Robbie Low visits Walsall and finds a beacon of the Kingdom
The picture of the “catholic” parish in the minds of otherwise moderately sane people is often no more than outrageous caricature informed by equal deep draughts of ignorance and prejudice. The vision of bizarrely attired bachelor clergy performing arcane rituals in run down inner city ghetto parishes, obscured by clouds of incense and attended by a congregation in single figures is a popular parody. All the best lies contain an element of truth – it is this that gives them plausibility in the popular mind.
Many catholic clergy do serve in the toughest inner city parishes – out of a sense of conviction and duty. And, because, as one cynical bishop remarked to a colleague of mine years ago, “You’ll go where I tell you because you’re a catholic and you believe in obedience!”
A good number of catholic clergy are bachelors – most, not because there is a “hidden agenda” but because their calling is singular and there is no time or place for a domestic family ministry. The long and lonely road of celibacy is a requirement of their particular vocation.
The rest is nonsense. But how profound a grip T in the imagination it has was illustrated to me s by a recent encounter with a parishioner from l; a former parish. Asked to deliver a visiting preacher to a “catholic” parish he had driven 1. the guest straight past the church in question because 1. It was advertising a mission service Land 2. A couple of hundred people were 11 coming out of the earlier service. “That can’t be St. Whatnots” my former charge remarked; “Fr Whatsit is an anglo-catholic whereas that’s a successful church!”
r One of the aims of this magazine is to educate and inform and encourage traditionalists and E’ commend good practice. For this reason we have run a small column “Parish Profile” every month. We hope now to run, in addition, an occasional in depth profile of parishes that are flagships in their area.
Recently I went up to preach at St. Mark’s Washwood Heath (proprietor Fr Ronald Crane). This was a lively and exciting experience in itself, as anyone who has met Ronald will know. The following morning I 9, set off to neighbouring Walsall to meet Fr Terry Coyne who, by everyone’s account, has done remarkable things at St. Gabriel’s, Walsall.
Coyne is a tall, spare and gentle man, modest and self effacing, who has served 24 years in this parish, founded in 1939, which spans two boroughs, from pleasant middle class uplands to seething, vandal-haunted estates.
St. Gabriel’s is beautifully ordered, light and spacious. People come and go all the time. It is always open during the daylight hours, working, praying, serving the community in the many offshoots of its ministry. Sunday worship gets about 200 in the morning and 50 – 60 in the evening.
The response to the occasional offices is good – over 75 baptisms a year and funerals come via the church. Coyne finds a high degree of “residual” faith among non-churchgoers – many of the older generation are faithful prayers.
Coyne’s ministry to the elderly is remarkable. St. Gabriel’s has for 12 years run a purpose built day centre, which they built as an extension of the church. Every day a different club meets and, at 11.45 goes to the beautiful, serene Lady Chapel for a short communion service from the reserved sacrament and then back for lunch. The atmosphere in the club, on my visit, was lovely, cheeky and full of laughter. In a week the best part of 200 old folk get a chance to get out, socialise and worship!
Incorporated around the church is a set of flats for the old and handicapped, cared for by the nuns of the Sacred Passion who occupy a purpose built convent and warden block on the site.
In all this Coyne has worked tirelessly with Housing Association, Youth Training schemes and now the local council.
But this is not just a place for the elderly. The Sunday School is 30+ and the Church Lads and Girls Brigade and Brownies boast similar numbers.
And out the back there is a revelation. Past the vestry and the lovely magnolia is the vicarage garden. Where once was waste land, a landscape, tirelessly created by jobless youngsters, surrounds the beautiful crescent, south-facing edifice of a nearly completed children’s hospice (£1.25 million raised, half a million to go) offering respite care for a dozen families. Each door has a verandah facing the sun. Why? How? i Coyne explains simply: “I’ve seen saints caring for their children and it broke my heart. We had to do something”. But he deflects credit. “All done by committees and committed laity.” Not the story others tell. They speak of a thorough, disciplined, loving j man giving his whole life to his family – the parish.
“Yes, that’s true”, he says, “I’ve hardly been outside the parish in years. I hate being away from the family.”
But he is right to say it is not a one man band. Five lay readers are in charge of large areas of lay ministry. Michael Lovatt does baptism preparation and follow up and preaches. Pat Ellis is chaplain to the Day Centre, organises hospital visiting and prepares confirmands. Peter Arnold is the academic who leads study groups and writes articles and holds daily offices in the daughter church of the Annunciation, in the rough area He moved there specifically to serve it. Bob Ellis is in charge of stewardship and visiting and Derek Manning cares for all areas of youth activity. It is a wonderful model of devolution and shared ministry and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Priestly duties are aided by Fr Poultney, recently retired, who is clearly delighted to be working there. Between them they run a Walsingham cell of St. Cecilia.
There is an active servers guild and a choir that offers worship seldom heard outside cathedrals. I Coyne is clearly a special man – originally an engineer. He has prayed every day of his life and God’s will for him is transparently paramount. His disappointments? “I have put seven men up for the priesthood. They have all been turned down. I know I wouldn’t get through now”.
How do his people see his ministry? Here are some comments I wrote down:
“An old fashioned priest dedicated to care of souls. Never involved in diocese or deanery, he’s all parish and people. Great visitor. Gets great and disciplined respect from children. Not afraid to be outspoken and stand his ground. Perfectionist, painstaking. People catch an atmosphere here.”
Actually when you meet Coyne and go to his church you don’t notice any of that, except the latter, just a gently, holy man doing his job. And he would be the first to say that there is
nothing exceptional about him. God’s will is fulfilled not where people are exceptional but where they are faithful.
As Coyne himself said, “It is no good sitting around hoping it all will come right. We are in a mission situation in England and we’ve got to get on with it!”
Thanks to all at St. Gabriel’s for their example and encouragement.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban’s