A string of orange lights hovered across the night landscape, blurred by patches of mist and drizzly rain. An odd sight, until recognition as a westbound train passing along an embankment a hundred kilometres an hour; the orange lights being the illuminated destination signs beside the doors at the end of each carriage. Those staring out from the train would have seen nothing beyond their own reflections and the darkness that encompassed the farmland that lay all around.
Passing through an unrecognized place suggested itself as a metaphor for parochial ministry. Having concluded the first formal meeting of a select vestry, (the Church of Ireland’s odd name for a church council), there was the thought that I was no more than a caretaker manager. Health permitting, in sixteen years’ time, I shall have completed my forty years parochial ministry and shall be retired to some corner where there is a great pile of books to be read.
Sixteen years is nothing in the lifetime of a parish. I remember meeting a former incumbent of my current parish; he had become rector at the age of 39 and retired at 75; thirty-six years of ministry, a generation and a half.
One of the chief criticisms levelled at the saintly 17th Century cleric, George Herbert, is that the ideal ministry he lays down in his ministry was possible because he was only an incumbent for three years before he died. The suggestion is that his model of ministry is unsustainable.
Sixteen years is much longer than Herbert’s brief ministry, but the children baptized this year will still be in school when I leave; it is a short enough time to be anticipated as a single phase, particularly when constancy and stability are wanted in times when there is upheaval all around.
The beauty of being a caretaker is being able to stand back and recognize that the people are God’s people, not mine; that they have been here generations before I arrived and will be here for generations to come; that my presence will only be a line in the clerical succession lists.
Being a caretaker means trying to listen to what people feel and what it is they want in the life of their parish; it means not imposing my own agenda, not coming in with ways that are alien to a conservative and traditional community.
Perhaps the view across the parish is clearer than the view from a railway carriage window on a wet night, but it is still a view of someone passing through. Were the train to stop unexpectedly, it would be necessary to ask someone at a nearby house what place this was. There is a humility necessary in parish life to ask the people for whom it is home, ‘what place is this? May I abide with you a while if I respect that this is your place?’