I sat in the congregation at a friends ordination service recently, for the first time in three months. I was in a church I’d never been in before. I didn’t have to do anything, other than simply worship, and listen, and pray; no choreographed moves, no desperate search of the memory bank for what I needed to do next, no sense that stuff was expected of me, only the sense of expectation that accompanies the knowledge that God was there. I even got to sit next to my husband, and hold hands during the Bishop’s excellent sermon!
The occasion brought sharply into focus some of the changes that I have experienced since my ordination. One of these is that in my new church, I’m always sat in the curates stall, and not among the people. They’re all able to watch me, if they feel so inclined, and I can see some of them, and watch their expressions if I so wish. In my sending parish, where I led worship often as a Reader, this was only sometimes the case, not always.
In the curates stall, I’m isolated. There might be a server sat behind and to one side of me out of sight, but partially tucked behind the pulpit and across from the vicar, there isn’t anyone nearby. From here, I suspect that I’m possibly missing out on the spiritual hum, that hopefully exists within any Christian worship, because I need more than simply my eyes to sense it.
I can’t hear the stifled, swallowed gasps or giggles at the preachers jokes or references – only the ones that escape out loud. I can’t feel the hands or the hair of the person behind me brushing the back of my head as they pray. I can’t see the physical tremors that speak not only of possible infirmity, but of spiritual encounters with our Lord. I can’t catch the eye of a friend, and raise an eyebrow in shared, unspoken comment on something in the proceedings – or at least, I don’t feel that sat up there in curates stall that sort of behaviour is really appropriate. Any sense of expectation of, or reaction to what God is doing, is confined to the bowed heads, reverently lined up at the altar rail, hands outstretched to receive the elements at Eucharist.
That underlines the heart of the difference I suspect – I only get close to people at the Communion rail, or occasionally on the floor with the children in front of chapel altar in smaller services. Here is the isolation of the ordained minister that I had been warned of before ordination, and for which the antidote is the occasional offices with which we encounter people, often, though not exclusively, those outside of our regular congregation.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons why in more catholic, Eucharistic worshipping communities, the value of pastoral visiting is heightened? Is this the experience of others who have migrated between traditions, or am I making more of the significations of this ministerial isolation than I need to?