There was a local newspaper report two, perhaps three, years ago about the funeral in England of a young army officer who had died in one of Mr Blair’s wars. The task of the priest was unenviable; the officer’s father was a retired senior army officer and there would have had to have been a toeing of the line. 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 – when I was 21, he prepared me for confirmation, a good and a Godly man.
I thought about the past three decades he had 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.
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 support a local paper?
I gave notice a few years ago that, in 2011, I planned to move back to the country. A return to big diffident farmers and their eminently practical wives, 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 had set my heart on Co Wexford, but that isn’t to be; Katharine’s appointment to Kilkenny will keep me west of the Blackstairs Mountains, but a year earlier than planned, there will be a return to picking up the local paper each Thursday to discover the heart of the community. My ambition is that one day people will pick up the paper of wherever I serve out the remaining sixteen years of my ministry and say, “There’s old Mr Poulton, I remember him, he wasn’t a bad man”. That will, for me, be success.