Friday, 5 August 2011

Once; Only Once, and Once for All

Today, as I painted walls, my Inbox became home to a couple of emails which, very graciously, thanked me for a funeral that I officiated at earlier this week. I never expect such notes, but would be lying if I didn't claim delight in receiving them. It is the same week when I received a very nice card thanking me for a baptism that I performed. Again, it was unexpected, unsolicited and wonderful. 

I am not writing this as a preface to a post where I tell you all that I am good at Occasional Offices. As I ponder ministry in the light of a very imminent move, it strikes me once again the particular privilege of what we hold in our hands for brief moments.

Life is full of uncertainties. How we live, how that life is manifest in the context of disease or misfortune, success or good luck all go to show that there are a few certainties. We will only have one funeral. We will only have one baptism (if that is the route of our lives). In the most hopeful of circumstances, we will only have one marriage. In the life of a Christian, these are events where they will coincide with a priest - who have but one go at getting it right

I 'do' many funerals, a fair number of baptisms and a good few weddings. There is a very real danger of letting them all become the same, habit-formed and routine. When one has four funerals in one week, it is hard to make them distinctive and unique, save for the choices of music. Computer technology helps with this, as I have a pallet of liturgical resources which means I enjoy variety and so does the ceremony and its guests. The danger is also in the mindset. I might have a distinct service in my folder, but I could be in easy peril of turning the deceased into 'just another dead person who needs a nice send off'. I hope I have not fallen into this trap in funerals, or its like in weddings or baptisms - but I still have 30 years for that to potentially happen. 

The paths of priests and people criss-cross in funny ways, but when they coincide, we have a profound opportunity to do good. I wonder if it is not the greatest joy of our ministry, that we can take these 'once only' moments and make them special. That is my perspective at least. I believe too that if we miss a trick when these moments come around that we do immeasurable damage to the people monetarily in our care. We may not get to hear about it, quite possibly, but we may have cost them their faith in our faith. 

I think that the greatest successes of my ministry here in Aylesbury has been in these unique moments. They had the potential of being my greatest undoing too, but I hope not this time around. However, I have to be clear to remind myself every once in a while that what I am entrusted with is so precious that it makes gold and diamonds look like hemp sacking. One 'hello', one 'goodbye' - that is what we are granted as humans, and so we as ministers (as I do accept that other ministers as well as priests share this wonderful ministry) must never for a moment take that part of our job for granted, or take it lightly. 


  1. Before I was ordained I thought that the Occasional Offices would be a "necessary evil" of the job, but they have turned out to be among the most satisfying things I do. While we don't do it to get any thanks it is lovely when someone takes the trouble to drop a line to say thank you.

    What is really nice is "repeat business" when you take a wedding, for example, and then a year or two later the couple want you to baptise their child (these days it also happens the other way round); or when a well-taken funeral leads to a request for you to do a wedding for a family member or a friend.

  2. It seems from your description, that the danger in meeting with and dealing with so many people, only occasionally, is that they can blur into one.

    It's helpful self-awareness to know this and to have it in mind all of the time, perhaps praying that you will remember them the next time.

    My problem is a good memory for faces, but an extremely fallible one for name. It normally takes me a while to put both together. I suppose that it's a fault, but hopefully one that I can improve on, by both putting systems into place to write things down at the time and also using some sort of memory aid to help - Any suggestions, would be gratefully received.

    I take the issue seriously, perhaps to seriously, but I don't want to be known as absent minded one. It's bad enough being known as 'Path finder' due to my inability to navigate from place to place accurately, more than once!

    Now, where did I put my notebook?

  3. UKViewer

    I have a similar problem about names. And you are right. One tends to have contact with people at quite intense times in their lives, so they tend to remember you better than you can remember them. With Homer Simpson, I find these days that the new stuff pushes the old stuff out of my brain :)

    One thing that I find helps me slightly is that I try, whenever possible, to visit people in their own homes rather than getting them to come to the Rectory. I have a "geographical mind" and find it easier to associate people with places and addresses. It sounds as if this might not be a good strategy for you, though.

  4. I so agree with this post, David. The occasional offices can be some of the most important ministry we can offer and I have always tried to remember that for the people concerned this isn't a repeat, but the one and only.



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