Commissioning of a Parish Priest

A sermon preached by The Right Revd Brian Farran, Bishop of the Northern Region of the Diocese of Perth, at the Commissioning of Father David Battrick as Parish Priest of Greenwood and Ministry Development Officer of the Northern Region

Last week Robin and I had the pleasure of our two adult daughters staying with us. Elizabeth has two young sons -Oscar nearly 2, and Harry 5 months. Gabrielle went to school and university in Perth, so has many friends still in Perth. Life was very hectic. Adult daughters of their age live a certain style of social life that requires taking coffee and eating out for lunch. “Where’s a good place to eat, Dad?”, was a regular question.

So we visited various local cafes and eating places. When you’ve done a few of these on the trot, as it were, you begin to notice startling variations. Most noticeably, whether or not it is easy to get two pushers over the threshold; whether the place is child-welcoming; the greeting given to you by the staff as you enter; the speed of the service; whether children are thought important. The observations could go on, and I have not got to any critique of the food or the coffee! Believe me, in any café strip in Perth be it on the West Coast Highway, or Cottesloe, or Subiaco, or the neighbourhood cafes, it is clear that there are qualitatively huge variations. So some places thrive, whilst other places limp along. Now, what is true of cafés and restaurants is true too of churches.

In fact, a piece of investigative research, admittedly carried out in the United States, compared good restaurants with good churches, and found interesting similarities. The author of this research Feeding the Flock (as it was published) was intrigued into undertaking this line of research by wandering down one evening as an out-of-town visitor to a restaurant strip and noticing that many of the restaurants had few customers, whilst at one particular place the queue snaked its way for almost a block. I have seen this at Subiaco on a cold, windy night. A queue steadfastly formed outside the Sicilian whilst other places languished for customers. Was it just the food? Was it the service? Was it the decor? Or most likely, was it the reputation that this particular restaurant had achieved that solidified that queue?

The researcher of Feeding the Flock reckons it is the reputation that a place establishes, spread often by word of mouth, that generates the clientele that refuses to take the easy way out and dine at another place, but will wait patiently in a queue, even in harsh weather conditions. Now people of certain temperaments or ages might think that such queuing is ridiculous. But my daughters’ generations think nothing of this, for they want good service, good food, good ambience, and a good time.

What is it that motivates such cafes and restaurants? Is it profit? Well, the best achieving enterprises never take their eye off whom they are serving. They know that if they provide good service they will attract customers and in attracting customers, they will be profitable. To focus just on making a profit will usually result in deteriorating customer attention, and thus begins a gradual slide towards closure.

Now this church is sited opposite a suburban shopping centre that experienced lean times. The centre looked uninviting, had shop vacancies, and gave off a depressing atmosphere. The story now is quite different. The shopping centre was renovated both externally and internally. Now it is busy again with its own sense of vibrant community. The management of the Greenwood Shopping Centre had to alter the street facade to signal the radical change. This indicated a different, improved shopping centre. So the focus was directed outwards to the general public. I wonder what mission they embraced as they recognised their dire circumstances, planned for change, and invested for a better future?

Did you know that there is a web site The Ship of Fools that publishes reviews of churches and their worship, undertaken by people recruited as mystery worshippers in congregations? Last Sunday 100 such anonymous reviewers visited churches in London to assess worship. These reviewers comment on such aspects as the welcome given them upon entry into the church; the appearance of the congregation; the ambience of the church; the commitment to worship; the sermon; the liturgical style of the priest; the music; the after-service hospitality and concludes with the question, would you go back again? Are there churches that people will queue to go to, bypassing others? Well, yes there are. Such churches thrive on the reputation they establish in their immediate neighbourhood through the good reviews given them by those who attend them.

There are some general simple ingredients or Christly gestures that assist the development of churches. First, congregations that grow in numbers (and that does seem to have been at least the gospel writers’ intentions) are focussed outwards towards their communities, and connect with their communities. This connecting happens according to the specifics of local contexts. No two communities are necessarily the same. But knowledge of the local is absolutely essential, if we are to relate meaningfully to our setting. As a church we have tended to face inwards upon the present congregation, designing programmes for the present clientele, and largely ignoring the massive numbers who simply pass us by. Yet we know from Australian social research that people are in real need of meaning, a value system, assurance about the future, esteem for themselves…and this is across the generations bur obviously more true for Generation X, those born after 1963. It is not as if we have nothing to contribute to our community. We are not bankrupt of value and significance; it is that we have diverted our attention from connecting with our neighbourhood. We have looked too inwardly upon ourselves.

As I have pondered our current dilemma that is widespread in the Anglican Church, I have ruminated on three thoughts, given to me by Saint Paul, and by two young priests of my acquaintance. I think these thoughts have gestated into an awareness that we are suffering from lacking public places in which we as church can share our ideas with others. I am sure that Saint Paul went to the Areopagus in Athens, the political and religious forum, because this was the most appropriate public place to share his thinking about Jesus Christ. Shopping Centres are a modest equivalent of the Areopagus. They are not as speculative as was the Areopagus, but more practical for reflecting on how to do the Gospel. Such places give spaces – tables in cafes, aisles in supermarkets – for the exchange of ideas. Conversations abound in cafes and when out shopping. If we are good at anything, we are good at talking when we bump into people and whilst we drink tea or coffee. We are not likely to be exchanging ideas about Jesus Christ with strangers here. We are much more likely to do that in cafes, when we are out and about in the community and in its favoured settings for hospitality. After all, Greenwood is renown for The Greenwood that wins awards year after year! Pubs are great places for vigorous conversations, especially religious conversations.

Saint Paul sought out the public spaces available to him to begin his conversations. I think this is a good principle to imitate not just for David, but for us all. I’ve combined in saying that a thought about Saint Paul and the comment of one of my former curates who lives for part of each year in Australia and Argentina. He noted how few public spaces were available to the church in Australia to share its ideas. The third thought was given to me on Thursday over lunch at the café under Anglican Church Office by one of the priests of this Northern Region. He was reflecting about the quality of life of his congregation. He said (and I instantly copied this down on a napkin) that congregations are no longer communities born out of necessity, but have to be communities born out of desire. He was contrasting a former time when we lived locked in our suburbs, with today when people choose with whom they wish to associate, a wish granted by our greater mobility. We tossed this observation about as we ate our tossed salads!

Yes, there was a time when you needed your neighbour, no matter who the neighbour was. Community was generated out of necessity more than out of choice, and people basically put up with one another. We no longer live in that kind of society. We are much more mobile. We can have community anywhere we desire. So community now is a product of our wanting to belong to certain others. It is much more a matter of desire. The consequence of that shift in social arrangement for the church is that we have to evolve a quality of congregational life that draws desire from others to join and to stay as members of the congregation. Congregational growth is from attraction. So the good experience of congregational life has to be made known in other public and relational settings. We need to raise our visibility as a church both in the community (the public sphere) and through our conversations (the private sphere). And we need to do this positively and encouragingly.

Now I consider that Father David will be a marvellous raiser of this church’s visibility. He will be identifiably present in the community. He will be networking, developing contacts for this church, connecting with people, conversing Christ with them, keen and enthusiastic about faith and worship. He will give a very pleasant and inviting face to faith. He does know how to inspire and connect. However, Father David does not drink Solo! He w ill not be doing these things by himself. He will be working with the congregation at connecting, inviting and attracting. And new people will join because of this pattern of ministry. Father David is the priest here on 0.5 appointment. The other half of his time will be given to Ministry Development with parishes in this Northern Region. Again, David has much to contribute in this role and will build upon the tremendous work already achieved by Archdeacon Michael Wood. Here once new connections are made, the real work begins. This work of ministry includes good hospitality here, effective welcoming, processes of Christian formation, and programmes that connect life and faith so that faith is not at the level of a hobby but is a life-stance.

Saint Paul who entered the political and religious forum of the Areopagus to share his passion for Jesus and his thinking about Jesus plaintively worried that the churches he planted might not seize the opportunities for mission that were before them. We read his concerns in his letters to churches. Saint Paul knew that finally these churches had to be the kind of communities that so embodied the Gospel, they would be able to nurture new believers and keep forming themselves in the Faith. Saint Paul’s concern still holds true for this church and for all our churches.