St Thomas, Elson – a good place to be placed…

I had a lovely conversation with an Ordinand from Ripon College, Cuddesdon today. The end result is that she has elected to come and spend four weeks with the parish in June/July. This is both an honour and will be quite a stressor for us in order to maximise the opportunities for pastoral learning.

I believe that pastoral placements are an ideal opportunity to ground theological formation in the realities of parish life. Theological College (and courses, where one often stays in one’s own parish and this id definitely not a good thing) is a rarified, dare I say it even an odd environment; where prejudices on all kinds of theological matters and out-and-out prissyness (believe me, I went to Mirfield) can mask us from the reality that is parishLife. Getting out for a month into a real parish, doing proper parish work, and walking the way of ministry and priesthood in the Church of England cannot be bettered.

I don’t believe that I am a terribly good model for priesthood, and I know and recognise that we are a small, vulnerable parish eclipsed by many others which are richer, more successful, better equipped, better served and sung, and certainly better priested; but we are open, honest and welcoming and therefore I think a more than adequate place to be placed: where we take serious note of mission and outreach, but aren’t bowled over by a sense of our self-importance. When you visit a parish for a placement, I am sure that there might be things which you would want to model your own priestly ministry on, and plenty of things that you would certainly not – a sort of negative role-modelling. Believe me, there is plenty in my ministry you would want to do differently. That might be a good thing for anyone being formed for ministry, because there are no perfect priests out there, just as there are no perfect parishes. All of parishLife is flawed because it is made up of flawed individuals; there are frustrations, distractions, joys and pains and moments of God breaking through in ALL parishes at the same time. We can’t offer a slick, dynamic, exhillarating feel-good experience of the Transfiguration all the time, for most parishes are down in the plains and in the cities (Matthew 17:1-9).

My own placement experiences were wide and varied, and for an extended period in the year 2000, I was in the Diocese of Newcastle at Holy Spirit, Denton; which I found challenging and stimulating and for a southern boy like me, a bit of a culture shock (the Bigg Market on a Friday Night – oh, I was taken there by young people in the parish  and now I know must be what purgatory looks like; all of life’s depravity collected together in tight T-Shirts, revealing dresses  and fuelled by cheap lager). I preached loads, organised creative worship, visited and wandered around the parish absorbing ministry. I recognised then that as well as activity, I also needed space: me-time in order to make sense of it. The combination of activity and reflection needs to be balanced and will strive to ensure this for this placement.

I believe that priesthood is not taught, but is formed: experiences are laid upon prayer and reflection and soaked in the sacraments of the church, played out on street corners, in youth clubs and in the pub. I hope and pray therefore that we can provide a wealth of experiences from the mundane and the dull (PCC meetings spring to mind, strangely enough), the thrilling yet scary experience of front-line youth ministry, the wide variety of pastoral encounter and a solid, practical engagement with real liturgy and preaching as well as the challenge of experiementation and creativity that underpins Blesséd.

And rashly, foolishly even, after we had talked about all that, she still said she wanted to come!