There was a pang of disappointment this evening driving across the Carlow-Kilkenny border. The road passed through a parish where I had been assured I would be appointed; a parish which was not thirty miles away from my wife and family. The parish did not want me, a familiar experience in times past, and the assurances crumbled into nothingness.
Most of the past fifteen years has been about failure. Failing to be appointed to a post in Co Fermanagh in 1995, where Katharine and I might have had contiguous parishes. Failing to cope with the strain of a large urban parish in east Antrim. Failing efforts to bring new ways of being the church to a parish in south Dublin.
Back in 2003, my parish had embarked upon an ambitious project with two neighbouring parishes. I saw the project as our path into the future. Through engaging an evangelist in 2004, we were going to consolidate our existing churches and build firm foundations for going out with the Good News. The whole project fell apart at the beginning of 2006, when it became clear that my own church was less than enthusiastic about what was being attempted and that the parish accounts had slid deeply onto the red.
There was no strategy with which to move into the future; and few people to implement any plans there might be. There were no indications that the downward slide that has been experienced in church after church in England was not going to be repeated. In the four years since, the situation only became worse.
Ministry has become about holding on, hoping that something might happen. Asked by the bishop yesterday, “how are things?” I endeavoured to respond truthfully, “Unexciting”.
Surviving, getting by, is not an uncommon experience in the Bible. There are many moments in the Old Testament when the faithful are left just holding on. In the days of Elijah, even though Elijah was not the last of the faithful, as he thought, there were still only seven thousand left. The years in Babylon for the exiles cannot have been easy and must have been harder for those who were not taken into exile, but were left in the land without nation and without leaders.
No matter how tempting it might be to sing the laments of the Exile, Christians are not meant to be people of the Old Testament; we are meant to be people of the resurrection. Our faith is not that of a nation, it is meant to be the faith of people whose hearts have been challenged and changed.
The words of a wise old cleric in times past come once more to mind, “We are not called to be successful we are called to be faithful”.