Immense Pastoral Potential in Little Places

[On his blog, Fr. Ed Tomlinson, of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, mused on the advantages of shepherding the small backwaters (my term, not his) many Ordinariate communities tend to be.  Attached below is an excerpt from his piece. 

One observation he doesn’t include—perhaps because it’s so self-evident to him that he doesn’t think to single it out—is the fact that smaller flocks mean that both clergy and fellow parishioners have a stronger likelihood of supporting each other pastorally—“accompaniment,” to use the term that has recently gained a purchase.  This point is implied, perhaps, by his comment about effective bonding.  But I mention the word “pastoral” since it calls up an important theological/spiritual tradition in English spirituality, including St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s splendid pastoral prayer.

Being comfortable with a smaller congregation is what many of us from the Anglican tradition know.  This is often the case even in cathedrals.  My experience of praying with some frequency at the cathedral of an English cathedral city (Durham) made it clear that the regulars who were there for the Daily Office formed what was, in effect, a small congregation that happened to meet in a large cathedral.  (And the rood screen helped mark off a smaller space—the quire—in which this smaller group gathered to pray.)

Fr. Tomlinson’s observation not only about the pastoral mantle a priest of a small congregation can more effectively wear but also about being more rooted in a small community point to two elements in English spirituality’s deep monastic roots.  Unlike the non-monastic orders, Benedictines/Cistercians take a vow of stability, which means their pastoral charism focuses on the local community.  Stability includes, as Fr. Tomlinson remarks, confronting mistakes and learning from them.]

Monsignor Burnham made a remark on social media last week to the effect that serving as priest to a small community can be more pleasurable than serving the more impressive and sought-after positions within the ecclesial realm. …  What then are the advantages and joys for clergy serving smaller congregations? …

1 A sense of community. When you have hundreds through the door on a Sunday morning it is impossible for people to bond effectively. But in smaller congregations people know one another well and that feeling of family grows strong. …

4 Scripture teaches us that God likes little places. Jesus did not choose the palace for his birth but a stable. … Throughout scripture it is in the quiet corners that the Holy Spirit seems most active, the people most receptive to grace. Ours too is a small but sacred place where I detect the quiet presence of God within the sanctuary. …

5 One can plan for the long term. Wherever clergy are ambitious you tend to find a rotating door policy. A priest comes and goes and it can lead to the same short-termism that blights the political realm. Parishes become stepping stones and clergy don’t get time to confront mistakes and learn from them. But for those of us building the first congregations within the Ordinariate setting- we have nowhere to go. This is healthy because it makes us consider the long term consequences of all that we do. We can truly dedicate our lives to the people we serve.

[The photo is of St. Beuno’s, Culbone, Somerset]

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