EACH morning, on foot on my way to Morning Prayer, I transgress several boundaries: diocesan area boundaries from Stepney to the Two Cities; council boundaries from Tower Hamlets to the City of London; and cultural boundaries, from a largely Bengali Muslim residential community to a transient, white, mostly middle-class community with a few original working-class East Londoners who have resisted gentrification.
In just one morning, I can be surrounded by the cadences of Sylheti, the strong smell of cannabis, real Cockney accents, the sound of church bells, the stink of urine, the call of the Azaan, and lingering incense, as I walk from London’s poorest borough into the Square Mile.
This sense of boundaries, and being a priest within them, is something that I was never aware of in my eight years as a Methodist minister before joining the Anglican priesthood. John Wesley’s missionary spirit meant that ideas of working within “one’s turf” (or parish boundaries) were not front and centre of how we understood ordained life in Methodism. We were itinerant presbyters, with pastoral charge of specific churches, but preaching in a different church in the Circuit each Sunday.
It was also a life of moving from one part of the UK to another every five years, being deployed, under discipline, wherever was thought best for the mission and witness of the Church.
I admit to a certain hesitancy about the boundaried nature of priesthood in the Church of England; yet it was stability and commitment to a particular place and people which drew me to Anglicanism, as part of a much larger sense of vocation to deeper catholicity, and to being part of a Church that can publicly acknowledge its own dysfunctional reality, and admit its own shortcomings.
IN THE ordination charge to those of us being ordained deacon, our bishop quoted an older ordination charge of Michael Ramsey: “Put yourself near God every day with the people in your heart. . . God, yourself, and the people. Being with him for them, and with them for him.”
These words stuck with me, though I didn’t know what shape they would take for me as a curate in Aldgate. I took them to heart, and I dwell on them often. Early on in my time here, I walked around the parish — in my cassock, my Jack Russell for company — getting to know the local area and its people.
I was firm in my belief that I was a guest here (at that time, at least): someone seeking to tread gently in a community that I had come to assist in serving, but which I was deeply aware had a story and memory that pre-dated me, and which will continue long after I am no longer here.
Over time, with help from the dog and the Holy Spirit, many conversations happened, not only in our open church building, but in the local area. One day, I would be stopped by a traffic warden asking me if I was really a priest; another day, it would be Lewie (all names changed), the one-time Jamaican landscape gardener now estranged from his wife and children, asking for his customary ham-and-cheese sandwich and Red Bull from the supermarket to take to his hostel.
On another day, it would be Elina, clothes torn, shoes worn out, telling me the story of how her Roman Catholic priest had refused her the eucharist, and pouring out her heart to me in the middle of the road about the things she’d endured.
The next day, it would be an office worker in the City, whose suit was in a better state than their mind and heart. And then there’s Nathaniel, who reminds me that there are, apparently, lots of priests who — unlike me — hand out cash.
All of these folk making the most of the physical contact offered by the dog, human contact having been limited for so long by the pandemic; and, in all of them, Christ — in the heart of this community, which is often so fast-moving and dense that you would miss him if you were not looking.
My sense has been that, while the Church today is filled with anxiety, mostly obsessed with its own survival and inner conflict, the people who have the clearest sense of what a priest is for, and those who seem most deeply aware of God’s presence in their midst, are those who hardly darken our doors.
While so many try to encourage the professionalisation of the ministry, the people we serve want a priest who knows they’re a priest, who isn’t afraid to name God, talk of the sacraments, pray for the dead, or look the part.
SERVING Christ in a place steeped with the voices of the living dead means that I am always thinking of who was once here.
There are days when I can go from looking at the burial place of St John Fisher and St Thomas More to sitting at my desk, drafting liturgy, in an office once used by Fr Ken Leech, whose spirit reminds me that there is no neutral theological position and that I have to bridge the chasm between my theological convictions and the social reality around me in prayer, tears, and toil.
Then there are the voices of the many female victims of Jack the Ripper, such as Catherine Eddowes; the tales that some remember of the Battle of Cable Street; and the forbidding presence of Fr Charles Lowder, who once found a young girl in a ditch here and, taking her to the hospital, was called “Father” for the love and care that he showed.
I am not, of course, called to be any of the people who graced this space before me, nor am I called to be successful here. I’m simply here to live out my baptismal vocation and priestly vows as one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.
I HAVE the oddity of being able to look back on my life and recall three ordinations: as a Methodist minister in Chester Cathedral; as a deacon in St Paul’s; and as a priest in St Botolph’s.
There is a mystery I will never truly understand about following God in this way; and it is easy to get lost in the mystery of what is actually going on in the rite of ordination.
Yet, there are some things that I cannot deny — chiefly, that the grace of orders surpasses my own weaknesses and fears. For me, this has been most powerfully embodied in our capacity as priests to love God’s people with God’s heart . . . “being with him for them, and with them for him”.
But more important is the deep sense of seeing that, whatever might be going on within the Church’s understanding of ordained ministry, priesthood in its various denominational embodiments still matters to people in quite a serious way that we deny at our peril.
When I am asked by my Muslim neighbour to pray for him after his recent mugging, and when others drop off cake at the curatage, wishing me a “Happy Easter”, I realise that priestly presence is not readily replaceable — that what people acknowledge in my being here is the sacramental dimension of my life, which they may never witness, but take for granted; that they know me as one who knows — or seeks to know — God.
AS SARAH COAKLEY says so powerfully in Praying for England: Priestly presence in contemporary culture: “‘It is the parish priest’s job, even in the most unchurched society, to witness publicly to horror and refer it liturgically to the place where alone it can find meaning — in the broken body of Christ.”
Catholic faith is worship. And it is perhaps for this reason that true Anglo-Catholics will not be obsessed by the Church’s demise, or its potential successes; nor will we fall in to the all-too-easy trap of viewing “Evangelicals” as the enemy from whom we have nothing to learn; we will simply plough on in our respective stations trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, and labouring for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
That labour is, for us, nourished daily by the Word and the eucharist. It is nourished, too, by our vision of that Kingdom that we encountered when we first heard the call of the Maker of the Universe to serve Christ in this way. It is enabled by church order, and apostolic ministry, and the proclamation of Catholic truth. As Bishop Lightfoot once put it, for us as deacons, priests, and bishops, “The absolute condition of success is indifference to success.” We work for the work’s sake, for the people’s sake, and for Christ’s sake, dwelling in the presence of the living God as those mired in the sin we absolve, that others might catch aflame from the embers in our own souls.
WHAT surprises me most nowadays is how little I think about the Church. Beyond any conception of duty which might lead me to think that I am here to conserve a particular kind of Anglicanism, there is the simple work of a parish priest, which is about saying our prayers, showing up, being present, and working for freedom for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and love for the soul-sick.
Any sense of duty to conserve my preferred form of Anglicanism would embalm the body of the Church of England and definitely destroy its spirit. So, when I am running up and down the aisle (which, in a school assembly, has become a makeshift Damascus road as I tell the story of Saul’s conversion), and when I am travelling to York or Scotland to talk about justice and inclusion for Black LGBT+ lives, I see myself as broken bread, breaking bread with God’s beloved.
And, yes: there are days when it feels quite conceivable that the central machinations of the Church of God are in the grip of Satan, and when I, too, am momentarily held hostage by a crippling anxiety that has an almost atheistic quality.
But the task of — as the Ordinal puts it — searching “for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and guiding them through its confusion, that they may be saved through Christ for ever” is pressing work; and sometimes the Child of God that I am searching for is myself.
WHETHER we are trying to save the parish, flourish mutually, or live in love and faith, the priority must be the awesome will of God in all things; obedience to that will; and a deeper honesty, as we seek the living God, whose love is so capacious that it can do none other but abolish and transgress human boundaries of belonging.
Surely this is what the incarnation teaches us: that Triune life flourishes where human boundaries are torn down, and that commitment to Triune life is the source of deep revolution in us, and in our world?
Tomorrow, I will stand at the altar and from there, as always, I will look out to the busy Aldgate High Street. In my heart will be Lewie, whom I haven’t seen for months, as well as Child Q, and Ukraine, as I hold in my hands the one who broke down the greatest of boundaries.
And ringing again in my ears will be the words of Ken Leech, that right here is “a sacramental prefiguring of a liberated world”, meeting the needs of those most dear to our Lord, who himself died outside the gate.
The Revd Jarel Robinson-Brown is Assistant Curate at St Botolph-without-Aldgate in the diocese of London. He is also Visiting Scholar at Sarum College, Salisbury, and vice-chair of OneBodyOneFaith.
View the full list of ordinations and pictures in the Gazette