25 March 2012
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Heavenly Father, we thank you for all the great gifts you send us – the gift of your Word, the gift of your Son, the gift of your Holy Spirit and the gift of your Church pointing us always towards you, Father, Creator and Sustainer of All, Amen.
“…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
The last week or so has given us a great deal of cause to think about ministry in the church – on Friday 16th March we heard the news that Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of this year and, of course, on the following Monday many of us were present at Bethersden to welcome Sue Wharton as she was installed as Rector of the new Benefice. One ministry in the church begins to come to an end as another starts.
One of the great privileges of being ordained in the Diocese of Canterbury is that prior to being ordained first as a deacon in the Cathedral and the following year as a priest my fellow ordinands and I spent three days on retreat each time with the Archbishop and also spent some time talking with him privately. Now a great deal is said about the Archbishop in many different places, and I shall come onto that in a moment, but my enduring impression and memory of him will always be of someone of deep holiness, deep faith, deep humility and a deep love of God, his Church and his people. He was also, undoubtedly, the most intelligent person I have ever met but he always wore that lightly, and with real humour. He was and is a truly Godly man called to do an essentially impossible job.
It is said that all political careers end in failure and I wonder, in the eyes of the world, whether the same is true of all ministries within the church. Large sections of the media and even many Christians, who perhaps should know better, have said that Rowan failed as an Archbishop and there have been ungracious comments even from his fellow bishops in other parts of the Anglican communion.
But what do people mean when they say that there has been failure? Well, generally they seem to mean that their expectations have been confounded or unfulfilled, with little reflection on whether those expectations were ever achievable from the outset. The non-Christian media often seemed to lament Rowan’s leadership style, which they saw as weak and woolly, and yet they seem to forget that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not some kind of Anglican Pope who has the ability, even if he wanted to, of issuing dictates from Lambeth Palace to be obeyed by all Anglicans throughout the world. Our church simply does not work like that. If the press were not criticising Rowan for being weak and woolly then they attacked him for daring to make comments which they saw as straying into the political arena, as if being a servant of the gospel was in some way not an intensely political act. And so Rowan could not win – he was either too weak or too outspoken.
The impossibility of the Archbishop’s position really came home to me when I saw him in conversation with Frank Skinner at Canterbury Cathedral last September. At the end of the talk there were questions from the floor and someone asked him whether he thought there was any truth to be found in other faiths or whether Christianity was the only faith to contain any truth. His answer quite vague and non-committal, in fact it was exactly the sort of response for which the press like to criticise him, but thinking about it afterwards it became clear what an impossible position he was in: had he said that God was capable of revealing his truth to different people at different times and places in ways other than Christianity then he would have been slammed from all sides as a non-Christian archbishop – conversely had he said that Christianity was the only way in which God’s truth was revealed to the world then he would doubtless have been equally slammed as a bigot. And that was just one question at one quite light hearted event in his own diocese. And it has not been any easier for him in relation to the wider Church of England and its different factions – the evangelicals have always seen him as too Catholic, whereas many Anglo-Catholics have seen him as too soft on the modernists and have gone off to the ordinariate. Some have seen him as too liberal on questions of sexuality and yet the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, who was prevented from becoming a bishop by Rowan on the grounds of his sexuality has recently lambasted the church as being one of the last strongholds of prejudice and discrimination. And none of that touches upon the challenges of the world wide Anglican Communion in which the churches in North America and Canada are happy to have both female and homosexual bishops and yet the Church in Nigeria has been complicit in the imprisonment and persecution of homosexuals.
How on earth could anyone make a ‘success’ of that ministry and would we even know what success looked like if we saw it?
And if that is true of our Archbishop then I believe the same is also true of all human ministry within the church, including Sue’s and including my own.
At Sue’s service on Monday there were two or three hundred people present from all three churches in the benefice and from across the wider communities. It was a lovely evening in which everyone present promised to support and uphold Sue in her new ministry, and yet I couldn’t help but think that every person there from Bishop Trevor upwards will have their own expectations about what Sue’s ministry will look like and what it will achieve – in other words, what ‘success’ will look like to them. And I can tell you that if there were three hundred people there then there were three hundred different sets of expectations: some will want a traditional priest who will teach traditional biblical values and denounce everything else, others will want someone who modernises the church both physically and theologically, some will want someone who makes worship accessible and fun for youngsters and others will think that anything other than the Book of Common Prayer is Heresy. Some will want a jolly priest, others will want a serious priest, some will judge success by numerical growth alone, others will look for greater depths of spirituality and discipleship – the wider community may want someone who is content to fulfil their civic duties but who does not challenge them to consider what it means to be doing these things in the name of Christ. I could go on but you get the point.
The point, of course, is that we cannot and should not judge success either in the Christian life or in the ministry of the Church on the basis of our preconceptions of what we want or what we think success looks like to us. How can I say that? Because the priesthood of the Church flows from our great High Priest Jesus Christ, and did his ministry look like a success or a failure?
Did Jesus fulfil the expectations of all his followers or did he confound and transform those expectations? Just a couple of weeks ago we heard about the altercation between Jesus and Peter, when Peter tried to stop Jesus talking about his forthcoming crucifixion and Jesus rebuked Peter and said that had in mind the things of men and not the things of God. Whilst Jesus attracted large numbers of followers to hear him preach, as we know from events such as the feeding of the 5000, we also know from John 6 that Jesus did not measure success in numbers and that many disciples abandoned him when the teaching he gave was too hard for them to accept and he was left once again with only the twelve. Was that success or failure? And of course we also know over the forthcoming weeks of Palm Sunday and Easter that Jesus will once again travel the route which took him from being lauded by the crowds of Jerusalem to being on a cross, dying the death of a criminal and abandoned by all except his closest few. Judged in human terms, in the terms of Peter and doubtless in our terms had we been there, the ministry of Jesus looked like an abject failure – expectations of a new Kingdom unfulfilled, hopes dashed and nailed to a cross to die.
And yet we know that God had other plans, that he does not measure success or failure in our terms. By resisting the temptation to pursue earthly success or to pander to what the crowds wanted him to do Jesus became the seed which fell into the ground and died to its own interests so that through Holy Germination something new and transformed would spring from the soil bearing fruit which changed the world, which created a church and which continues to transform us today.
God has brought Sue to be the Rector of this benefice and this parish. Each of us have different expectations of what that means and it is likely that each of us will have those expectations confounded at some point because that, I believe, is part of the nature of the ministry which Christ gives us. However, when our earthly expectations are confounded then that is our God-given opportunity to try and lift our eyes beyond our selves and to try and see God at work in ways which we can hardly imagine. So my charge to myself, and my charge to you, is to receive Sue’s ministry with joy, to do all that you can to support and uphold her and look not to our own expectations but look always to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.