my bishop teased me gently on Tuesday, noting the thurifer getting organised and the diminutive acolytes standing waiting...
Thus at a stroke he confirmed both how easily he reads me and also how much my perspectives in ministry have been shaped by his influence.
You see, in hosting my first ever confirmation service this week, I felt as if I'd reached some sort of milestone on the way to becoming a "proper vicar" of a "proper church". Remembering an earlier (and not altogether unjustified) remark of his about a certain family likeness between valley church and a jumble sale, I'd spent a silly amount of hours preparing for the service - revamping notice boards,tidying odd corners, begging and beseeching those with the power to do so to remove the mowers from the back of the church.Together with the admirable Dufflepud I had also wrestled with the order of service, til it was in a nearly perfect as we could make it (of COURSE there was one stupid line break in the wrong place - but at least no huge and obvious typos). I knew I could do nothing about the size of congregation beyond encouraging all and sundry to attend...a patronal festival on a weeknight is always going to be a bit challenging, even with a bishop thrown in.
Finally, having absolutely used up all my worry quotient, I accepted that I'd done my best - and suddenly it was 6.15, the bishop was here, and we were "in the slips" waiting to begin.
Enter the character known to some of you as "cage man" - a resident of the parish who has such issues with drug and alcohol abuse that he no longer has much of a foothold in any sort of reality. He's quite fond of me, and thus sees valley church as his particular pet project - something which has both positive and negative implications. On Tuesday he felt that he could best serve by yelling abuse at those who were coming in to the building, while periodically coming in himself, - whereupon he became quieter, if no more rational...He engaged FabBishop, his chaplain and me in earnest if mostly unintelligible conversation, being deeply disturbed at the fact that we were robed, and taking a great deal of convincing that the bishop was the bishop at all. G., one of the confirmands, who has a commanding presence, stationed himself close by, just in case we needed a rapid response - but all was well. The congregation coped admirably with the tirades directed at them, FabBishop managed to deal with signing registers and certificates while paying proper attention to the rather random conversation and God heard my fervent prayer that "cage man" should vacate the building before we began the service...He departed having given me a large hug and told me that he did love me really. Ummmm........
After that, the service went pretty much exactly as I'd hoped. Great hymns were sung with gusto. We enjoyed singing the round (based on the collect) which a gifted friend had written specially for the day. FabBishop pitched his sermon just right and gave all seven candidates things to take away and reflect on....and they were duly baptised (in one case) and confirmed. At Sunday's Messy Church we had all cut out footprints and created a path from the door past the font to the altar and there was such a sense of journey, of significant steps taken, of new horizons glimpsed....I found it all quite ridiculously moving - specially when the cluster of candidates aged 12 to 62 stood at the head of the nave, carrying the candles I had just lit for them from the Paschal candle and we commissioned them to
"Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father".
The thing was, it was a very real expression of who we are as church. Long before Lucy More launched her brilliant idea, "messy church" applied beautifully to church in the valley. Here, a guidedog in training is a regular member of the choir, and our acolytes include adults with learning difficulties from a nearby unit. Even without their help, Tuesday had its own messy moments. The charcoal refused to stay alight so that when the time came to cense the altar, even the best efforts of FabBishop failed to produce the faintest flurry of smoke...The sacristan somehow failed to expect extra communicants so the wafer box was empty when FabBishop needed to consecrate more...
Nothing was polished in any way...and above all, we started the service with "cage man", reminding us that we are here to welcome, love and serve those who really don't fit in anywhere else.
Maybe, then, we ARE a proper church...or at least getting there.
Will we arrive?
One day "With the help of God, we will"