Dear Friends …
Looking forward to Lent, I remember when, once upon a time — meaning, in this case, about eight or ten years ago — Bishop Dominic assigned every incumbent in the Diocese their Lenten discipline for that year by three-line whip. “They will …”, he said in his annual Lenten letter to the parishes — the one that gets read in public — “they will come and knock on every door on their electoral roll by Easter Sunday.” Perhaps some of you who were around at the time remember.
Now, I’d be telling stories if I told you that there weren’t any clergy complaining about this. It wasn’t universal by any means, but, “oooh!”, wailed those inclined to wail, “as if I didn’t already have enough of my plate in Lent!” “My parish is too big!” “Who is he to tell me what to do for Lent?!” (Answer: as it turns out, he’s the Bishop.) In fact, I’d also be telling you stories if I said that I personally didn’t look at the task and think it formidable.
And yet the Bishop had spoken, and I swore an oath of obedience at my ordination. So, formidable task or no, I got on with the job I’d been asked to do, and I kept myself right away from joining in with any clerical moaning. The challenge was what it was, and it was in my own power to make it a woe-begotten chore, or to look forward to knowing my parishioners rather better by Easter. Thus, on Ash Wednesday, I took out my electoral roll, counted up names, went to my diary, and figured out how many houses I needed to hit in a week to make it all work. Then I got in my car and knocked on doors.
My friends, it was such a good thing to do. I was still rather new in post in Caerwent at the time, and +Dominic’s challenge was exactly what I needed to dig deep into the soil of my little patch of ground. I may be mad-keen on the latest electronic devices; that, I’m sure, is easy for a parish to see. But, actually, when it comes right down to it, I still know very well that nothing creates community, nothing creates relationships, like a real honest-to-God face-to-face. For me — new in post, and new in my first incumbency — what +Dominic had actually done was to offer me a gift: my parish, and their love.
So it is in that spirit that, here in Maindee & Lliswerry, in the waning days of my first year of ministry here, I take for myself the same challenge this Lent that was offered to me ten years ago. And I tell you all of this because — crafty old so-and-so that he was — +Dominic understood that declaring his challenge in pubic would make us clergy accountable not to him, but to you.
The sad truth of an ever-stretched base of clerics — and I hear this in every conversation I have with my colleagues — is that, with all the jobs that we have to do and deadlines we have to meet and extra churches we are asked to take on, parish visiting too often becomes the casualty of a hectic schedule. Show me any modern priest with a heart, and I’ll show you one who feels constant guilt over that one more person that he or she didn’t find the time to go and see. And, yet, building a rapport with people is our bread and butter — and, for most of us, is why we got into ministry in the first place.
I can’t guarantee that I will always have the balance right, and I certainly haven’t always got it right in the past. I’m just as flawed as the next cleric, and that is my confession this Ash Wednesday. But what I can do is take the time in Lent to do as well as I can by you, and honour this key part of my calling as a priest.
So this Ash Wednesday, I’ll do as I did when I was new in Caerwent. I’ll get out the electoral roll, and my diary, and the maps app on my phone, and sometime in the next 40 days, I’ll look to knock on your door. It’s a large parish and a large list, so if it turns out I have to carry on past Easter, please give me some leeway. On the other hand, if you’re especially keen to have me pop by, please catch me after a service, and book an appointment. I’ll be more than happy to take requests!
May we all be blessed this Lent, as we turn from all that erects barriers between us and the love of our Lord.