St Mary Rotherhithe

4th February 2007


An Interregnum = An Opportunity

There was once a country parish whose Vicar had recently died – rather suddenly and unexpectedly as did your own Rector. According to the usual practice, the Bishop of the Diocese invited the Church Council of that country parish to give their views on what qualities they would be looking for in the next Vicar.

Well, needless to say, there were plenty of helpful suggestions: he must ‘get on with people’; he should be ‘good with youth’; he shouldn’t ‘preach long sermons’; he ought to be ‘someone just like us’ were all put forward to be included in the reply they were to send to the Bishop.

But the very moment the discussion came to an end and the PCC thought they had things nicely sewn up to every member’s satisfaction, the oldest and most respected member said, with perfect seriousness, ‘In my view what our parish really needs at present is a good left-handed spin-bowler’.

Well, history doesn’t relate how people in the room responded, or even what sort of Vicar they eventually got. But this little parable highlights an important truth – several truths in fact, about the qualities which should be looked for in anyone who takes upon himself the serious job of being a parish priest, be it in. Rotherhithe, Rotherham or Rotherfield to name but three places which are as different from each other as chalk is from cheese.

The first truth is that whoever he is, High Church, Low Church, rich or poor, young or middle-aged, married or single, every parish-priest is first and foremost a human being. As a human being he will come to his new parish bringing certain skills and lacking others. He may, indeed he should, be prepared to try and acquire those skills which he lacks and share with others those he already possesses. The plain truth is that both he and his people are embarking on a process of educating each other.

In that respect, the elderly layman in our story was saying something quite sensible. Every parish, like every priest, has a bundle of skills – things which it already does unusually well. They are part of the asset which the new priest receives as a free gift. Being a free gift it oughtn’t be taken lightly or treated with contempt, any more than one should treat a birthday-present with disdain.

So if, like our fictional example, a parish has developed an outstanding cricket team, it is part of the Vicar’s job at least to take an interest in it, however little he knows about the game. It may well be that he won’t be the spin-bowler they were looking for, but it is vital that he should be able to accept with gratitude the gift which God has given him, so to speak, on a plate.

The same would be apply to a parish that had a fine musical tradition, or an historic building or a longstanding ministry to tramps and the homeless. Whatever interests and skills the new parish priest brings with him (another gift-on-a-plate, this time to his people) he should spend the first part of his new ministry acquiring the knowledge, if not the skills, which this opportunity affords him.

But there is, inevitably, a second truth which needs to be learnt on both sides. It is fatally easy, over the course of time, for any parish, or its priest, to become possessive about what they do best to the exclusion of all else, including God Himself. It’s all too human for a parish with a good choir, a reputation for its Annual Flower Festival, or an outstanding cricket eleven to try and make everything revolve around that particular excellence. In the process, these things become ends-in-themselves, and jealously ‘owned’ by those who run them to the exclusion of everything and, more importantly, everyone else.

By the same token, the parish priest who knows he is a good preacher, teacher, administrator, or service-planner will, unless he is careful, find himself resisting any attempt on the part of other to share that ministry with him. Deep down he will be the victim of that insecurity which all of us feel from time to time – that his gifts may become compared unfavourably with someone else’s.

Of course, it’s absurd, just like thinking the Kingdom of God stands or falls by whether the parish cricket-team is up to scratch. But, as we said from the start, we’re dealing with human beings.

And that raises the third truth: the whole question of what a parish priest is there to do in the first place. If he sees his new parish as just one more step up the career ladder for him; if he sees it as a kingdom of which he is the sole ruler, at any rate for the time being; if he consistently fails to value the assets which God has placed under his stewardship because he’s simply not prepared to take an interest in them, then the chances are that his ministry in that parish will be short, disappointing and unsatisfactory both to himself and his people.

Equally, unless those cricketers, music-makers and flower arrangers, are willing to accept that their skills are indeed one, but only one, facet of the church’s ministry to the world they will soon become dissatisfied with their Father-in-God for having different priorities and failing to share theirs.

Now we come to the fourth truth which lies at the heart of the matter. God became incarnate not to rule over man but to be their Servant. On the first Maundy Thursday at the Last Supper, Jesus Christ washed his disciples’ feet – with the solemn charge that they, in turn, should ‘wash one another’s feet’. More than that, although He understood better than any of his Apostles the truth about God the Holy Trinity, knowing it, so to speak, ‘from the inside’ he very carefully prepared the Apostles whom he had been given to take over that role from him after his Ascension into Heaven. Of course he would always be with them, enabling them from his Heavenly state, but there was a sense in which His whole earthly ministry was preparing them fro doing without him in the way they had become accustomed to being with him during his earthly sojourn.

So there are four things to look out for when considering the appointment of your new rector:

  • You and he should be prepared to learn from each other: taking an interest in each other is a vital part of that process. You and he are all human beings. What a surprise! Make allowances, especially for each other’s shortcomings

  • You and he have priceless gifts to offer each other. Don’t underestimate his gifts and overestimate yours – and vice versa.

  • You and he alike are called to be servants, of God first, but of each other as well.

  • You and he from Day One should start preparing the way for his successor. It may be many years ahead, and one hopes that both you and he will find that a time of personal and corporate growth in the knowledge and love of God. But remember, it’s God’s intention that the Church of St Mary Rotherhithe will continue to exist long after both you and he are gone.

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