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Face to Face: Meeting Christ in friend and stranger, by Samuel Wells 

08 March 2019

Peter McGeary on an ambiguity about who ‘ministered’ to whom

SAM WELLS is the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, literally a stone’s throw from the centre of London. His church and parish must rank as one of the busiest and noisiest in the country, serving an astonishing range of people.

So, in a way, it is unsurprising that he should produce a book about some of the people who have crossed his path, both at St Martin’s and beyond. Face to Face has 21 short chapters, each describing an encounter with a person — friend or stranger — who has stuck in his memory for one reason or another. A consistent theme over and over is that although the priest, one would think, is there to “minister” (whatever that means!) to the other person, all too often it is the other way round: it is God in Christ who is revealed to the priest through the other person.

I have long suspected this to be the case: I am paid a stipend and given a nice vicarage to live in, so that my congregation and others can minister to me. “Ministry” is reciprocal and deeply incarnational; and it is good to be reminded of this.

Wells prefaces his “encounters” with a substantial introduction, reflecting on 30 years or so of ordained ministry, trying to tease out what really matters. This section alone is worth the price of the book. It is marvellous stuff, and a healthy corrective to what some think are the priorities of ministry.

Approaching as I am a Significant Birthday, I hope I can be forgiven a degree of introspection. For some reason, I have been honoured for much of my ministry with clergy coming to talk about various aspects of their lives, sometimes through the sacrament of confession, more often in a conversation over a cup of coffee or a good lunch. Their moans and groans are many and varied, but one thing that they all seem to share is a lack of time — time just to be with people in an apparently unstructured way.

I can sympathise: so much contemporary clerical life seems to involve structure, order, boundaries, and so on. There seems to be no room for the apparently wasteful use of time involved in getting to know people and, in turn, allowing them space to be more truly and honestly the person God might want them to be.

Wells’s book is a reminder of, among many other things, the importance of time and space: in our own lives and (if we are clergy) in the lives of those among whom we are called to minister. It should be required reading for those of us (most of us?) who are inclined to forget that the Church is people, not things.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

Face to Face: Meeting Christ in friend and stranger
Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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