I was never more fruitful in my work for the parish than in the days of my departure after 12 years in post as the vicar of St Stephens in Shepherds Bush. My role changed from that of a poet, crafting words and shaping dreams, to that of the clown, drawing back from the community that I have known and loved, and laughing with people at the insecurity of what lay ahead for me. The poet draws people into the telling of a story. The clown distances himself from what is happening and, in seeing things in a different light, teaches others to do so similarly. People felt the spaces opening up where previously there had been stability and wanted to meet with me and talk. Someone, not even from the congregation, posted on line “I never talked to you but always felt I could. I am sorry to see you go”.
The poet offers shape, order and purpose. The clown is chaotic, contingent and temporal. Some days I have, some days had three different breakfasts and two special suppers in order to see all of the people, with whom I wanted to spend time. I am leaving the security of a five bedroomed vicarage for temporary accommodation, family, friends and people’s charity. My next job, as a prison chaplain, provides no house to go with the position and so until I find a place of my own. I will be at the mercy of others. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool (As You Like It Act 5 Scene 1).
People became more open with me about their own lives, as they realised that I would no longer be walking the self-same streets as they. They talked deeply about themselves and I learnt more about the dark corners of the community I loved. I understood more completely the spiritual poverty of mankind, in parting than I would ever have done in staying. I was no longer exuberant, joyful and hopeful but melancholic, desolate, soaked with knowledge and drawn into the pain of another person’s heartache.
At my final Eucharist in the parish I have asked a child to open the worship, a young person to preach and children to lead the prayers, say the creed and share the Peace with the congregation. “The poem was never about the poet. The sermon was never about the vicar. Life is never about us” [Jenny Helgen]. The Service showcases the people of God and I am their broken down, old clown watching on from the wings as people act out their better selves. It is from the clown that we learn to laugh and cry together: we weep with laughter and cry tears of joy and know instinctively that crucifixion and resurrection are each a part of the other. A yearning for stability is an escape from reality; the holiness of God is also a constructive force making new life possible.
I am the follower of a dreamer whose dream came true. Courageously and against the odds he stuck to his vision of how the world could be – the leopard would lie down with the lamb and the sheep next to the wolf (Isaiah 11:6). In our society the dream lives on: children will lead adults in worship, homeless people will be treated with dignity and refugees with respect; we will all recognize that each of us are a part of each other and under the sovereignty of God. The dreamer’s dream is both here in part but is still to come in all its fullness. As I prepare to make the transition to my new role as a prison chaplain, I will pray, as did St Ignatius, “grant me nothing more than to be poured out in sacrifice to God. On thou who art the light of the minds that know thee; the life of the souls that love thee and the strength of the wills that serve thee help us to know thee that we may truly love thee; to love thee that we may fully serve thee whom to serve is perfect freedom