Author Archive

The Good Shepherd

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You will be unsurprised to learn that I have been thinking about my ordination to the priesthood quite a bit recently. All being well, and Covid restrictions permitting, this will take place on Saturday 3rd July.

I must admit that perhaps in common with many life events, such as a wedding, civil union, retirement or graduation) which are long planned for and worked for (I began the discernment or selection process for the priesthood six years ago in May 2015, so we are talking about a considerable period of time) there is a sense of unreality about the actual occasion itself (which the strictures of the pandemic has done nothing to elevate).

However, I hope and pray that the years of preparation – all the assignments and theological reflections written, the attendance at lectures, residentials and study days, the earnest conversations with incumbents, tutors and representatives from the Diocese, the sermons written and the acts of worship attended – both public and private, not to mention my own prayers and those of the many people who know and care for and love me – will help equip me for this most momentous of occasions.

After all the Declaration which forms a central part of the ordination service for the priesthood reminds candidates:

Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, brought by the shedding of his blood on the cross. It is to him that you will render account for your stewardship of his people.

As Stephen Cotterell, the Archbishop of York, notes in his book ‘On Priesthood’:

What sane person, on hearing these words, would not run screaming from the cathedral saying that there had been a terrible mistake and they are not fit for this ministry at all?

Fortunately the Declaration continues:

‘You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength. Pray therefore that your heart may be daily enlarged.’

This emphasises a very important feature of all ministry, whether it is conducted by a layperson or an ordained one – that the act of service that each of us is asked to do in God’s name may well be beyond our own powers and abilities – but we are strengthen and upheld on a daily basis by the Holy Spirit. If we do not rely on God as the foundation of our endeavours, we are sure to be limited, constrained and ultimately fail in what we are able to do. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit equips us with super-human strength or brilliantly insightful wisdom (although there can be glimpses of that sometimes), but rather it does help us discern God’s will in both the momentous and seemingly insignificant thoughts, actions and words that make up our daily lives.

The Declaration in the Ordination service begins with these words:

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, sentinels and stewards of the Lord.

How interesting that a priest is called to be a servant and a shepherd among the people to whom they are sent – as at first glance these two callings may not seem to be mutually compatible. Some people will undoubtedly see servanthood as the most important feature of ordained ministry – after all Christ himself says:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Servanthood is the rock that ministry is built on. It is one of the reasons why there two stages to ordination – the first, the ordination to the deaconate – emphasises that all ordained ministry is based on servanthood and that service, pastoral care and support lie at the heart of a Christian community. Priests and bishops never stop being deacons – and when Jesus speaks about a life of discipleship, about ministry, about the apostolic life, he always speaks about servanthood first, and his own life embodies this servant ministry.

However, others may feel that ordained ministry is more of a call to leadership – to be one that guides and leads the people of God – as a shepherd does their flock of sheep. Priests are obviously leaders of a Christian community – theirs is a very public role demanding a high degree of visibility and integrity.

Describing a priest as a shepherd has a marvellous biblical pedigree. Jerimiah and Ezekiel and many others refer to those who lead the people of God as shepherds. Jesus as we have heard today in our Gospel reading refers to himself as the Good Shepherd and in Acts of the Apostles those who are called to the ministry of oversight are reminded to:

Keep watch over yourselves and over the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God that he has obtained with the blood of his own Son.

But the metaphor of a shepherd is problematic for us today. Most of us know very little about shepherds and shepherding. I’m a great admirer of the Yorkshire Shepherdess via Twitter; confess to adore the film Babe; and used to enjoy watching One Man and his Dog – but am aware that these representations bare very little resemblance to what a shepherd would have done in New Testament times.

Then the shepherd would have lived alongside their sheep; sometimes their own body was the gate to the fold, lying down in the entrance to keep predators at bay. When they directed the sheep to new pastures, they led from the front, striding out ahead of the sheep; and when a lion or bear threatened the flock, the shepherd was ready and equipped to fight them off.

The stories of David in the Old Testament tells us that a shepherd boy could fell a giant, and then live to be a king – a tale which demonstrates that humble origins need be no barrier to the great responsibilities of leadership and power if accompanied with an authentic call.

This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. In today’s gospel, Jesus develops the image of shepherd, and declares, in one of the seven great ‘I Am’ sayings in John, ‘I Am the good shepherd, the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep’.

I can’t help but contrast Jesus’ picture of The Good Shepherd and my experience of the self-giving love and service demonstrated by most of the clergy of my acquaintance with the dreadful knowledge of bad shepherding – the abuses of clerical power for sexual and other purposes of which we have become aware over the last few years. These have done so much not only to hurt all the individual victims but to cast a shadow for many people over the church as an institution. The church’s moral authority as an institution is hard won and easily lost – it can only be regained by each one of us, ordained and lay, living the gospel in our lives and demonstrating it in our actions and deeds, as well as our words.

The gospel in all its love and freedom is just the opposite of all that clerical abuse is. The servant heart of leadership that Christ exemplifies in good pastoring holds the wellbeing of people as paramount, and seeks to lead in a way that nurtures and develop this – always safeguarding and protecting the most vulnerable. Good shepherds of the flock do not need to choose between being leaders or servants – they are both.

There are so many ways at St Matthew’s that our shared Christian life together seeks to do make servant leadership a tangible reality – and I would urge each and every one of you, when you feel ready to take a risk or stretch a little beyond your comfort zone – to think about how you could be actively involved in the service and leadership of our church. Some ways may seem insignificant but their impact personally and on others can be huge – and hopefully as the restrictions of the pandemic life over the coming weeks, there will be more of these opportunities to get involved in. So whether it is volunteering with the food bank, visiting others in our church community for support and fellowship, offering reflections on social media, praying for our church community, serving or singing the choir, leading intercessions, helping with messy church or junior church or the new youth club we are planning, increasing your church giving or playing a role in the deanery or diocese – there is something that every single one of us can do.

And of course, if you are thinking about a more formal role in the church – and feels you have a calling to ministry as a SPA, reader or priest – do speak to Fr Andrew or any of the staff team.

Each one of us has a vocation – finding out what that calling is, is part of our lifelong journey of faith so that every shepherd, servant, messenger, sentinel and steward of the Lord amongst us may play our own unique part in making Christ’s love known to all people in all places, this day and every day.

Please pray for me at this time, as I move towards an important step in my vocational journey – as I will surely pray for you in yours.

John 10: 11 – 18

“Only connect!”

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What was your most challenging lockdown experience? Top of my list, and it may be top of yours, was not being able to see family or friends – or if I could see them, having to keep my distance. A close second challenging lockdown experience for me and my family was that our immediate neighbours (four of them in total) chose this time to have some extensive work, loft extensions etc. completed on their houses. This has meant the sounds of drilling, banging, sawing, grinding, shouting and radios playing at full volume through the majority of the lockdown as home worked and schooled. And they’re not finished yet! Of course, people have the right to complete home improvements – we might even contemplate some ourselves one day! But it did make living in close quarters a challenge for me at least and I had to exercise a degree of fortitude and forgiveness on a daily basis.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus offers us some very clear guidance about how we are to live together in community. This can probably be best summarised by that well-known phrase of novelist E.M. Forester – only connect. Reflecting on this phrase has lead me to ponder on the nature of community and what this means for us in our current reality.

We are all members of many different types of community. There are communities of place such as our local community or neighbourhood defined by location. There are communities of interest where people share a common characteristic – our church community is one of these. Finally, in its strongest form community or ‘communion’ entails a profound meeting or encounter – not just with other people, but also with God and creation. The Christian communion of saints – the spiritual union between each Christian and Christ (and hence between every Christian) is an example of this type of community.

At all levels of community, there are ties that bind us together in a shared life. It is this shared life that poet and artist William Morris talks of when he speaks of fellowship:

Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death; and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake ye do them.

Only connect. So far, so good but we all know that the reality of living in community is far from straightforward and takes courage, humility and wisdom from all its members. It is especially tested when people have different points of view, or to put it less politely, fall out with each other.

In most communities today – and be in a church community or anywhere else – what typically happens when people disagree with each other is that the one who is upset says nothing to the person who has caused the difficulty. But the wounded party does talk to their friends and begins to gather support for a message that the other person has done them wrong. Usually things die down but sometimes disagreements seem to take on a life of their own and can develop into a large and growing group who know of the wrong done and bring to it their own baggage of hurts as well. Meanwhile, the person who is now being vilified has no idea that they have done anything. Often when the problem ultimately comes to a head, the original issue has been completely forgotten. Avoiding this sort of situation is what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel when he says:

‘If a brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the brother listens to you, you have regained that one.’ The NRSV unhelpfully translates the word ‘brother’ as a ‘church member’ probably in an attempt to render the word gender neutral but Jesus wasn’t talking exclusively about church communities (or men) – he was talking about human ones, and at the heart of his message is the need for us to be connected and reconciled to each other.

This need for connection and reconciliation is relevant for all the communities we are involved in – including digital communities such as those on social media.

I have a real love / hate relationship with social media! How about you? Are you a regular user of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and all the rest? Or do they never touch your life at all? Perhaps you haven’t got access to the internet or a device by which you can access it. Or maybe your phone is glued to your hand most of your waking hours.

I love the opportunity that social media provides to connect with each other; to reach out in the name of fellowship and friendship to those who are physically distant so that we can share our thoughts, our occasions of sorrow and joy and the minutiae of our everyday lives. This sense of shared experience is fundamental to our humanity and we are all the poorer without it.

Social media can be a powerful tool for mission too. Most churches, St Matthew’s included, have a Facebook or Twitter presence these days whether to simply disseminate information or to share words of hope and faith or to express ethical and moral standpoints.

However, I do wonder sometimes about the sense of connectedness that social media seems to provide. At times it can appear pretty shallow. We often forget that we are viewing an essentially curated image that others want to present – the best of their lives, if you like, which we then comparing this to our own messy existence. For young people with their developing sense of identity, in particular, the constant comparison of their appearance and achievements with others can present real problems before we factor in the spectre of on-line bullying. We can forget that true worthiness is not based on ‘likes’ or numbers of followers but by our human nature – a nature held in such regard by our Heavenly Father that he chose to share it.

So we have to be as mindful as possible when we use the wonderful opportunities that social media presents. As Paul in the New Testament reading this morning says: ‘any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’ Love and connectedness walk hand in hand.

When people disagree, refuse to be reconciled and then begin to live farther and farther apart – that sense of community; of connectedness; of fellowship and love disappears.

Love here does not mean kisses or hearts and flowers. This kind of love is about a deep care for the other person’s well-being. Wanting what is best for the other person, even when they have made us upset or angry. If we have that sort of love for each other, we will always want to be reconciled and will always accept each other’s apologies – because that’s what people who love each other do. That’s what Christ did – and does – with us every day.

So if there is someone who we know holds a grudge against us for something we did, or were perceived to have done in any of the communities that we are part of – we need to sincerely ask for forgiveness. Likewise, if there is someone who comes to us and asks forgiveness for something that has caused us to hold a grudge against them, grant them forgiveness. To ask forgiveness is not weakness. And to grant forgiveness is not to condone what someone has done and often there may need to a clear understanding about future conduct too. Buy these are the steps toward reconciliation – the thing that Jesus did when he reconciled the whole world to God by hanging on a cross.

We need to be reconciled to each other because otherwise we are divided, separate and isolated. To be so is to negate a fundamental part of our God-given humanity – we need to be together in community, rubbing along, tolerating difficulties, learning from each other and walking alongside with others in love and humility.

It is a great blessing for us to be back to together again church (and a huge joy and privilege for me as your new curate to be with you today); being part of a visible community and in communion with each other. If lockdown has taught us anything it is that we need to be with each and be together in community – following the example that Jesus gave when he called his disciples to be in community with him.

As E.M Forester says: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’

MATTHEW 18: 15-20