Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Murder of Father Bennett

Father Paul Bennett was tragically murdered yesterday, in the churchyard of his own church in Trecynon, near Aberdare, Wales. A tragedy for his wife, his two children, and his congregation... and I'm sure we all feel deeply, and pray deeply, for them.

His death has got me thinking about how often the clergy put themselves on the line. The simple fact is that in many of the most difficult communities of our country, the clergy are often the only professional class of people who actually live among the people they serve. Teachers, doctors, policemen, even local councillors and politicians will often live elsewhere...in more affluent areas.

Although I never met Father Bennett, I have seen his kind of example before. He apparently had an open-door policy to his house, which was right next to his church. He gave of himself selflessly...and on this occasion right unto death. It's an example of service that Jesus set, and which Father Bennett deserves to be honoured for.

On the other hand, other priests I know maintain a more private home...as much for their family's sake as their own. Such priests have lived with the kind of violence that a totally open-door policy can bring...and they recoil from it. (My own father-in-law - a methodist minister - was once beaten to within an inch of his life by young people from the youth club being held in his church next door. And I've had my fair share of confrontations with angry young people after living in the managers flats of two YMCAs for ten years!)

Neither form of availability is necessarily better than the other. The priest who makes themselves totally available may inspire awe in the rest of us, but may also end up so stressed-out that they become of no use to anyone. The priest who preserves their private space may, with more time to reflect and study, be the better preacher and community leader.

Jesus called us to be members of his body, and St Paul developed that theme to show that the body is made up of many parts, each with their own distinctiveness which may be added to the whole. That's as true for priests as it is for the rest of the body.

I wonder which kind I shall be as my ministry progresses?

In the meantime, I shall pray for Father Bennett - that he is now enjoying the peace of Christ in eternity. And for his family, that among devastation of their loss, they may find the ability to celebrate the distinctive selflessness of his example.

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