Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Bricks and Straw

Sky at St Deiniol'sLast week I spent some time in that little piece of heaven on earth gifted to us by William Gladstone, St Deiniol’s Library in Hawarden, North Wales. I was there to read, mooch, drink beer and tell jokes with friends, but also to teach a four day course on the perils of Herbertism and the solutions of the KGH approach to parish ministry.

There were fifteen on the course, all but one clergy (and the lay person was a churchwarden, who sportingly described himself as the “twelfth man”). The length of licensed ministry varied from thirty-four to three years. It was, of course, a self-selecting group: you don’t attend a course called If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Re-thinking Priestly Ministry unless you think that your priestly ministry needs radical rethinking. Even so, it was striking how many of the experiences, frustrations, rewards and assumptions that emerged during the writing of my book were reflected in the ministries of these varied priests (C of E, Church in Wales, and Episcopal Church of the US).

On the first evening I asked everyone to think of the one thing that was missing from their lives that would make all the difference to them. Up came:

Space & Time

It was clear as our discussions developed that “space and time” were being treated as the carrot of ministry: when you get all your work done, if you managed to complete the paperwork, when you have fulfilled the work-quota, if you have contented the internal and external drivers of your life, then you will be rewarded with some “space and time”. You will have a little bit of time to yourself.

As the discussions developed it became clear to me, in my own mind as well as in the minds of those on the course, how powerfully this “lollipop for the vicar” model was embedded in our lives. And how wrong it is.

Space and Time are NOT the reward for getting your priestly ministry done: they are the necessities for getting your priestly ministry done. Without space and time priestly ministry is impossible to undertake, in any kind of healthy, sustainable, joyful and fulfilling way1. Space and time is the fuel for ministry, or rather, and more accurately, it is the way in which the individual minister co-operates with God in allowing the Holy Spirit to become part, the controlling part, of his/her ministry. Space and time denies the persistent heresy that ministry is down to us: as Hans Küng put it:

The opus operatum [the work done] is not an opus operatum ministri [work done through the ministry], but an opus operatum of Jesus Christ.2

Allowing ourselves space and time forces us to accept the fact that it isn’t down to us to build God’s Church, to fulfil His quotas, to save God’s people. It is the work of the Holy Spirit unleashed by the saving ministry of Christ.

“Space and Time” is what an earlier (healthier?) ecclesiology called contemplation. The minister of the Gospel needs to be in the presence of God, and to prevent pride, to remind him/herself that they are in the presence of God3.

This is what the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, was getting at when he described the purpose of the Christian vocation:

Contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere.
“contemplate and give to others the fruits of your contemplation”4

Contemplation is not something that can be done in 6 minute bursts. There is no such thing as “power-contemplation”, or “multi-tasking meditation”. It requires time and space to achieve (or, rather, and more accurately again, it requires time and space to allow ourselves to get out of the way in order for the fruits of the Holy Spirit at work within us to grow).

Mark Yaconelli, who comes from a tradition very different from the Dominican scholar, also puts it this way:

In the Christian community there is a [deep] block: we no longer know how to be with God. In the church we love to debate God, defend God, protect or promote God. We talk to God, praise God, and even serve God. The one thing for we have little time or patience is actually spending time with God. If you’re a pastor in a church, one sure way to get fired is to set aside ten minutes of silence during a worship service for people just to ‘be’ with God. Try this a few times and soon the church leadership will be inviting you to ‘be’ somewhere else.5

Which is understandable, because from the outside ‘being’ with God looks like the most unproductive thing in the world. Nothing is happening. No one is being spoken to, cared for, built up. No projects are being actioned, moved on. Nothing is developing. It’s just a person in a room being quiet.

As I said in Kill George :

But sometimes what is seen as ‘waste of time’ is actually fallow ground becoming fruitful.

I’ll say it again. Space and Time are not the reward for the effective parish priest. Space and Time are the means for a parish priest to be a faithful parish priest. Space and Time are the means by which that ministry is built up. To attempt to do otherwise is to submit oneself to the employment practices of Pharaoh, where bricks are to be made without straw, as a punishment for being lazy.

If you feel that this is regime under which you labour, whether the Pharaoh is internal or external, remember that bricks need straw, and ministry needs contemplation, and fruits are made to be grown and shared in the richness of space and time ‘wasted’ in the presence of God.

  1. And I’m not talking about the rewards of personal fulfilment here. I speaking of the fulfilment that comes through experiencing the fruits of the Spirit in your life and ministry. If being “poured out” and “completing the race” was OK for Paul, then it’s OK for his successors. []
  2. Hans Küng, Structures of the Church, (London: Burns & Oates, 1965), p. 165-166 []
  3. to prevent the mistake that any “successes” you may experience are down to you and your efforts: this is what Article XI of the 39 Articles is warning us against! []
  4. Often said to derive from Summa Theologica II.II q.188 a.6. []
  5. Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus with Young People, (London, SPCK; 2006), p. 3. []


  1. Chris

    Amen! Yes!

    As a busy student at theological college, I needed to hear that. Seems we have much business running services, doing essays etc, but little space to grow fruit.

  2. Justin Lewis-Anthony

    You are right Chris, and theological college is as nothing compared with the crushing lack of space in ministry: but crushing only if we let it become so!

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