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Patricia’s quiet, hidden ministry

17 December 2021

Ruth Harley tells how the simple kindness of one woman drew her, as a teenager, into the life of the Church


RECENTLY, I decided to tell our 8 a.m. congregation the story of the first time I went to church. And how it might well have also been the last, if it hadn’t been for one woman’s quiet kindness.

It’s not the story of a “successful’ church”: maybe a dozen people, all aged over 70. One day, an unaccompanied 14-year-old showed up at this little church (me!). Whoever was at the door gave me a pile of books and papers, and told me to sit wherever I liked. So, I slipped in at the back . . . and was totally baffled.

The vicar tried his best to help: “We’re on page three of the order of service.” But what is an order of service? “We sing hymn number 63 in the green book.” Locate green book. Turn to page 63. Nope, that’s not what they’re singing.

By the end, I had decided that this church thing wasn’t for me. It didn’t make sense, I hadn’t got anything out of it, and I wouldn’t be going back.

That might have been the end of the story, if it weren’t for Patricia.

Patricia was in her eighties, and she was not a likely evangelist, to put it mildly. I think that she found the idea of talking about God quite embarrassing. Nor was she one of those stalwarts of the church keeping things running. I don’t think she was even on any rotas.

But it was Patricia who said: “Hello, dear, you’re new, aren’t you? I’m sorry, I didn’t see you come in, or I would have asked you to sit with me. Would you like to sit with me next week?” And, being a well-brought-up girl who didn’t like to disappoint old ladies, I said “Yes.”

And, because I said I’d sit with Patricia next week, I felt obliged to go back to church. So, I turned up again the next week, and the next, and the next. And Patricia sat beside me, pointing out what page we were on, and telling me when to stand up and sit down.

That’s it. That’s all she did. No great proclamation of the faith, no moment of “conversion”. But, faithfully and patiently, week by week, Patricia helped me to make enough sense of church for it to become somewhere I could encounter God. And everything else followed from that.

Quietly, unspectacularly, on an ordinary Sunday, this very unassuming woman changed my life (though she’d have been terribly embarrassed if anyone had put it to her like that) by her gentle witness to the steadfastness of God. I think of her often, and thank God for her.

And I wonder if, in all our talk of church-growth strategies and mixed ecologies, we are valuing the wrong things, looking in the wrong places. What would happen if we were more attentive to people like Patricia? If we valued the unremarkable life of the church more?

It seems to me that Jesus, again and again, calls our attention to the small and the ordinary: the mustard seed, the yeast, the widow’s mite (which is why I was talking about Patricia in the first place). And yet we persist in celebrating and aiming for the big and spectacular.

Anyway, all this is to say: don’t underestimate the Patricias in your congregations (and every congregation has them). Pray for them, and thank God for their quiet, hidden ministry and faithfulness — even if neither you nor they will ever see the fruit of it.

The Revd Ruth Harley is Assistant Curate in the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership, in Oxford diocese.

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