not envy the priest who had to officiate, the woman’s father was a retired senior army officer. There would have had to be the appropriate words, I would have found it difficult to have said the right things, but I know that the priest of the parish will have chosen his words carefully and well. I recognized his name as I read the report – twenty-five years ago, when I was 21, he prepared me for confirmation, a good and a Godly man.
I thought about the past twenty-five years he has spent in a corner of a rural diocese, not an ascent of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but the fulfilment of a calling to be a faithful shepherd and the sense of having been a part of a community where he was known and loved.
Perhaps the best parishes are those where you open the weekly paper and see the name of the local clergyman, not because he has sought any publicity, but because he is at the heart of the community and the news is about the life of the community.
Dublin is a grand place to live, but there is never that sense of community, there is never a sense of rootedness. The identity of south Co Dublin is so amorphous that it does not merit a genuine local paper. I used to buy the Bray People, but it tends to stop at the county border; we are part of an urban sprawl that lacks the community and identity which characterize rural areas.
Talking to a friend who ministers in a parish out beyond the Pale, we discussed a very able colleague who has spent the whole time he has been a Rector in a little country place, perhaps he should be elsewhere, but it was easy to understand why he stayed where he did. If you are in a community where you are known and loved, then why would you want to go somewhere which can’t even support a local paper?
I gave notice a couple of years back that in 2011 I planned to move back to the country. Four more years before going back to big diffident farmers and their eminently practical wives, four more years before engaging again with the rhythm of rural life. Not because I don’t love being here, I do; but because I haven’t a clue how to really engage with the challenges of ministry in an urban setting and because I was trained for ministry in a bygone age, where the priest and his people shared the life of a community and where that life was reflected each Thursday in the pages of the local paper.
I have set my heart on Co Wexford and hope that one day people will pick up the local equivalent of the Western Gazette and say, “There’s old Mr Poulton, I remember him, a decent man”. That will, for me, be success.