AS A priest who makes his living not only in parochial ministry but in secular employment also (I am half-time, or, rather, half-stipend, Vicar of Finedon), I have an unusual hybrid ministry. It is both familiar — BCP choral evensong, deanery synod, Mothers’ Union — and unfamiliar. I work in the media, and consequently have a reach that far exceeds that of most parish priests.
One of the obligations laid on those who appear on radio and television is to maintain a presence on social media. It has become a sort of currency, which, in spite of having a wildly imprecise value, everyone wants, like Bitcoin.
My Twitter followers, as they are called, people who choose to read my tweets, number about 160,000, which is 60,000 above the amount you need for corporate interests to come after you offering money in exchange for tweeting your enthusiasm for their products (something I have never done).
WHAT has this got to do with parochial ministry? It depends on what constitutes a parish. Traditionally, it is a certain population of people living in the same place to which a parson is appointed on behalf of the bishop for the cure of souls. Over the years, civic and political significance, as well as spiritual significance, emerged in those relationships and structures. Beating the Bounds, when the parson toured the edges of the parish and whipped children as he went to impress on the community precisely where they met the edges of the neighbouring community, demonstrated how those interests aligned.
Engaging with emerging media — broadcast, social, digital — is another form of this, I think: testing where the boundaries lie as we seek to maintain our witness to the Kingdom in the structures of the world.
Sometimes, this is simply a matter of adding our voices to a debate: recently, I have been very much engaged with a Twitter row about the use of foodbanks. Our church, like many others, supports a foodbank; I, like many parish priests, know people who use them, including one who is in full-time employment as a nurse in the NHS, but, as a single mother with steeply rising childcare and housing costs, has found herself more than once using a foodbank to feed the family.
It scandalises me that a highly trained nurse in full-time employment cannot afford to pay the rent and feed the family, and I said so on Twitter, which started a debate about whether people in full-time employment qualify as users of foodbanks — they do; and how typical they are of foodbank users — not very; and, more broadly, what kind of a society do we want to live in, and how we are to fund it.
To raise those questions is absolutely what parish priests do, and, in my own parish, we have records of my predecessors doing the equivalent 200 years ago. Bishops, of course, debate these questions very ably at a national level in the House of Lords; but Twitter is, I think, in some ways more influential, in that it reaches more people, and because of its power to shape national debates.
There are other ways in which Twitter can align the things of the Kingdom with the things of this world. For example, it has become a custom for me on Good Friday to tweet the Stations of the Cross; only I do not use traditional iconography, but news photographs from the previous year which strike me as illustrative.
I have found that inviting others to follow Jesus’s walk from judgement to burial, using, this year, imagery that began with the death sentence handed down to an opposition politician in South Sudan, and ended with the burial of a victim of Russian-sponsored bombing of Syrian rebels in Douma, affects and moves them in unexpected ways; especially people who are not even remotely religious, let alone churched.
IT HAS an impact partly because it makes spirituality — and by that I mean the apprehension in this world of the things of the next — seem not entirely irrelevant, or abstract, or quaint, to many people who would unthinkingly regard the Church of England and spirituality as unrelated categories.
It also expresses an immensely powerful and distinctive Christian doctrine: that human beings are irreducible in dignity. We are created in the image of God, who, in spite of our extraordinary failure to understand that, empties himself to become one of us, and saves us from the worst we can do. To look unflinchingly on the lowest, most degraded, most despised among us, and insist that it is God looking back at us, is our most distinctive “offer”, as they say, to a culture in which humans are routinely treated as numbers, human resources, cost-occasioning liabilities, units of economic production, data streams, and — at worst — collateral damage.
This is an edited extract from the 33rd Eric Symes Abbott Memorial Lecture, “Beating the Bounds: Parish ministry and spirituality today”, which was delivered by the Revd Richard Coles at Westminster Abbey on Wednesday of last week.
An audio of the lecture can be heard at www.westminster-abbey.org