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A Changing Church

By the Revd Preb Julian Ould

Towards the end of this month, on the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, it will be my 40th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. When you hit an anniversary, it is very natural to look back, and looking back forty years I can remember very clearly my ordination at Durham Cathedral, along with 29 other deacons and an equal number being made deacons. It was a splendid occasion and my parish of St Cuthbert’s, Hebburn had put on a coach and were present in force to support me, along with family and friends. It all seems a very long time ago and was just prior to the miners’ strike which brought hardship to so many families. It was also a time when the ship building industry was declining and therefore it was no surprise when the shipyard in my parish closed causing huge numbers of people to be made redundant. It was a tough time and yet my memories of that parish are very happy ones, in that the warmth and friendliness of the people was truly wonderful.

My reflection next led me to wonder how the Church was then and indeed, how is it now?

Looking at it now, ordinations rarely have a long line of candidates under thirty years old. Fewer people are putting themselves forward for ministry and those that do are predominantly people who have had a working career before entering the Church. The falling numbers of clergy have, by necessity, meant the joining of parishes under one priest and, in our Diocese, the forming of Mission Communities. The falling number of full-time priests is causing concern and anxiety about the future and terms like ’empowering the laity’ to take services and run churches is being looked upon as the way forward. When I was ordained, most churches had their own priest and certainly in my first parish, I used to do general visiting of homes every weekday afternoon. This was the norm, and it is tempting to assume that the Church is now worse off than in those rose-tinted days.

I say rose-tinted, in that the past can often seem to have been the golden time when all was well, and yet, to return to some of my opening thoughts, the miner’s strike and huge numbers of redundancies was far from golden. Also, whilst I did enjoy ministering to a single parish and sharing so much with my parishioners, I am not convinced the Church was a better Church than today. Personally, when in my last team, I missed the hands-on ministry of the past and found it frustrating to be an overseer of so many things I would have liked to be involved in, but this was just my own wish and not what necessarily makes for a better Church.

So, what of the Church today? Well, in the past I fear the Church was not perhaps what the living body of Christ was supposed to be, in that, whilst people did play a part, things were predominantly clergy led. By necessity today we all have to play a part, in services, in visiting with Pastoral Care Teams, in just about everything that the Church is involved in, and therefore I think we are a healthier Church.

So, to conclude my reflections. I have enjoyed my ministry to date and whilst we all struggle with change, I do recognise that in sharing the ministry we really do have what I believe the Church should be, and so let us rejoice and go forward in faith.