THERE is a wonderful poem by Kerry Hardie, "Sheep Fair Day"
(from The Sky Didn't Fall, Gallery Press, 2003). In the
poem, Hardie takes God to the fair, rather as you might take a
child. She shows God all the characters that gather there, and
introduces him to her friends. She lets him sip hot tea, and spills
some over her hand, and explains what pain feels like, warning him
that "there'll be more."
As Janet Morley points out in a commentary on the poem in
The Heart's Time (SPCK, 2011), it is a kind of explanation
of a saying of Simone Weil's: "The real aim is not to see God in
all things, it is that God, through us, should see the things that
we see." Morley suggests - rightly, I believe - that this is a
reversal of "the rather bland traditional injunction that we should
attempt to see God in all things".
I found the poem arresting, and was reminded of my first few
days as a new incumbent, back in the late '80s. I spent my first
week in the parish visiting the schools, surgeries, and community
centres, walking around to get a feel for the place.
That year, the diocese had put a community worker in place. The
country was in deep recession. The parish was, in many ways,
socially disadvantaged - many people were out of work. The
community worker had set up a furniture store, coffee mornings, a
job club, and a crèche. Her understanding of her position stretched
beyond working with individuals, and she worked with community
groups and statutory authorities.
Walking home, I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude: I had
landed in a place where all of this was going on. But I wondered:
where was my place in all of this? When I talked it over with the
Rt Revd Bill Ind, who had been my parish priest and who was at that
time Bishop of Grantham, he asked simply: "Well, who is telling God
That simple question caused a shift in me, and from that moment
on I knew what my role was to be. I was not called to build the
Kingdom with endless activities, but rather to seek the Kingdom,
and to give thanks whenever and wherever I found it.
I was soon to discover with delight that the church was involved
in almost every area of the parish's life. The community worker and
the church had their part to play: mine was to notice, to give
thanks, to intercede.
Of course, in order to tell God about the place and the people,
I had to know them. As incumbent, I had the privilege of being
invited in, and so was able to exercise a priestly ministry - to
paraphrase King Lear, I could take upon myself the mystery of
things as if I were one of God's spies.
It seems that the people were aware of this. They seemed to know
intuitively that when they were suffering, celebrating, marking
time, I had been called to bring all this to God. They wanted me to
hear their stories. When I was baptising a baby, I was naming the
child before God; when a couple came to be married, they wanted me
to hear what brought them to this decision. Funerals seemed always
to be telling God about the deceased.
What difference did it make? God only knows, and that is enough.
But the people seemed to know, too. The priest incarnates the Word
of God, and he or she also represents humanity to God.
If this seems all too old-fashioned and self-serving, all I can
say is that it seemed that the people understood it to be true. In
the same way as the local bobby can represent our longing for law
and order, so, too, the priest represents our longing for God and
This is not to say that the priest is the holy man or woman in
the place: most of the time, I felt inadequate, and was very much
aware of those extraordinary men and women who lived out their
calling in ways that seemed beyond me. A priest is holy in that he
or she is set apart to carry out this role for the people.
Twenty-five years on, including 12 years in hospice chaplaincy,
this particular sense of calling has not gone away. During my time
as a chaplain, I was overwhelmed by the dedication of volunteers,
and the courage of staff who kept company with those who were
terminally ill and those who were grieving. Most of my time was
spent sitting with patients and staff, but many times I went home
I sat among extremely able professionals, and was, in effect,
the lay person, knowing almost nothing of disease process or
symptom-control. But the staff seemed to think differently. I
believe that, at some deep level, they knew that their work was
valued, not just by patients and their visitors. The chaplain
recognised what was going on. The chaplain was telling God about
them, and that, for some unfathomable reason, mattered.
It is a rather unspectacular, hidden work, but in a Church that
seems to be increasingly withdrawing into gathered communities, I
continue to believe that it is a valuable incarnational model of
ministry. Simone Weil goes so far as to say that God "now in us, in
some sense, and even through us, as part of the mystery of his
risen life in the Church, contemplates the world".
Of course, people will argue, quite rightly, that God knows all
these things anyway. But, for me, Weil's words remind me what a
profound calling it is "that God, through us, should see the things
that we see".
As a priest, I am grateful to have served in parish and hospice
ministry, and I hope that the people whom I have served know how
grateful I am. And, whether they know it or not, I shall continue
to tell God about them.
The Revd Andy Edmeads is a priest in the diocese of
Winchester, and an associate staff member of the Southern
Theological Education and Training Scheme.