Rodney Marshall reminds us how a ‘ministry of presence’ is central to Anglo-Catholicism

I don’t think that anyone who knows me would describe me as diffident. I’m not usually backward in coming forward, have something to say on most things and, as my late wife used to say, have a mouth like the Mersey Tunnel!  But when it comes to talking to groups of priests, I really am diffident—and that’s largely because I don’t want to sound as though I’m teaching my grandmother to suck eggs. So today I thought I’d better stick to something I know at least a little bit about, and that is ministry in socially deprived parishes. It’s something I’ve done for all my priestly life, from inner city Manchester to the pit village of Goldthorpe, to the housing estates of Athersley and, of course, it’s something which is the flavour of the month. Bishop North’s campaign has highlighted the problems of parishes on estates and in deprived areas, and recent research has revealed that two-thirds of parishes which have taken the resolution are in the 20% of the most deprived areas in the country, which means that many, if not most of us, work in such parishes. It’s against that background that I offer some thoughts on parish ministry in these deprived areas.

Let me begin by looking backwards, something we catholics are good at—when it comes to nostalgia nobody does it better. Let me take you back to the great Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923 and to the Albert Hall, where the then Bishop of Zanzibar, Frank Weston, rose to address some 5000 delegates. The title of his address was ‘Our Present Duty’ and it was a challenge to his hearers to go out from their churches and to give practical effect to their catholic faith by finding and serving Christ in the poor and the marginalized. The last bit of that address, when he tells us that we have our tabernacles so now go out and find Christ in the poor, has become part of the catholic collective memory. But it’s the earlier part of Bishop Weston’s address that I want us to think about because I think it can help us make sense of our ministry today.

Bishop Weston began by placing Christ at the very centre of his thinking and asked his hearers to consider three aspects of Christ’s life. First, they were to reflect on the Christ of Bethlehem, the incarnation and what it means that God stooped down to us, took our flesh and shared our lot in Jesus Christ. What does the truth that ‘the Word was made flesh and lived among us’ mean for our ministry today, especially in our deprived parishes?

As a church and its priests and ministers, the incarnation compels us to oppose anything which militates against human dignity, be that poverty, lack of work opportunities, discrimination, addiction, poor housing, education and so on. In my own parish we have two projects: the Romero Centre offering advice and support across a wide range of issues, and Athersley Cares offering a variety of activities for all age groups from Zumba to twilight clubs. Both these projects have been running for many years and were initiated by the church, working in partnership with statutory and voluntary bodies. I see both of these projects as a practical working out of the doctrine of the incarnation. Both projects have at their heart a desire to work with people, not to do things for them. It’s all about helping people to overcome the things which threaten their humanity and dignity as children of God, but to do it for themselves as far as possible, with the support they need. Unlike politicians who constantly tell us we were all in it together, but don’t really mean it, the Christ of Bethlehem says we are all in it together and does mean it; he means it so much that he came and shared our lot. This means we are neither ahead nor behind people, but alongside them. It’s like Oscar Wilde said: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ Part of our job is to help people see the stars, but to do that we need to be in the gutter with them.

A good deal of suffering on our estates is caused not by individual weakness and sin, but by the actions of others (including governments) and through the unjust structures of our unfair society. We need, of course, to campaign to get things changed, which is why we may sometimes need to get involved in politics, but often the things that affect our parishes and those who live there are totally beyond our control. Often, when faced with the cross, the only thing we can do is to be like Mary and stand at its foot in solidarity and prayer with those who suffer. I believe that one of the most important ministries in our parishes is a ministry of presence, of just being there. Not having or pretending to have all the answers, but simply to stand alongside people in their need. Being part of our community, using the shops, the schools, the pubs and clubs, taking part in community events and, yes, being interested in local politics. I am not convinced that the Church of England, and especially our Diocese of Leeds, understands this. A mission strategy based solely on church growth and which divides parishes into ‘successful’ (i.e. growing) and ‘failing’ (i.e. not growing) leaves very little room for small, faithful, hardworking, hard-praying congregations trying to witness to the love of God and trying to stand alongside some very disadvantaged, suffering people in some of the toughest places. I believe we need a thought-out strategy which supports and resources these kinds of congregations, but I won’t hold my breath!

That kind of ministry of presence, of course, should resonate with members of SSC. We are called to dig a pit for the cross, but having done that we have to be prepared to stand beneath it, to just be there. Fr Wainright for instance was a presence in Wapping for over 50 years, and Fr Stanton was over 50 years a curate in Holborn. They didn’t seek anything for themselves but simply stood alongside those who were most in need. They didn’t seek a career or preferment; they saw their priesthood as centred on the cross and sharing that cross with the people they were called to serve.

A more modern version of this was in the TV series Broken, written by Jimmy McGovern. If you haven’t seen it I would urge you to get the DVD because, unusually, these days, it paints a positive picture of the church.  For those who don’t know, it’s about a priest, Fr Michael Kerrigan, played marvellously by Sean Bean, ministering in a very deprived area of a big city. Very few people go to his church and his parish and its people endure all the deprivations and problems endemic in such areas. Fr Michael has his own problems: trying to come to terms with being abused by a priest when he was a boy, and having abused women himself in his younger days. His church isn’t growing and he does his best, but he has few answers to the problems which surround him and threaten to overwhelm him. And yet he is there. He is the presence of Christ in that community, silently suffering with his people, taking their burdens on himself and showing them that there is something beyond their struggles: the triumph of love. Surely that is a central part of our priesthood, and a difficult part because it demands sacrifice, yet it’s our witness to the Christ of Calvary.

In a real way, the Christ of the Blessed Sacrament brings together the Christ of Bethlehem and the Christ of Calvary to give meaning and unity to what we do as priests. The Mass is the continuation of the incarnation and the offering of the sacrifice of Calvary, so it is the Mass which is our very best offering to our people. It’s the most important and most effective thing we can do for them and draws together everything else we might do. And it’s this too which distinguishes us from social workers.

I don’t think that the importance of the Mass has been spelled out more clearly and eloquently than by Dom Gregory Dix in that well-known passage towards the end of The Shape of the Liturgy. After hundreds of pages of scholarly discussion about the origins of the Mass he sums up its importance in words which never fail to move me. You probably know them but I’m going to read them again:

‘Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.’

And in the end of the day isn’t that what we as priests are called to do, to make the plebs sancta Dei, the holy common people of God? All that we do to reflect the Christ of Bethlehem and the Christ of Calvary in our practical help and in our ministry of presence is aimed at helping people to become what God wants them to become: His holy people. And all that finds its focus in the daily offering of the mass for them and with them.

The kind of ministry I have described is unashamedly traditional, some would say old fashioned, and some would even say unsuited to the modern church. Certainly, patterns of ministry have changed out of all recognition in the 40 years I have been a priest, and certainly fashions and fads come and go, but a ministry which has at its heart the Christ of Bethlehem, the Christ of Calvary and the Christ of the Blessed Sacrament can never be irrelevant or fail because it will be God’s ministry and not ours. In the final analysis none of this actually depends on us. We are God’s priests, these are God’s parishes, these are God’s people, this is God’s church.

Let me leave the last word with the Good Pope, John XXIII. It’s said that in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, when everything seemed to be going wrong, he knelt down to say his evening prayers. After telling God of all his troubles he got up and ended with: ‘Well God, it’s your Church; I’m going to bed.’

Canon Rodney Marshall retired on the Solemnity of Christ the King after 20 years as vicar of St Helen’s, Athersley

This is a version of  a talk given to the Society of the Holy Cross, Venerable Chapter of St Wilfrid