I remember a colleague, who ministered in a rural parish as I did at the beginning of my ministry, telling me it was my responsibility to “know where the burns rise in your parish”. He also said that I would find that one of my chief tasks would frequently be to protect those on the fringe of the church from those at the centre.
I have always loved this idea of ministry focussed beyond the centre to the stranger, the outcast and the world. Whilst the church is certainly about congregations and institutions and doctrines, it is primarily about people and places and about the whole creation and the world that God loves so much.
It is all too easy to become rather preoccupied with the institution, with the legitimate concerns of maintenance and survival. But we need always to remember that the nurturing of this fragile world, our tending to its sorrow and pain, giving attention to its glory and wonder is the only true task of the church.
Sometimes, when clerics and ecclesiastical officials forget this, it is pop stars and poets who remind us what our vocation ought to be. One of the greatest is Gary Sneider, the American beat poet and spiritual activist who once wrote these fine words that should probably be on every manse study wall: We need a religious view that embraces nature and does not fear science; business leaders who know and accept ecological and spiritual limits; political leaders who have spent time working in schools, factories or farms and who still write poems. We need intellectual and academic leaders who have studied both history and ecology and like to dance and cook. We need poets and novelists who pay no attention to literary critics. But what we ultimately need most is human beings who love the world.