I cannot remember who it was that gave me this piece of advice as I started off in my journey of priestly ministry, but I have a suspicion that it was the bishop who ordained me to the priesthood.
No matter who it was, it has been advice that has stuck with me, and as such, has presented many unique opportunities to reach beyond the walls of the parish church. A friend recently asked me why I write this blog. I had to think about this, as I believe, my initial intentions for the blog have changed and developed overtime – an excellent time to reflect.
Many in the english speaking world will be familiar with George Herbert, a Church of England priest famous for just about everything under the sun, from poetry, The Country Parson, the look, feel and presence of an Anglican clergyman. George is a favourite image of what a great many people hold as the stereotypical Church of England vicar. I’ve had a rough go with the image that George portrays, and that stereotype, but I do admire his writing abilities. Perhaps, the gentle idyllic reflections were what I initially hoped to capture for the blogging audience.
The world, and the purpose of my blog, are ever changing things, so much so that I do find it difficult to set time aside for any creative input. Schedules, demands of an active parish, the loneliness of being geographically distant from neighbouring Anglican clergy, and even, the busy family demands, are completely foreign to the life of George Herbert, who in a sense, rented out the parish to other clergy so that he had the time to write and bumble along.
In 2009 I picked up a copy of a book with the exciting title: If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him, by Justin Lewis-Anthony. The book proved to be a worthwhile read in that it helped to disprove the myth of the man, George Herbert, and of the myth of the clergy role which many still hold on to and envision as the gold standard for all other forms of ministry. If you want a taste of what the book is like, the Guardian article written by Lewis-Anthony summarizes it all very nicely.
As much as I have a dislike for the attitude set by many inside and outside the church with this fascination with George Herbert, I must say that some of what I feel to be my most creative ministry experiences are when I just bumble along as I imagine good old George having done.
Which brings me back to loitering with intent. Occasionally…well, frequently…I found myself preparing sermons in different neighbourhood pubs. Maybe the pint of beer helped with the creativity of the sermon writing process. I’d almost always sit at the bar because it was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in that you really didn’t want to stay too long like you would if you had that nice seat at a table that was tucked away close to the wood fire on a cold winter day. Uncomfortable also because it is usually the lonely people, or the ones with issues and great needs that sat at the bar. So loiter with intent meant that in my clergy shirt, with a notepad and an open bible I would sit with one hand on the pint glass, and the other clutching a pen as I made my initial notes on the upcoming Sunday’s bible readings.
The man in black clericals at the end of the bar was to many people like a shiny fishing lure to the trout. “I just gotta ask…”, or “My friends and I were curious…”, were the typical ‘pick-up lines’ of what would turn out to be some curious, and lonely people.
The best people, as I may have mentioned before in another post, were the bartenders themselves. While there isn’t (to my knowledge) a book that is the bartenders equivalent to the clergy’s George Herbert; it is the standard belief that as people fill themselves with alcohol, they will eventually pour themselves out to the bartender. So loitering with intent meant to avoid the easy joking conversation of a small clutch of tourists, or hardcore drinkers, that were at one end of the bar, and sit alone and wait for the bartender to unload the problems of the world in the sacred moment with the highly polished wood bar top, and brass taps separating us like the dutifully polished screen of the confessional in a Roman Catholic church.
In many ways, bumbling does not reproduce fantastic results in a culture – a church culture – that wishes to see the pews fill-up with new members. However, the ministry always felt creative, vital and in some ways, maybe a little bit like a golden piece of poetry in amongst the commonness of ordinary life.
Looking back over time at what has been creative ministry, and in the case of this blog, some creative writing, it is on one-hand, an outlet, and on the other hand, a way that I, and others, may reflect on what I do, and how God is present – be it in Canada, or in Germany; be it in a church, or at the end of the bar. While I highly doubt that my writing, either the content or the style, will ever be compared to George Herbert’s poetic prose, at least like the Country Parson I’ve got the name that fits the role.