My old friend Brian came to mind this evening.
He farmed amongst the drumlins of Co Down; a quietly spoken and reflective Ulsterman who had never more than a few words, but every one of those words counted.
Brian was one of those who appointed me to my first parish, taking a great risk in appointing a twenty-eight year old blow-in to a conservative and traditional rural congregation. At the interview with Brian and his fellow parochial representatives I asked what they wanted from their new Rector, Brian spoke up, “We want someone who will bury our dead, visit our sick and teach our children”.
Brian’s words hit home hard at the time. This wasn’t the sort of vision and strategy statement that we had been taught in college; this was something from a bygone age.
Almost twenty years after that first encounter with Brian, his words carry even greater weight. Falling foul of the cult of managerialism, the Church of Ireland has all but disappeared in some places. The belief that the Rector was there not to work, but was to “lead” and to “facilitate” has led to an abandonment of the workaday duties that Brian would have expected from his Rector. The shepherd of the flock has turned his back on his charges to spend his days in his office; his phone is turned off or diverted after five in the evening.
Faithful country people spoke this evening of pain at a clergyman who, with less than ten people in a country church, declined to acknowledge the presence of a couple’s ten day old baby, brought there for the first time by his parents. Even a politician would have provided a better pastoral response, given the political penchant for kissing babies.
Brian would not have recognized that sort of ministry; he would have responded in choice words.
Perhaps Brian belongs to the past, perhaps he is a remnant of the 19th Century, but Brian would have pointed to the numbers in his church – seventy or eighty per cent of the people in Brian’s parish attended church. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t innovating, it was plain and traditional, and rooted in the Rector doing the old fashioned stuff.
I grew to love Brian’s community; they were very different from me, but there was never a moment when I felt that I could turn away from them, never a moment when I would not have answered a call, never a moment when I would not have gone to a house that wanted to see me. Perhaps much of my motivation was fear of a guilty conscience, but it wasn’t such a bad motivator.
The Church of Ireland is not the church it once was, perhaps not so much because the world has changed, but because we have forgotten the people like Brian.