A couple of days ago, I found myself on the stage of the town hall in the company of the local MP, giving out ‘certificates of excellence’ to a steady stream of primary school children. Nothing unusual there, you may say. It’s the sort of thing vicars do.
But that’s the problem. It certainly fitted with the expectations of the local vicar with which I grew up, when the incumbent was part of the structure of the community, widely recognised as one of the neighbourhood’s ‘great and good’, a suitable authority figure for school prize-giving, and to be invited to civic events of every kind. He (of course) was there as the representative of the established church (and of the Establishment) in a country which described itself as Christian, no matter how small a percentarge of the population were active members of a church.
On Wednesday, however, I was giving out certificates to children, only a tiny proportion of whom would have any connexion with Christian faith; the great majority with a faith commitment were Muslim. I was part of the presenting team in my capacity as an LEA-appointed governor in a community school. That I also happen to be the local vicar is incidental.
And yet I was wearing my clerical collar, identifiably a leader in the Christian community, and a sign of continued Christian presence in and commitment to a neighbourhood where residual attachment to church and church-going is dwindling rapidly as the population changes.
In this area, there is a shortage of volunteers to take up governorships in local schools. Working for the well-being of the community in which I find myself is a natural part of my ministry, fitting with the long Anglican tradition of service particularly in the inner city. School governorship is a very practical opportunity to use my skills and experience in a field where they will be of value. It also gives me the chance to make relationships with children, parents, and colleagues whom I would not otherwise encounter – and who perhaps would rarely have any occasion to engage with someone who has a public commitment to the Christian faith.
The difference from the old days is that I cannot assume any right to that opportunity or those relationships. The old rules of establishment no longer hold. I must earn my place at the table, by whatever personal gifts I might bring and by an understanding of the gospel which connects to the hopes and fears of staff, parents, children and governors of the school. And I find myself wondering when and if I will be joined on the governing body by the local imam; when will he be the natural person to invite onto the platform, and should he be so already?