‘I am a Messianic Jew,’ says the jittery young man at the rectory door. He is pale and drawn, with a close-shaven scalp and several days of bristles on a sharp chin. The bloodshot eyes search for me swimmingly. ‘A Jew, a Messianic Jew,’ he emphasises. I should have a clever rejoinder, but I am assessing if he has a knife so I only manage, ‘Ah yes, and how can I help?’ ‘Is this you?’ is thrown back at me, as he jabs his finger at the screen of his phone and then holds it up to my face like a mirror. I admit my identity (an image from our website), and this makes him confident of success. ‘You must pay my bus fare to-Latvia.’
Such encounters are the commonplace of the daily life of the urban vicar. The rage and frustration when no money is forthcoming is the awkward moment — best done somewhere public. ‘Give to everyone who asks of you,’ says Jesus in Luke’s gospel, but then Jesus wasn’t a vicar in Catford. In fact, I am not sure Jesus would have made a very good vicar. One can’t imagine him chairing the parochial church council or filling in yet another funding application, though he would perhaps have gone out of his way to encounter the Messianic Jew I am trying to get rid of. I must pay his bus fare, he says again. But if I help, my front door will quickly become even more of a magnet for the lost, bewildered and feckless. I offer food to my Jew, but it is of no interest, despite his racked and hungry appearance.
The Church of England still understands herself to be the church of the nation: bishops in the Lords, royal weddings, choral evensong and, above everything, availability to all — ‘a presence in every community’, as the strapline goes. I am not the chaplain to the congregation, but rector for everyone in the parish, or that’s the idea. The danger with urban ministry is that this understanding is shared absolutely with all those who would like something free from the vicar — money, food, shelter, financial advice, lock-picking, drain-clearing, etc. The expectation that the vicar can help still runs deep among those lost communities of London folk who survive at the edge of things.
In the first few years after ordination, the steady stream of supplicants at the door makes one feel rather important and needed. That wears off fairly quickly, to be replaced with a guilty weariness and occasional fear. There is variety, though. I have had the man who wanted his heating sorted out (I found an engineer), the woman who wanted to know if it was wrong to kill her husband (yes, wrong), the two Muslims who wanted to get married in church (possible — but are you sure that’s what you want?), the man wanting advice on hammers (I gave him directions to Homebase), numerous people needing tickets to somewhere — Brazil was the most ambitious recently, Croydon the most believable — and many needing help to get to a funeral a long way off; one man’s mother had died so many times that we both struggled to keep a straight face when he was delivering his story.
Then there was the very well-spoken young man whose opening gambit was straight from Wodehouse — ‘Terribly sorry to bother you, Reverend. The thing is, I find myself a bit down on my uppers just now, and I wondered if you might be able to advance me a little something.’ One poor man, enormously burdened with weight and walking with great labour, came all the way from the East End to me here in Catford, only to be turned away again. One wonders what is really happening in these repeat transactions where all I offer is food, tea and prayer.
The bus fare to Latvia not being forthcoming, my visitor eventually slinks away disappointed, to tell his tale elsewhere, and I head to church to say evening prayer. ‘In so far you did it to the least of these, you did it to me’ echoes around in my head. One can’t help thinking that Christianity would be a much easier affair if Jesus hadn’t said so many awkward things like that. Give everything you have to the poor, hate your father and mother, pluck out your offending eye. It’s quite difficult to know where to begin sometimes. In the prayers I ask Jesus, the Messianic Jew, whether I should have been more helpful, and the noisy silence of his reply unsettles me.
The Revd Dr Martin Thomas is team rector of Catford and Downham in the Diocese of Southwark.
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