Friday, December 01, 2006

Personal Journey 8: Curacy on the Wirral

A long post today on top of yesterday's so I will give you the weekend to read them! A busy season now here in Hong Kong: School Speech Days, Christmas Events, Special Services, Charity Events, School Council Meetings and special events for our Archbishop's retirement. The list goes on. It's a question of pacing yourself!

Yesterday I discovered I had nothing to wear for the Archbishop's retirement service! I got the details of the service and found that the cathedral wants us to wear a form of dress that I don't normally bother with or need. Anyway, thanks to Wippell's in London, hopefully the required garment is on its way even now. It's more complicated than it seems being a Vicar.

Have a good weekend!

Personal Journey 8: Curacy on the Wirral

The process of getting ordained in the Church of England was and is complicated. It begins with a recommendation to the Bishop by your Vicar or Rector, followed by a recommendation by the Bishop to a selection conference, which lasts a few days, and then a recommendation to the Bishop from the selectors. And there are many more interviews along the way. If all goes well, you then have to find a college (or course nowadays for training). At the end of this, you are made deacon and then, normally after a year, ordained priest. A curacy is served after completing college. The curacy is meant to be part of the training process. For my curacy, I decided that ideally I would like to go back to the Chester diocese.

I wrote to the Bishop telling him of my desire to return to the Diocese. I heard nothing. Then I had a routine interview with him during which he expressed regret that I had decided not to return to the Diocese! I said I had wanted to and that was why I had written. When he looked again at my letter, he realized he had misread it. He moved quickly though, and arranged for me to meet Ray Smith who had just been appointed Rector of Christ Church, Moreton. Moreton was just down the road both from St Andrew’s and from my parents. I liked the idea very much. Ray had not moved to Moreton so I went for an interview with him at Normanton where he was the Vicar. I liked Ray too and felt very comfortable about accepting when he asked me to be one of his curates. He was to have two curates and had already appointed one; I was to be the second. This was going to be a completely new clergy team.

I was made deacon at Chester Cathedral, in 1981, and then a year later was ordained priest, again at Chester. For the first year at Moreton I completed my MTh largely focusing on writing my dissertation. I had chosen to write on 1 Corinthians for obvious reasons. 1 Corinthians raises precisely the sort of church issues that had preoccupied me for my Christian life to date. My thesis was entitled, ‘Social and Religious Pressures Facing Believers in First Century Corinth: A Study of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians’. The circumstances under which it was written did not allow much time for reflection. Ideally, I would have gone on to do more post graduate research and develop it, but I did not feel able to do that and learn how to be a priest at the same time.

I was successful in obtaining my masters, but it did not resolve the issues that still bothered me. That is, how to do Church especially in the context of a secular society. A book that impressed me and had a major impact on me at the time was R J Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community. When I mentioned the book to James Dunn, my supervisor, I rather expected him to think that it was written at too ‘popular’ a level. In fact, he liked it and was very complimentary about it. Banks has since revised and reissued it. I don’t understand why it isn’t referred to more in discussions about the Church, especially in emerging circles. But I digress! The difference between the Church in the New Testament, as Banks describes it, and the Church into which I was being ordained raises an issue that I have been wrestling with for the past 25 years and, indeed, before that. I will return to it later in this series.

Moreton was a very large parish, the largest in the Diocese. It had large private housing estates and some council housing. The church then had a church school, but no church hall. The size of the parish meant that there were lots and lots of baptisms, weddings and funerals. This was again a great training and experience. If I have been able to minister at all through these services, it is because of what I learnt in the three years at Moreton. It was also while at Moreton that I began an involvement with education that has been a feature of my ministry ever since.

I was not very involved in the local church school. But I was asked whether I would be prepared to serve as a governor at another local primary school, Eastway Primary School. The church school was very middle class. Eastway was far more mixed. The church, not unnaturally, was very focused on its own school, so I was largely left to do what I wanted at Eastway. The headmistress was very kind and treated me with a respect that she certainly did not have to show to a relatively young curate. The School was happy for me to be involved in the life of the School as well as serving as governor. I was not quite sure where to begin. The headmistress helped me to learn how to talk with children individually, and through her I began to learn about primary schools. Having hated school from the moment I stepped into one as a child, this involvement was a bit of a surprise. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed it, but I certainly saw it its importance.

Overall, my three years at Moreton were happy ones. I enjoyed being back on the Wirral and near my family and some old friends. I felt I was learning how to be a priest in the Church of England and I was continuing my theological study. It wasn’t without some tensions, however.

On a personal level, I liked Ray and I think he liked me. It is fair to say, though, that I would not have been his first choice as a curate. I later discovered that he had already had someone else lined up for my post when I went for an interview with him at Normanton, but had taken me instead, basically because the Bishop said it was me or no-one! Garrie Griffiths, the other curate, had already completed one curacy, and so not unreasonably saw himself as the senior curate. Ray had a more natural affinity with Garrie. I think they may have preferred it if I had not been there. Who can say now? The church had a lot of young families in it and Garrie himself had a young family. I didn’t, and maybe that accounts for part of it. Whatever, the dynamic between us just did not work.

The other complication was that Garrie and Ray were both alike in that they were committed to a form of charismatic renewal within the traditional church. This continued to be an issue for me and, as I will eventually get around to explaining in a few weeks time, it still is. I find it hard to express this without being unfairly critical of others. But there is a form of charismatic renewal that is about singing a certain sort of song and praying a certain sort of way. It sees worship primarily in terms of enjoyment. It is how you feel that counts the most. I have always believed that if charismatic renewal is to be of any use it must move minds as well as hearts. I remember David Pawson, himself a charismatic, once saying that worship was not about giving ourselves a good time, but rather about giving God a good time. My own conviction remains that too much talk about worship is human and not God centred. But I am digressing again.

There were some in the parish who very much enjoyed charismatic style worship. They were suspicious of me and, ironically, saw me as preferring more formal liturgy and traditional hymns. I felt that in a parish in which many people were still formal and traditional in outlook that you had to find a form of worship that included them as well. You couldn’t just reject them. I took the attitude that you should just join the House Churches if you wanted to do that! Mind you, I think I did probably prefer traditional hymns to some of the mindless choruses that were and are so popular. Now I am being polemical.

The way it was decided to cater for the diversity in the congregation was by having a menu of services: a mixture of traditional and more informal services with a charismatic style prayer meeting thrown in. People were left under no illusion, which were the real worship services and who the spiritual people. Perhaps I should simply say I was not comfortable. I have no doubt that I was part of the problem.

Where I was very fortunate was in having people who appreciated my preaching and who wanted to discuss some of the things I said in my sermons. Preaching and teaching were what I most felt called to so and I found this side of parish life very fulfilling. I made some good friends here both amongst those who were charismatic and those who were not. What I did discover was that I really did not like a confrontational approach to ministry. I was still thoroughly evangelical, and even charismatic, in my theology. But I was uncomfortable with rejecting those within the same church who did not conform to a particular idea of what being spiritual entailed.

And I was beginning to find evangelical and charismatic culture a bit hard to stomach.

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