New Ways To Be Priest

Ministering To God's Children Outside Of The Institution

Saint Laika's is delighted that we have been given permission to post this essay by our good friend, the Reverend Randy Murray, that was originally posted on his "Talk To A Priest" Facebook page. It is about being a priest outside of the institution of the church, a subject close to the hearts of the team who keep the Saint laika internet ministry on the road. I am exploring ways of bringing Randy's street ministry to the internet via Talk To A Priest and Saint Laika's. Hopefully, I will have more to say about this in the not too distant future but, in the mean time, do read Randy's essay as it is very interesting indeed.

Part One:

For a while, being unemployed and all, I thought of buying one of these Swedish coffee wagons as a way of supporting myself while I did my Talk To A Priest thing on the street. I had in mind one of the smaller versions, though, for around $2000, not this cadillac model.

I do wish religious institutions would take off-beat ministries more seriously. If I walked into the office in my diocese that awards money to support unique ministries and parish programs, they'd likely smile and sweetly tell me to go find a parish first, then fill out a form with the parish name neatly typed in at the top, then indicate the target group of the ministry, and an estimate of how many bums I might expect to get into the pews as a result.

Well, sorry, the only thing I offer is a listening ear, maybe some discreet advice. That's it. No expectations, no "see you on Sunday." And that's what people like about what's happening out there on Queen West. They get some one-on-one on their terms. There's no ulterior motive, no agenda.

Part Two:

Since last spring when I became an unemployed, I have done a lot of thinking and discernment (though I'm not sure just how successful the latter has gone) about ministry and the priestly identity. It's pretty much assumed that if you're an Anglican priest you will serve a parish. And that's because, unless you have the qualifications to teach in a university, or write books, or you're famous enough to be invited to lecture, there isn't much else you can do to earn a living. (Yes, there's chaplaincy work although there, too, one needs the necessary qualifications).

But what if you have that deep down inside inkling that something more profound must change? What if you're a priest who wants to take this vocation of yours and turn it on its head? And by that I mean take the risk of departing from the institutional structure that keeps priests fed and housed through parish employment, and strike out, still practising priesthood, yes, but doing it in ways that don't/won't/can't provide the safety net that you get, and become used to, when you're employed by the Church.

Since becoming unemployed, I have often wondered if the Church has much use for clergy who do ministry outside the usual structures; it's very possible of course that not many have tried. But let's say that you start to minister in a quiet, out-of-the-way capacity, one that is working, one that by all appearances is valuable to people, but one that has no official sanction ? Even if you tell church authority what you're doing, or the authority finds out, how should you expect them to react ? Can you expect them to show interest in what you're doing? Should they support you in some way, morally if not financially ? And if such support, moral or financial, is not forthcoming, does that make you a free agent? Do you have a bishop anymore? What's going on? These are questions in need of more discernment, I suppose; God does take us places that, if we were to ask too many questions about them, we'd more often than not conclude that our discernment is faulty and that we really were destined to work in more predictable situation after all. But what if that inkling of is right ?

Accompanying an earlier post of mine on my "Talk To A Priest" Facebook page, is a picture of Saint Anthony of the Desert (also known as Anthony of Egypt). I had always heard of him, vaguely, but was reintroduced to him some months ago while reading Thomas Keating's "Invitation to Love." Coming from a comfortable life, Anthony was inspired to renounce that life when he heard the evangelical counsel of Jesus that reads "If you seek perfection, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor. You will then have treasure in heaven. Afterward, come back and follow me." And sometime later, "Stop worrying, then, over questions like 'What are we to eat, or what are we to drink, or what are we to wear?' " And with that he journeyed through the purifying desert, enduring successive demonic attacks (temptations to return to his former life and thus re-embrace his false self) until he arrived at transforming union.

I'm not Saint Anthony, and I don't for a moment wish to suggest that everyone must live a life of celibacy and extreme ascetic rigour in order to do God's will. But I do believe that as God gives us the grace to do so, the Christian is one who is called to renounce his/her false self. And we all have one of those. This has led me in my thinking over the last several months to question my current way of living. For instance, back in June, the Globe and Mail published an article written by Arthur White called "Last Call At The Palace Arms." The Palace Arms is an old long-stay hotel on King Street West in Toronto. It's the kind of place we describe as a flop house, a place that cheaply houses people of various sorts and kinds who, for one reason or another, find themselves outside the respectable mainstream of an affluent society. The hotel appears to be ready for closure, a site for yet another of Toronto's multi-million dollar re-vamps into a swishy venue for hipsters. Upon reading the article, I got it into my head that I might expand my Talk To A Priest ministry into a chaplaincy to the Palace Arms: actually check in for a stay of indeterminate length, listening to and sharing the residents' lives, perhaps staying with them till the bitter end when the place finally shuts its doors. For more than one reason I haven't done that, but I still have the newspaper article. I pull it our every once in a while and look at it.

Does this kind of calling have a place within the context of a more traditional ministry? Can I still feed myself and pay rent, even low rent, while living in a situation like this or something similar? I thought that if I did return to parish work, I would like to live over a store front or, if the parish were small town or rural, in a home made from shipping containers or the like; a housing situation that by itself made a statement, one that spoke to the pursuit of soul perfection.



New Ways To Be Priest — 2 Comments

  1. Jonathan,

    Thank you for sharing this. Sometimes we forget that Jesus did not minister in a parish or church but on the street.

    • I think we will soon be forced back on the streets which is a bit scary but also very exciting.