What is Already There
A Talk Given to Birmingham Outer Estates Clergy, Candlemas 2005.
I serve as Vicar of St Bede, Brandwood and as Chaplain with Deaf People in the Diocese. I want to speak about being in the parish half-time in the context of ministry at St Bede's in the last three and a bit years. I want to begin with two warnings. Firstly, that what I describe is probably more polished and coherent than the actual practice was. Secondly, that it is very easy when thinking about this to get bound up in the management of the institution, on how to make a parish 'work'. I want instead to focus on the parish and the city as it is, and at the same time on that other city we are journeying towards, to keep our eyes on that.
To be half-time means what? It means change, for the parish and for me. It means doing things differently, from what I was taught, from the context in which I was a curate, from what we have been used to, from dominant models of ministry of one priest in one parish,
The Context of the Parish
I want to begin with the context of the parish. Brandwood is mainly residential. It is a mixture of post-war small private and council houses, divided into three or four very separate communities by roads, railways and canals. There are few facilities within the parish, for example the church is the only community hall.
St Bede's is probably similar to many of your churches. The Electoral Roll is about 60, with average Sunday Attendance being around 30. Money is tight. We have some weekly activities for the community, notably an Elder's Lunchclub and a Parent and Toddlers' Group, both weekly, but the activities, along with the congregation have reduced in number over time.
We do, though have a fine building. The original church building was built in the early 1960's and was originally intended to be the Hall. This was burned down in an arson attack about twelve years ago and has been rebuilt as a very good combined church and community facility. The fire was obviously very difficult for folk, but the great benefit of it has been that the community of faith have made a positive and costly decision to be here within the present generation. A negative aspect of this is that many in the congregation expected people to flock into church once the new building was open. This not happening sapped morale.
Equally, and I think this is true for many outer ring parishes, there has been a high turnover of clergy. I am the 8th in 40 years, and was the 4th in 10 years. This has had an effect on congregational morale, as I think people want to feel loved and valued. When looked at in the light of Bob Jackson's research on church growth and decline in Hope for the Church, it is also salutary. Jackson finds that churches grow when the incumbent has been in place for more than 7 years, with the peak growth coming between 10 and 12 years. Equally there is an average 10% decline in attendance when there is an interregnum.
The parish also found out that they were to be reduced to half-time suddenly and by surprise during the interregnum. I assume that the process and principles of Called to a New Kingdom mean that this would not happen now, but I found I came into a situation where the congregation were not sure if there was any future and that there was a loss of hope in the church.
My Experience of All This
I began by not knowing what to do. Partially in the sense of not having been an incumbent before, not having worked with two roles before, and not having ministered in outer estates before. But also because I deliberately came into the parish without a clear idea of what I was going to do. This was partially because neither I nor the congregation yet knew what being half time means or involves. But, more importantly, it was vital for me to work from the principle that what we do, we do together; that our vision of ministry comes from us, not just from me; vision and work are to be corporate. This is hard work, and we are not there yet, but when it succeeds!
This model has been beautifully expressed by Daniel O'Leary:
The calling of the priest, like it was for Jesus before him, like it is for the Church and the sacraments now, is not to introduce something new to God's creation, but to reveal, purify and intensify what is already there. (The Tablet 18.9.04)
What we have begun to do together
We have begun a process of building a corporately owned vision and of renewing our hope.
John Pridmore, the Rector of Hackney has written:
Just as an individual must try to discover what is his or her vocation, so too must a local church seek to identify its particular calling. In our inner city parish with its specific conditions and demands we have sought to determine what is our distinctive vocation as a local church.We began by having two parish days over the course of about a year. In these we used the Called to a New Kingdom materials to try to discern where we are being called by God, and then, with outside help, looked at how churches in similar circumstances of change to us have responded to change and challenge.
From this came the vision that we should be using our resources to serve the community more effectively than we are. This importantly builds on St Bede's history. Some key periods in our history have been about community service, and the new building was designed with this in mind. A key piece of work here was to do an audit of the congregation to find out what we were doing already corporately and individually, and then to produce this as a poster for everyone. It would have been quite easy to have neglected this.
A small group of 5 committed individuals was formed to take this vision forward. The group was overseen by the PCC and reported back to it and to the wider congregation. It became clear that we could not do things in the traditional way of finding a need and then employing a worker to meet it. This was for two reasons, firstly, because we do not have the resources to effectively manage someone. My being half time certainly means that I cannot do this. Secondly, as we are going through a process of empowering and building one another up, it is therefore not right to hand over the responsibility for what we are doing to someone else.
Our vision is to use our resources -- people and building -- to serve the community in partnership with others. We are currently working towards this by undertaking a listening campaign where the congregation are engaged in relational conversations with individuals and organisations within the parish. This will result in better relationships with the parish and will enable us to begin to assess and meet need with the help of others. We have also become involved in the Birmingham Citizens broad-based organisation.
This has taken a long time and is modest, but it feels very rooted in God and in the body of this parish church.
Priesthood and Dual Role Ministry
Underlying all this has been the question of 'What does it mean to be a priest in this situation?' I want to get away from functional ideas of priesthood, as this seems to me to be tied up with the model of one priest in one parish (although I do of course say Mass, the Office, occasional offices and the like).
Priesthood for me here has centred on three things.
The second is the importance of shared ministry. During the last 18 months, the parish and I have benefited from the ministry of Rosemary Reynolds as SSM. It would be much harder to be half-time without a colleague to pray, think and work with.
Finally, there are many frustrations about what cannot be done, about the bridges that cannot be built at the moment. These though are countered by the good things that happen, the pleasure in seeing people blossoming and growing.
- Andy Delmege