“YOU can’t leave now: we’ve only just got used to you.” Dorothy’s smile had dropped quickly from her face. Her words struck a chord, because it was the second time I’d heard them in as many days.
As the final weeks of our nine-month placement as ministry assistants approached, my colleagues and I knew that there would be plenty of goodbyes. The small congregation at a monthly eucharist, held in the tower blocks in our parish, was just the next farewell in the diary.
But the note of accusation in Dorothy’s voice caught me off guard, just as it had when our next-door neighbour had called out exactly the same words the previous day.
The Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme (CEMES), which now has placements in 21 dioceses, seeks to give young adults the chance to explore their vocation, while getting their hands dirty in parish life. Aimed at those coming out of study or happy to leave full-time employment, it offers a different way of life, built on practical service, worship, and study. A diocesan director of ordinands has a direct link with the scheme, creating a clear pathway through the diocesan discernment process.
Taking part in such a scheme can provide further opportunities for learning and growth: some, as I did, move to an unfamiliar part of the country, and have a chance to walk and work alongside experienced priests in a very different tradition to their own. I will carry with me into ministry all that I have discovered on placement in Sunderland about identity, humility, service, and, ultimately, God.
For participants, the set-up is no doubt well designed; CEMES is credited with contributing to the rise in numbers of ordinands — of whom I will be one — who will begin training in September (News, 16 June).
FROM Dorothy’s perspective, though, things look a little different. In an area where very few new faces come or go, where generations live on the same street, and neighbours tend to know one another’s every move, the arrival of three newcomers in the empty vicarage caused something of a disturbance. Young adults moving from different parts of the country to come to this estate to live, work, and worship together were sure to stick out in every way.
Over nine months, we have held community activity events (Comment, 21 April), set up an after-school club, and met parishioners coming for baptisms, banns, and burials. We have worked hard to earn the trust of those whom we have lived and served alongside, strange as they, no doubt, still think we are. Of course, our presence took some getting used to. All the while, a cloud of transience hovered over the relationships that we built.
It is, perhaps, of little surprise that the church on this estate, with declining congregation numbers and the rough reputation of the area, is in a permanent interregnum and is looked after by the priests of neighbouring parishes. During our time here, we have been encouraged by the evidence that living day by day as a Christian presence in this community can bring some small change.
But for real transformation to occur, that presence needs to be long-term. It is only through relationships sustained over many years that children who are starting to grasp the love of God will go on to see it change the apparently inevitable course of their lives. It is only by a consistent invitation that families who are beginning to see the church as a place of welcome rather than hostility will become confident that God’s welcome really extends to them.
A nine-month placement is not nearly long enough to make a dent in the challenges, both social and spiritual, faced by many who live in a deprived parish such as this.
MANY of the concerns rightly directed towards those who embark on short-term mission projects abroad could also be asked of similar, relatively short-term experiences in this country. We must examine our attitudes to communities where poverty is prevalent and ask whether they are equal partners in outreach or people that we “do mission to” for only as long as it serves our purposes.
The sustainability of new initiatives is an important consideration, as is the long-term impact on the existing worshipping community. The conclusions are the same, whether at home or abroad: short-term placements are good for the community only where they contribute to a committed, long-term investment in an area.
So then, Dorothy’s words set out a two-fold challenge. First, for the Church of England, that it must not view short-term placements such as CEMES, which primarily benefit the participants rather than the communities where they are based, as a replacement for the ongoing, unglamorous work of permanent presence in a community.
And second, for the new crop of young ordinands like me: it will not be long before we have real choices to make about where to begin and live out our ministry. Having spent a few months seeing the need for ministers to put down roots in deprived parishes, we should be listening, more attentively than anyone, for God’s call to step forward and stay put.
Claire Jones worked in three parishes in Sunderland as part of the Church of England’s Ministry Experience Scheme in the north-east.