The Ministry of St Peter's
‘In the call of God the whole fabric of one’s life is woven.’
Of Martyrs, Monks and Mystics p 142
A little while ago I found myself saying to our Vicar, Fr Hugh, I don’t work in the Bookroom at St Peter’s, I work in the Bookroom contained within St Peter’s.
This difference may seem subtle, but the more I have thought about it, the more it makes sense. Let me try to explain.
We are a bookshop that primarily sells religious books and church supplies. But, in the course of any day a person will come in and ask for food or money. What time is the breakfast programme open? There are people who need restitution from seeing their specialist across the road at the 'Eye and Ear Hospital', others simply need to talk because they are lonely and live alone. Sometimes I need to contact the Vicar because a person wishes for a medal to be blessed, or asks to speak with a priest. Or they need to know where the Parish Office is to make a hall booking, discuss parish matters with Kosta, our Parish Administrator. People also seek to know if the church is open, or why does the entrance seem to be at the back of the church, or ask the date of the next Institute for Spiritual Studies seminar, what times are the church services.
People like to tell us things: did we know that we are hanging our flag upside down from the church. So this becomes a discussion about the martyrdom of St Peter. Generations of grandparents and great-grandparents have been married at St Peter’s. Colin Holden’s history of the church is invaluable to show them; but mostly people just want someone on site to know that recent family research revealed that great-grandfather Arthur went to school here. Or, Great Aunt Matilda acted in the Pilgrim Theatre when it was operating in Maynard House. In May this year someone from Roadworks Victoria wanted to know if there were any weddings coming up because there were some very noisy roadwork the workmen needed to undertake. Supplies from Officeworks or boxes of paper towels or Altar wine are often delivered to the shop when the parish office is closed. After 2pm we are the only port of call for visitors on the premises.
The office has a message bank so people can leave phone messages direct when they need to. David, our Verger who lives on site, is usually around so I can call him if someone comes in to the shop to let me know that there is a person behaving inappropriately in the church. I call David too if there is a person behaving aggressively in the shop. David swears to me he has never read a book in his life, so he knows that when I ring to let him know a book he has ordered has come in, it’s because there’s a situation unfolding in the shop I don’t feel I can manage. It’s coded language. I haven’t had to use it much. The first time I used it unfortunately I hadn’t told him that it was code - but I was so desperate to surreptitiously communicate that I needed help in the shop that it was all I could think of. I knew it would work because he would come over just to check out that I hadn’t gone crazy. I can ring Fr Hugh too, who also lives on site, but he is often out and about and will get back to me if he is unable to pick up.
Of course, neither of the above two paragraphs refer to what I am actually employed to do in the shop. I order the stock, find new suppliers, search out books for customers, work out pricing, enter the stock in the system when it arrives, produce information for eLists and pewsheets, pay bills, collect or sort through second hand books, work on the website, do a daily FB entry, maintain the bookwork each month and report to the Bookroom Committee and Parish Bookkeeper, pack-up and sell books at conferences……all the routine small business work. I don’t do it alone. Thank God. The work of the volunteers is truly an enormous support. The shop wouldn't be without them.
What I have come to discover though, is that the most engaging, and the most challenging work, is that which involves connecting with visitors and customers. People come in to the Bookroom with all sorts of expectations, sometimes totally unexpected. This can be challenging because their needs can seem irrelevant to the apparent purpose of the shop. And that’s the heart of the matter.
What is the purpose of the shop? St Peter’s Bookroom is one ministry in the complex web of the busy life of an inner city Melbourne Anglican Parish. It’s a Christian community that contains a number of ministries, all of them centred on one proposition: God is Love. To live from this faith, I find, is an impossibly tall order. And we are human beings, not cardboard cut-outs. But we are not called to be perfect in a worldly way, but authentic in the life of God. And though I fall short of this again and again, it doesn’t matter so much what I am paid to do, what matters most is that each person who visits or phones or emails is conversed with as a person whom we are asked to listen to, and to care for, as Love cares for each one of us. And the volunteers are really good at reaching out to others. Here, we are not working for an institution. We are part of a community that sets its face towards a God of compassion who asks us to care for and help one another, not just our small group, but everyone - known and not known - with whom we come in contact.