There was talk this evening of a charity draw that had raised thousands from a small community. Never being one who was enamoured of raffles, it has been difficult to dispute their efficacy in the past. I still have a ticket as a reminder:
“Grand Charity Draw – 6th November 1991”.
For me, it was a proud achievement at the time. A volcano had devastated parts of the Philippines and the conservative rural Ulster Protestant community in which I worked had held a fund raising evening to support the work of an Irish Roman Catholic priest working in an area badly affected by the eruption; countrymen who were members of the Orange Order had sold raffle tickets to support a Catholic missionary.
There were many proud moments in that little parish, little things like the Plough Sunday church service in January, and the rogation Sunday open air service on one of the farms in May. I thought they were good anyway.
Of course, at church meetings or at diocesan synod, the goings on in our little patch seemed silly and trivial. There were grand schemes and important reports, there were people with “gravitas” (I remember that word being used). A tiny parish in an obscure corner of the county was a matter of complete inconsequence.
It took years to realize that the only places of consequence were the little parishes across the length and breadth of the country – that grand schemes generally came to nothing and that important reports would be welcomed by worthy people, and would then join their predecessors on the shelves to gather dust.
Perhaps one of the longer term effects of the sad events at Drumcree in the 1990s was to create an awareness that the power in the church lay in the parishes; that central bodies might huff and puff, but there was little they could do against a parish that was financially strong and had an incumbent with freehold. Even the appearance of gravitas is unavailing if behind the person there is nothing of substance.
There is a deeply biblical rootedness in a church built on little places and ordinary people. Jesus’ ministry is amongst the unknown and obscure; it is those with gravitas who oppose him and finally kill him. The hundreds of little churches with big hearted people, who are there Sunday by Sunday and who have watched numerous grand schemes come and go and who remain untroubled by reports, are where one might look for the kingdom of heaven.
It was amongst such people that I heard this evening’s story of the raffle. We were standing in a barley field where sixty of us had prayed for a blessing on the crops. It was a step back into those Co Down days, but also a vindication of them. Our little Co Laois parishes last month had an Easter attendance of over 70%; a fact much stronger than all the gravitas of our bishops.