The bishop of the diocese I worked in in England often said to his clergy something like, “I want you to be a parish priest, not a chaplain to a congregation.” The bishop was drawing on a distinction that is fundamental to the Anglican orientation to ministry. In England, the parish is a geographic unit. In an established church like the Church of England, the priests have a responsibility—the “cure of souls”—for all who live in their parish, whether or not that person ever darkens the door of the church building. Parish priests perform baptisms, weddings, and funerals for their parishioners. They might have a relationship with a school or nursing home in their parish. They might offer programs that are directed not at those who attend church but at those who never will. Parish priests have an orientation to ministry that is broader than the Sunday morning crowd. As parish priests, clergy come into contact with people from all walks of life, not just the self-selected few who walk through the door. (Parishes continue to exist in mostly vestigial fashion in some parts of Canada and the United States.)
I thought of this distinction as I heard our returning student Jeffrey Mackie speak about his summer placement at St. Mark’s with St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Mayo, Yukon. The Sunday morning congregation in Mayo may be small. But the church has a ministry to the entire community, through drop-in programs, meal programs, by being a welcoming space, and much else. (You should ask Jeffrey about it if you haven’t already.) The church does not let its small attendance prevent it from being a light to the community and a place to which people turn for support and encouragement.
For the church, one of the great—and most damaging—facts of our time is that religion has been confined to the private sphere of life. It’s OK to be religious, just so long as it has absolutely no implications for anyone else. (Quebec, of course, has taken this logic further than other jurisdictions in Canada.) When clergy see themselves as chaplains to congregations, they can sometimes be complicit in this line of thinking. But when clergy see themselves as parish priests, they are asserting by their ministry that religion matters both to individuals and the societies of which they are a part.
My bishop in England was trying to help his clergy frame their understanding and experience of ministry. If you judge your success as a priest simply by how many people show up on Sunday and what kind of programs you offer them, it can be easy to get quickly disappointed and exhausted. But if you frame your ministry as a gospel ministry to all the people in your community, then your understanding of what you are doing will be different. The gospel calls us to minister the sacraments to those who attend our services. But it also calls us to be salt and light in the communities—parishes—in which we live.
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.