EVERY morning, on foot on the morning prayer route, I cross several boundaries: the boundaries of the diocesan area of Stepney in the Two Cities; the boundaries of Tower Hamlets council to the City of London; and cultural boundaries, from a largely Bengali Muslim residential community to a transitional, white, mostly middle-class community with some original working-class residents of East London who have resisted gentrification.
In a single morning I can be surrounded by the cadences of Sylheti, the strong smell of cannabis, the real accents of Cockney, the sound of church bells, the stench of urine, the call of Azaan and the lingering incense, as I walk from London’s poorest borough down the Square Mile.
This sense of boundaries, and being a priest within them, is something I had never been aware of in my eight years as a Methodist minister before joining the Anglican priesthood. John Wesley’s missionary spirit meant that the ideas of working within “one’s territory” (or parish boundaries) were not central to how we understood ordained living in Methodism. We were itinerant priests, with the pastoral charge of specific churches, but preaching in a different Church of the Circuit each Sunday.
It was also a life of moving from one part of the United Kingdom to another every five years, deployed, under discipline, wherever the mission and witness of the Church was best judged.
I admit some hesitation about the bounded nature of the priesthood in the Church of England; yet it was the stability and commitment to a particular place and people that drew me to Anglicanism, as part of a much broader sense of calling to deeper catholicity, and to being part of of a Church that can publicly acknowledge its own dysfunctional reality and admit its own shortcomings.
IN THE ordination charge to those of us who are ordained deacons, our bishop quoted an older ordination charge by Michael Ramsey: “Come close to God daily with the people in your heart. . . God, yourself and the people. To be with him for them, and with them for him.
Those words stuck with me, though I don’t know what form they would take for me as curate at Aldgate. I took them to heart and linger over them often. At the start of my stay here, I wandered around the parish – in my cassock, my Jack Russell for company – to get to know the area and its people.
I firmly believed that I was a guest here (at that time, at least): someone who sought to tread gently in a community that I had come to help serve, but of which I was deeply aware had a story and a memory that preceded me, and will continue long after I’m gone.
Over time, with the help of the dog and the Holy Spirit, many conversations have taken place, not only in our open church, but in the area. One day I would be stopped by a traffic cop asking me if I was really a priest; another day it would be Lewie (all names have changed), the former Jamaican landscape gardener now estranged from his wife and children, asking for his usual ham and cheese sandwich and Red Bull from the supermarket to take away from his hostel.
Another day it would be Elina, clothes torn, shoes worn, telling me how her Roman Catholic priest had denied her the Eucharist, and pouring out her heart to me in the middle of the road about the things she’d endured.
The next day would be a City office worker, whose suit was in better shape than his mind and heart. And then there’s Nathaniel, who reminds me that there are apparently a lot of priests out there who, unlike me, hand out money.
All these people making the most of the physical contact offered by the dog, human contact having been limited for so long by the pandemic; and, in each of them, Christ — at the heart of this community, which is often so fast and so dense that you would miss him if you did not look at him.
My feeling is that while the Church today is filled with anxiety, mostly obsessed with its own survival and inner conflict, those people who have the clearest sense of what a priest is forand those who seem most deeply conscious of the presence of God in their midst, are those who hardly darken our doors.
While many are trying to encourage the professionalization of ministry, the people we serve want a priest who knows he is a priest, who is not afraid to name God, talk about the sacraments, pray for the dead or watch the game.
SERVING Christ in a place steeped in the voices of the undead means I still think about who was once here.
There are days when I can go from visiting the burial site of St John Fisher and St Thomas More to sitting at my desk, writing down the liturgy, in an office once used by Father Ken Leech, whose spirit reminds me that there is no position-neutral theology and that I must bridge the chasm between my theological convictions and the social reality that surrounds me in prayer, tears and toil.
Then there are the voices of the many female victims of Jack the Ripper, like Catherine Eddowes; the stories some remember of the Battle of Cable Street; and the menacing presence of Father Charles Lowder, who once found a young girl in a ditch here and, taking her to the hospital, was called “Father” for the love and care he showed.
Of course, I am not called to be one of the people who graced this space before me, nor to succeed here. I am simply here to live my baptismal vocation and my priestly vows as a beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.
I HAVE the strangeness of being able to look back on my life and remember three ordinations: as a Methodist minister in Chester Cathedral; as deacon at St Paul’s; and as a priest at St Botolph’s.
There is a mystery I will never really understand about following God in this way; and it is easy to get lost in the mystery of what really happens in the rite of ordination.
Still, there are some things I can’t deny – mainly that the grace of orders overrides my own weaknesses and fears. For me, this was embodied most powerfully in our ability as priests to love God’s people with the heart of God. . . “to be with him for them, and with them for him”.
But more important is the deep feeling to see that whatever happens in the Church’s understanding of ordained ministry, the priesthood in its various denominational incarnations still matters to people in a serious enough way that we deny at our own risk.
When my Muslim neighbor asks me to pray for him after his recent assault, and when others lay cake at the curation, wishing me a “Happy Easter”, I realize that the priestly presence is not easily replaceable – that what people recognize in my being here is the sacramental dimension of my life, which they may never witness, but take for granted; that they know me as someone who knows — or seeks to know — God.
AS SARAH COAKLEY puts it so powerfully in Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture: ““It is the job of the parish priest, even in the least ecclesiastical society, to bear witness to the horror publicly and to send it liturgically back to where only it can find meaning – in the broken body of Christ.”
The Catholic faith is worship. And perhaps it is for this reason that true Anglo-Catholics will not be obsessed with the demise of the Church, or its potential successes; nor will we fall into the too easy trap of considering “evangelicals” as enemies from whom we have nothing to learn; we’ll just go on in our respective stations trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit and working for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God.
This work is, for us, nourished daily by the Word and the Eucharist. It is also nurtured by our vision of this Kingdom which we encountered when we first heard the call of the Creator of the Universe to serve Christ in this way. It is made possible by the order of the Church, the apostolic ministry and the proclamation of Catholic truth. As Bishop Lightfoot once said, for us as deacons, priests and bishops, “the absolute condition of success is indifference to success.” We labor for love of the work, for love of the people, and for love of Christ, dwelling in the presence of the living God as those mired in sin whom we absolve, that others may be set on fire embers in our own souls.
What surprises me the most today is how little I think on the church. Beyond any conception of duty that might make me think I’m here to maintain some kind of Anglicanism, there is the simple job of a parish priest, which is to say our prayers, to show up, to be present and to work for freedom for the oppressed, food for the hungry and love for the sick souls.
Any sense of duty to retain my favorite form of Anglicanism would embalm the body of the Church of England and destroy its spirit forever. So when I run down the aisle (which in a school assembly has become a makeshift Damascus road as I tell the story of Saul’s conversion), and when I travel to York or Scotland to talk about justice and inclusion for black LGBT+ lives, I see myself as the broken bread, breaking bread with God’s beloved.
And, yes: there are days when it seems entirely conceivable that the central machinations of God’s Church are in the grip of Satan, and when I, too, am momentarily held hostage by a crippling anxiety that has an almost atheistic quality.
But the task – as the Ordinal says – of seeking “the children of God in the wilderness of the temptations of this world, and guiding them through its confusion, that they may be saved by Christ forever” is a pressing work; and sometimes the Child of God I’m looking for is myself.
WHETHER we are trying to save the parish, to nurture each other, or to live in love and faith, the priority must be the awesome will of God in all things; obedience to this will; and a deeper honesty as we seek the living God, whose love is so vast it can do nothing but break down and transgress human boundaries of belonging.
This is surely what the incarnation teaches us: that the Trinitarian life flourishes where human frontiers are broken down, and that the commitment to the Trinitarian life is the source of a profound revolution in us and in our world. ?
Tomorrow I will stand at the altar and from there, as always, look out over the busy Aldgate High Street. In my heart there will be Lewie, whom I haven’t seen in months, as well as Child Q, and Ukraine, because I hold in my hands the one who broke the greatest of borders.
And will resound in my ears again the words of Ken Leech, it’s true here is “a sacramental prefiguration of a liberated world”, responding to the needs of those most dear to Our Lord, himself dead outside the door.
Reverend Jarel Robinson-Brown is Assistant Vicar at St Botolph-sans-Aldgate in the Diocese of London. He is also a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College, Salisbury and Vice President of OneBodyOneFaith.
See full list of ordinations and photos in the Gazette