Last week, I was asked about returning to parochial ministry. Having been blocked by two bishops when I returned from England two years ago, I think the liklelihood is slim.
And if I returned, to what would I return?
The Church of Ireland I knew has gone, probably forever. There is no place now for an old priest who values the Prayer Book and services that are ordered with reverence and decency.
The one thing I have missed about the church was the good and kind people of the parishes.
Looking back, I remember during my time in Northern Ireland, there were church ministers who would talk about the ‘total depravity’ of human beings. I wish I had possessed the courage in those times to tell them that the only thing that had achieved its totality was the nonsense they were talking (and some of them still talk).
Human psychology contradicted their assertions, people are not totally depraved. Everyday life demonstrated that if there was ‘original sin’, then there was a far larger element of original goodness. If there was any depravity, it was in the large incomes and houses provided to the ministers by church congregations, most of whom lived in considerably more modest circumstances.
The memory that shall remain with me always is of the innate decency of ordinary church members, those are the people whom I miss.
There are lines written by Siegfried Sassoon in his autobiography that capture a sense of the decency of ordinary people:
I have spoken of my desire not to remember unpleasant things very clearly. My intention in this book has been to commemorate or memorialize those human contacts which supported me in my rather simple-minded belief that the world was full of extremely nice people if only one could get to know them properly.
The bravest of soldiers, Sassoon encountered the world at its worst in the hideous slaughter of the Western Front, but retained a faith that people were ‘extremely nice.’
Sassoon’s simple-minded belief reflects my experience in the parishes in which I served for thirty-one years. There were rude people, there were odd people, there were people who insulted me, there were people who swore at me, there were people who sent me offensive literature, there was even a man who threatened to take off my head with a billhook, but the vast majority of people whom I met were extremely nice.
I would go further than Sassoon, I met people who, perhaps without having any idea that they were doing so, showed to others, and to me, the goodness and loving kindness of God. I miss those people.