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Reflections on 25 Years of Ministry

Friday 30th August, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

by Reverend Christopher Harrison | tags: , , , ,

Rev’d Christopher Harrison looks back on the contrasting parishes that he has served in since his ordination

Last month it was twenty-five years since I was ordained as a priest. This has prompted me to think back over the past quarter century, which seems to have raced by.

My first five years were spent as a curate in the inner city of London, at St George’s church, Camberwell. This was a parish notorious for having, at the time, what were said to be the highest levels of crime in the country. Our church had longstanding links with Trinity College, Cambridge, and was in fact the current manifestation of what used to be the ‘Trinity College Mission’. This was set up in the late 1800s as part of a response to the severe deprivation which characterised much of south and east London, and whose legacy can be seen even today. In the late 1980s and early 1990s we were greatly energised by the controversial ‘Faith in the City’ report, which followed the riots of the early 1980s and made the Church of England give fresh impetus to meeting the needs of those who lived in poverty. Indeed Canon Eric James, known for his radical theology and controversial broadcasts, and for spearheading ‘Faith in the City’, was a previous vicar at St George’s. A curate can of course push the limits more than a vicar can, and perhaps my best example of this was taking a group of ten lively teenagers to Africa to rediscover their roots, which resulted in them being evicted from an outward bound course for drug abuse.

Five further years in South London, at Christ Church and St Paul’s, Forest Hill, gave me the opportunity to face the challenges of an old and expensive Victorian church. We attempted to restore it to viability, but unfortunately my successor found that the task was too great, and the church became a good example of how a clever architect can cram a large number of flats into a once holy place. I learned much about the detail of Anglo-Catholic ritual, even though this went beyond what I was totally comfortable with, and the congregation often looked back fondly to the time of a previous vicar who was to become the Bishop of Chichester.

A return to my Derbyshire roots then followed. The Bishop of Derby must have rapidly concluded that five pretty village near Ashbourne were not stretching me sufficiently, as I was soon made Rural Dean (and Rural really meant rural, as my responsibility consisted of an additional fourteen delightful village churches in addition to the beautiful and historic church of St Oswald, Ashbourne). Many colleagues thought that sustaining five parochial church councils across the parish was a mistake, but in reality these were each splendid groups of committed church members who took on most of the responsibility of looking after their churches. Rural ministry has plenty of opportunities for building up churches and becoming immersed in village life, and I was reminded that communities still can be a great source of mutual support and neighbourliness, when much of city life is now very different from this. I even once presided over a service of blessing for the Dovedale Sheepdog Trials. As Rural Dean, I had to manage a twenty per cent cut in numbers of clergy across the Deanery, which was almost impossible to achieve. I was also asked by the Bishop to chair a diocesan group which reviewed the formula for calculating the parish share as applied to each parish, but thankfully I left before the results were put into practice.

During this time I became the co-ordinator of the Derbyshire Churches’ partnership with the Church of North India. This brought opportunities to host visitors from India, and to learn from a Church which traces its origins back to the apostle St Thomas, who is said to have reached South India in the middle of the first century A.D. It also meant visiting India both as leader of groups and as an individual, and experiencing the life and ministry of the Church of North India and the warmth and hospitality of its people.

Then, after the Bishop of Derby had been repeatedly saying that I should aim for something bigger, came the move to Nottingham. Since arriving here in February 2009 we have consolidated the integration into one parish, and I have tried to both nurture the three congregations as well as maintaining and developing a vision for the parish as a whole. Inevitably, however, in spite of all one’s efforts, much time tends to be spent behind the scenes helping to resolve issues and problems that arise, and giving support to individuals and trying to ensure that the many levels of committee structure within our parish function as well as they should. I am delighted with the developments at St Mary’s, and the successful installation, earlier, of the new organ at St Peter’s, as well as the other enhancements to that church which have taken place. I hope that we can do something similar, in whatever way is possible, at All Saints, in association, perhaps, with the 150th anniversary of its foundation next year.

Our diocese and parish face some big challenges in the coming years, as we consider cuts in clergy numbers. We do, however, have a great team, both clergy and lay, in this parish, and I hope and pray that we can meet these challenges effectively. The Church of England has not had a good press in recent years, for various reasons, and I hope that we can keep our distance from some of the more depressing aspects of this, notably on the matter of women bishops and unfriendly attitudes towards homosexuality. I strongly believe that there is a very important place in this diocese for a parish like ours, which places a great emphasis on openness, social justice, diversity, inclusiveness and a non-dogmatic approach to theology. For at the heart of Christ’s teaching is the principle of love for God and neighbour – and ‘neighbour’ means ‘everyone’, whether you happen to like them or not. Over twenty five years of ordained ministry nothing has changed my total belief in this, and in the reality of th risen and ascended Christ, active within his Church through the Holy Spirit – but only if we open our hearts and our doors to Him, and don’t simply pay lip service while thinking that we know better.

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