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Telling God about the work

12 April 2013

Andy Edmeads argues for a distinctive priestly ministry

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 about it?"

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 for grace.

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 feeling useless.

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.

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