I cannot believe that it has been three years since I left Princethorpe College, where I had been its Archivist. Since then, I have been training for ordained ministry in the Church of England. Unlike younger ordinands, my training path has not been a residential one, rather it has followed a ‘contextual’ pattern. Therefore, I go to college every Monday in Sheffield, attend various residential weekends at Mirfield throughout the year, and work for twenty or so hours in a parish. I describe it as a ‘youth training scheme’ for the church, except that my youth has long since departed.
I describe the time spent in my context as a ‘curacy before my curacy.’ Basically, I do all those things I can do without wearing a dog-collar, or invoking some sort of disciplinary process under canon law. So I preach sermons and arrange services, lead prayer meetings and confirmation classes, teach on some adult-education theology courses, take home communions, conduct collective worship in schools, amongst lots of other things. I assist at weddings, funerals, both in crematoria and church, and participate in burials and the interment of ashes. It has been a busy three years.
There is no typical day. If you ask most priests, they will say exactly the same thing. That is not to say that there is no routine, such as daily prayer and communion services. You have to be adaptable, though. You might for example be parading around a school hall dressed as a camel in the morning, and then help serve food at a luncheon club in the afternoon.
Mind you, this has all changed considerably since the arrival of Covid-19. Modern technology has certainly come to the aid of the church, now that buildings are shut, and so Eucharists and prayer meetings are spread far and wide via ‘Zoom’. This has meant that we are now reaching more people than we ever did before shutdown. There are of course those in the parish without the tech. In such cases, telephone calls are made to those who want a chat, and paper copies of the parish magazine are posted through letter boxes. We send out regular reflections, or ‘Thoughts for the Day’, by e-mail, along with other material. I was leading a Lent course based on the writings of C.S. Lewis until it was rudely interrupted by the pandemic, and so I wrote the course in a new format and sent it out to people to follow at home.
However, there is a difficult aspect to my role at present. As a number of clergy in the parish have to remain shielded, I am now taking many of the funerals, chiefly at the local crematorium. This is very hard because you try to do the best for the family at a difficult time. Sadly, I cannot visit the families to arrange the funeral; it has to sorted out over the phone. Then on the day itself, the family have to observe social distancing, and the number of mourners are limited. Moreover, the family are not allowed to touch the coffin or assist as pallbearers, or even sing hymns. You are bearing their grief, too.
I always make sure that I go for a brief walk after the service to clear my head and reflect upon it. You cannot but be affected by it, and I would not be human if I was not. Every funeral is an absolute privilege. I always make sure that I send a copy of the service, including the eulogy, to the family so that they can send it to those who were unable to attend.
What does the future hold? I do not think I can make a guess but things will be very different: life will not be normal, but a new normal. Church will undergo a transformation and this is suggested by the current use of digital media. However, I do not think that church buildings will go completely, nor the various meetings that take place in them. The ‘physicality’ of church is an important part of it, which is evident in the taking of bread and the drinking of wine from the communion cup. I have no idea when my ordination will take place. It is in God’s hands.
In a funny way, my time spent at Princethorpe has contributed greatly to my thinking at present. First, you must always be prepared for the unexpected. As Archivist, you never knew what was going to turn up. You could be talking to pupils at Crackley Hall in a morning, and the Bursar might nab you in the afternoon for a vital financial document! Our God is a God of surprises after all. Secondly, community takes many different forms. Princethorpe is a community, not just on the site of the Benedictine monastery, but in Kenilworth and Bilton, linked together by phone and e-mail (and the VLE!) The Princethorpe community is even wider than that: there are the St Mary Priory’s nuns in their various convents, the MSCs scattered around the world, and former pupils and staff all over the place. Just as today, my church is scattered but is united. The same thing goes for the Foundation, united by love and an ethos that is hard to beat. Community is very important at this time.
Mel asked me what message I would leave for the community. Well, I keep thinking of those disciples, huddled together in the locked room following the crucifixion, not knowing what to do or what would happen next. We are in a similar situation. We are ‘locked’ indoors, fearful perhaps and worrying about the future. The gospel teaches us not to be afraid and, through Christ’s resurrection, there will be a new and exciting time ahead. Stay positive! Keep that thought in mind as we move forward.