The day on which I’m writing these words is the 25th anniversary of the day of my Induction and Licensing as Vicar of Marston, on January 21st, 1991. A mere slip of a lad of 41, I had moved to Marston with Alison and our four children aged between 5 and 13. We thought we might stay for some while, at least until the children finished school, or longer if it seemed that was what God planned; but I don’t suppose we really imagined that it would be more than 25 years, or what 25 years would feel like.
Of course, I’m far from being the longest-serving vicar of Marston. John Mortimer and Paul Rimmer were both here for longer; and even today there are many serving clergy elsewhere in the Church of England who have been in post for longer than this. But nowadays 25 years seems a long time to be in one parish: people sometimes seem impressed (or surprised?) when they hear it.
As we approach retirement, and moving away from Marston later this year, we find ourselves more and more looking back over our time here and asking questions like, What has been achieved? What did we hope would be achieved? Perhaps these are not really the right questions; though rightly or wrongly, vicars are being asked about their goals, vision and aspirations, when they apply for a new post. What I thought was this: We had fallen in love with Marston when we read about it and came to have a look. We wanted to share our lives with the people of the church and community. Some vicars want to change their parish, much as some husbands and wives want to change their spouse for the better. We believed it was wrong to come in with the idea that there were things about the parish that needed ‘putting right’. Rather, by sharing our lives ‘for better for worse’, and so on, we would change one another and be changed.
And I think that is what has happened. I hope that I’m a better priest than when I started here (though perfection seems, depressingly, just as far off). And I believe that as a church we have, by the grace of God, continued to seek what God wants us to be, and to pray and work towards becoming it.
There have been many other changes too, in the pubs, shops and businesses of the area, in the schools and housing, in the people who live here and who make up the church. But of course we reflect: this is just life, and life’s like that.
“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,” said John Henry Newman. But something in us doesn’t want to be perfect – or at least, doesn’t like change. And not all the changes in the wider society and the Church, over the past 25 years, have been good ones, while many of those that have, are still proving painful. It’s a more dangerous world, with all the wars, terrorism and inter-religious tensions. A more unjust world, with growing inequality of wealth, and cuts in benefits to the most vulnerable in society. And yet, we have greater scientific knowledge and technical achievements that have changed our lives: 25 years ago we didn’t have smartphones, or the World Wide Web, and computers didn’t have anything like the power available to us now. The Church too is changing – too slowly for some, too fast for others. In 1991 there were no women priests in the Church of England, and we never dreamed that Alison would one day be ordained. Now women priests have hugely enriched the ministry of the Church. We are currently embroiled in argument about human sexuality, and same sex marriage. Could it be that when these changes come to be accepted also, we will find that they are just as enriching to the life of the Church, and our effectiveness in serving the Kingdom of God?
Certainly that is my hope. And I pray that in all the changes that lie ahead – for Alison and myself as we retire, and for the parish of Marston as you seek and welcome a new vicar – we will all find that God remains faithful, no matter what, and desires our flourishing as people created in God’s own image. Please join me in that prayer.
Tony Price, Vicar of Marston and Elsfield