I often speak about the need to serve the community, to become embedded and known in the schools, in the pub and on the street corners. One key area of that ministry is in our local schools: in our case, Elson Infant and Elson Junior Schools. Neither of these are Church Schools, so we have no right to be present in the schools, but find that both are very open and welcoming to the Church. It has taken quite a bit of time to establish this relationship, but I know that our Church has a greater presence and witness in these non-Church Schools: a local CofE School openly said to a prospective teacher “We just take the Church’s money and think we’re a Community School*”.
Our presence in the school is not just about leading Collective Worship (‘assemblies’) or coming in and teaching RE (I am often asked to come in and support the RE curriculum, as well as allied subjects: speaking about death and bereavement, and even wearing my old nursing hat, to talk about the heart!**). It is also about presence, about supporting the whole objectives of the schools and engaging with them in community.
This is why I serve on the Governing Body of both Schools, why I help provide male leadership on some residential trips and why recently I have spent each and every morning in school supporting their IT systems. When the previous ICT technician left for another post, the only solution appeared to be hideously expensive and as the Junior School’s Chair of Finance, I really could not justify spending such a large amount on temporary cover.
So I volunteered to cover the job until they can appoint a replacement. Each morning I come in and help staff set their IT systems up. Much of modern teaching is supported by IT, from the Computer Suite to the Interactive Whiteboards, there is so much that can go wrong. There are backups to manage and hardware to repair, laptops to install and a network of servers to keep running smoothly.
On the face of it, it would not appear to be very Priestly at all: whoever heard of the vicar wielding a screwdriver before? However, if we take seriously the call to Christian Service, then this offering is entirely appropriate: a proper utilization of skills, of benefit to the whole community. It also grants me unlimited presence within that community: to know and be known, to be available and to be embedded in this community.
The role and ministry of priesthood is first and foremost to be embedded within this community, and through gentle presence, ensure that Christ is made known. It does not always require quoting from the Bible, it does not always require the hard sell, but it requires us to walk with people, share what we have and make this community a better place. “Preach the Gospel” said Francis of Assisi, “using words only when you have to“. I don’t have to speak of Jesus to be Christ-modelled in my ministry. This is not about proselytizing or shoving Jesus down their throats, but I pray that this gentle ministry, placed alongside my more usual, more overt ministry has the effect the Lord desires. The young people who know me and St Thomas the Apostle as a result of this flock to our Friday’s Youth Group and up to 60 young people each week have the opportunity to hear the Gospel properly preached alongside our service to them as a Youth Club.
It has, of course, come at a small cost: it takes time, and other things have necessarily had to be sacrificed. Most significantly, I have had to abandon for the time being the saying of Morning Prayer in Church. A priest is required to say Morning and Evening Prayer each day and so I am reluctantly forced to do this essential prayer early each morning on my own. When a new technician takes up post in September, I plan to return to daily prayer in Church.
However, I am not alone in this service to the Community. For the past few months, our Churchwarden has been volunteering at the school, and using his dramatic and dancing skills, has been instrumental in this year’s Upper School Production of Alice in Wonderland and in the classroom: helping, listening to young people read, supporting the class teachers. It is a marvelous ministry of service and an active, gentle Christian witness.
Our Friday’s Youth Ministry Team also give of themselves freely and fully to support these young people, to share their stories, and be a part of their lives. Occasionally, that also has an outward and clear Christian emphasis, but most often is about enabling young people to see Christ in the lives of their leaders and to be a gentle inspiration. I thank them greatly for all they do in the Lord’s name.
So, that is what this Parish Priest has been doing in school each day in Summer Term; and he does not have to be the only one: local schools are crying out for support from the local community. No matter your age, if you are able to give an hour to come in and listen to a child reading, or to help with an activity or a visit, then I know the staff would be most grateful. We should also actively pray for our schools, and not just for Church Schools, for I passionately believe that Churches should engage will all local schools, and especially those which are not Church Schools. We should pray actively for their Headteachers, Staff and Pupils.
God calls us to serve here in this place. Let us answer that call.