AN ASSISTANT curate in Maidstone, the Revd Anthea Mitchell, has none of the usual problems starting conversations about faith. “I have a hundred times deeper conversations about faith with scissors in my hand than in church.”
Ms Mitchell is a full-time hairdresser. “Since I wear my dog collar in the salon, it’s easy to get into conversation. People are fascinated how my faith and life fit together. I tell them I’m not a hairdresser one day, and a curate the next. I’m both at the same time. It’s such a myth that people are not interested in faith.”
Fr Mark van Beeumen, a Roman Catholic priest who, until recently, was a checkout worker at a branch of Tesco, has similar experiences. “I was given a certain respect and trust, maybe because I’m a priest. People with personal problems sometimes asked for a chat.
“Having a regular job gave me a sense of normality, like other people. Sometimes, priests are seen on pedestals, looking from top down. For me, it’s a ministry of presence, being there for people”.
Ms Mitchell and Fr van Beeumen are both worker priests — or ministers in secular employment (MSEs): ministers who see their secular workplace as central to their ministry.
Talking to them, and others like them, reveals a refreshing approach to faith, focused on how we express and support faith in everyday settings, not only in church buildings. And it challenges the Church to reflect on what ministry means.
Prebendary John Lees is the Church of England’s national officer for self-supporting ordained ministry. “MSEs are not usually about workplace ministry, but about the presence shown by ordained ministers in the workplace. This is largely invisible in the Church these days, but it’s so important that it’s going on. And there is a wide range of people doing this work”.
A look at the lives of these MSEs also casts new light on the debate on the use of self-supporting ministers (SSMs) to cover gaps in parish coverage (Comment, 14 January).
MSEs are not there to fill gaps, Prebendary Lees says. “One of the original purposes of ordaining unpaid clergy, when it started in the 1960s, was to extend contacts into the workplace. These days, MSEs are only a small proportion of SSMs, but they were the original core team, and they are still with us — often despite efforts by the Church to divert them, during their training, into traditional parish roles.”
The priests I spoke to are often in precarious work, such as insecure manual or service jobs. They came to their jobs along different paths, and have varied approaches to declaring their status as priests. But they have a similar sense of mission, and they work hard to earn their living.
MOST mornings, Ms Mitchell, whose father was also a hairdresser, is at her studio, Hair Professional, by 6.15 a.m., and works until the evening. These are hours well spent. “Theologically, I find a lot of Christians a bit scary. They have every right to their theology, but they are often very certain of everything, This is different from most people I meet. I’m more comfortable outside church than in it. I find it easier to be among people with doubts and questions.
“As an MSE, I’m better placed to have an intellectually honest conversation with ordinary people. I can make more of a difference, here.”
She is well organised, juggling work with IME training; she was ordained deacon last Petertide. She leads services at St Paul’s, Maidstone, three times a month, and preaches regularly. “I often put the colour on [a customer’s hair], then have to wait 20 minutes. In this time, I might write next Sunday’s intercessions, or work on a sermon.”
Customers understand her dual position better than the Church does, she says. “Many in the church hierarchy don’t get being an MSE, and just say, ‘Stop messing around, love: a priest has a church and a parish.’”
The Archdeacon of Maidstone, the Ven. Andrew Sewell, who was Ms Mitchell’s ministry facilitator, concurs. “It was hard, during her training, to keep the Church focused on Anthea’s calling. The gravitational pull toward parish ministry is difficult to resist.”
But she did resist it. After our Zoom call, she emails me a photo of the certificate hanging in her studio, issued by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, commissioning Ms Mitchell “to serve as an MSE in Hair Professional in Maidstone”.
FR VAN BEEUMEN had no certificate, and didn’t broadcast that he was a priest. He never wore a clerical collar during his 12 years as shelf-filler, community-liaison officer, and checkout worker at Tesco, in Aston, a multi-ethnic district of Birmingham. He did not want to stand out.
He is now back in Belgium, his home country, and preparing for the next phase of life in his religious order, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
Mark van BeeumenFr van Beeumen with his leaving gift from Tesco colleagues
His last phase, for him, is very much present. “I didn’t tell Tesco I was a priest when I applied: they’d have thought I’d be preaching all day,” he tells me with a smile, on Zoom.
The news trickled out slowly. A colleague asked whether he had another job, as he was part-time. “I said, ‘No, I’m a member of religious order of Catholic priests.’ She was a bit surprised.”
Colleagues heard the rumours, and, one day, Pauline Walsh, a Roman Catholic who served in the staff canteen, confronted him in the queue. “Are you a priest?”
Fr van Beeumen mumbled, but eventually acknowledged that he was. “Pauline is a lovely person, but she has a rough edge and talks straight. She said, ‘I’m sorry, Mark, for swearing so much.’
“I said, ‘If you swear when I’m not here, you should do so when I’m here, too, and vice versa!’
“‘F**k off,’ she said, with a laugh.”
People thought that, with his experience, he could have become store manager, but he did not want this. “I want to be on the ground-floor level with the people.” He sees himself as a labourer, like his father and grandfathers, who were all manual workers.
“Being a priest is not, in the first place, about sacraments and preaching: it’s about how you deal with people. When people are low, you can say something funny. Or I would offer: ‘Would you mind if I pray for you?’ People who didn’t believe in God appreciated it when I thought of them”.
These settings — a hair salon and a supermarket — remind me of a poster that Prebendary Lees mentioned. He had pinned it up during his curacy. It showed a Teesside chemical plant with venting towers. The caption read: “Where do you see God in this picture?”
I THINK of this, too, when I talk with the Revd Gerard Mee. Like Ms Mitchell, Fr Mee works long days. “Today, I cared for a patient with MS. I showered and dressed him. I popped in during the day, and helped put him to bed this evening”. Fr Mee, who lives in Dorking, Surrey, is a carer, and, since last year, is also a part-time hospital chaplain.
He works 50 hours a week, or more. “I could earn more elsewhere, but I’m happy. Time spent with people whom society overlooks is really rewarding. It sounds cheesy, but I see Jesus’s face in the people I am serving.
Gerard MeeFr Mee enjoys Christmas dinner with one of his clients
“The caring work can be emotionally draining, working in people’s homes. You can’t see people simply as units of time”. He works for a care provider, County Care, and helps people with MS or blindness, and those needing support after returning from hospital.
He comes from Lancaster, and has worked in a pub and as a parish administrator. “I’m a practical, hands-on person. I’m an SSM because I want to rub shoulders with real people in my work.
“I generally don’t tell my clients as a carer that I’m ordained. I don’t want to focus attention on me. But I do get a chance to chat with people who wouldn’t usually darken the doors of a church.” He takes services regularly at St Mary’s, Thorpe.
The work as hospital chaplain is also demanding. “Because I’m not a relative, patients offload problems on me. I soak up lots of anger and sadness. After these long days, you have to look after yourself, too. Walking the dog in the evening helps. Otherwise, you’d just go crackers!”
THE Revd Marcos Máximo Díaz-Butrón, known as Max, didn’t mean to start working in cafés. He was working on a study on poverty in Oxford, where he lives, and, one day, got into conversation in a café, and was asked to help out. These days, he serves coffee, clears tables, cleans the floor, and supervises staff in three cafés. He starts at about 9 a.m., and works until the evening.
Marcos Máximo Díaz-ButrónThe Revd Marcos Máximo Díaz-Butrón in one of the cafés where he works
He is from Peru, has a background as a Franciscan, and is now a licensed member of the clergy team at St James’s, Cowley, a historically poorer part of Oxford.
I know the area; I grew up a few streets away. I first met him after one of his regular 8 a.m. Sunday services. After our chat, he dashes off to one of his cafés.
“I thought I’d earn some money in the café, and then get a proper post in a parish,” he says. “I asked myself — ‘Here I am, I’ve studied at Oxford University, and I’m washing dishes. How can that be?’
“Then something changed. Working in the restaurant gives you a different perspective. The people who work there are completely different to academics like me. The people who run the restaurant would say ‘You are wasting my time with your academic stuff. We are doing real work, with real people, this is real life.’
“Also, it can be tough in the kitchen. Dirty jokes, bad language, people getting angry. You work in their realities, which become my own; you listen to what they really think. These two worlds really collide; they have nothing to talk about.
“But I found, working there, the two worlds can come closer. I try to bring a different approach. The staff have to be very efficient. I try also to be caring: I say ‘God bless you,’ and ask ‘How was your day?’”
Mr Díaz-Butrón sees vulnerability among his customers. “Sometimes, people are angry, or frustrated. You have to deal with this every day. I wear a black clerical shirt to work, but no dog collar. They are too uncomfortable to work in. Also, I don’t want people to know I’m a priest. My colleagues would not be as free as they are if they knew.”
The Church, he says, is too detached from normal life. “It sometimes feels like the priests come to earth in their spaceship on a Sunday to take a service, and then leave again afterwards.”
TALKING to these worker priests about how they see themselves, I wonder how others see them. I phone Ms Walsh, the canteen worker at Tesco who apologised to Fr van Beeumen for swearing. She now works in the office at the same branch of Tesco. “Mark was easy to talk with. He’d come down the pub for a drink; he was a laugh. He was also there for everyone.”
She had previously attended the church where Fr van Beeumen occasionally took services, but “turned her back on it”. At one point, her father became ill, and she asked Fr van Beeumen to visit him in hospital. He did so, which meant a lot to Ms Walsh. She started attending church again, confessing to Fr van Beeumen. “He’s the sort of modern priest the Church needs.”
Simon Ayling is very direct in his praise of Fr Mee. “Gerard is a good carer. He helps with my morning routine, loo, shower, and dressing. He’s licensed for my car, he drives me to hospital, or shopping”. Mr Ayling has MS, and speaks slowly but clearly. “He’s a good person to talk with, though we don’t talk about religion.”
His wife, Mahesh, recalls that, for a period during the pandemic, to reduce their number of contacts, Fr Mee became Mr Ayling’s sole carer. “He took a pay cut, to come here almost every day for six months. We’re so grateful. We wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”
For his part, Archdeacon Sewell says that the most important thing about Ms Mitchell is her “ministry of presence in the community. Her capacity for this work is phenomenal. And, of course, she does a great haircut.”
Hugh Williamson is a writer working on a memoir about his father, Canon Tony Williamson, who was a worker priest in a car factory in Oxford (Gazette, 22 March 2019). For more information on MSEs: National Association of Christians in Secular Ministry (CHRISM), visit chrism.org.uk.
Listen to an interview with Hugh Williamson on the Church Times Podcast