‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed . . .’
Those words from Isaiah, famously quoted by Jesus at the start of his own ministry, speak powerfully to all of us called to ordained ministry today. Like Jesus, and the anonymous prophet referred to in Isaiah, we are called to proclaim good news, to be bearers of hope in our world.
At first reading it all sounds very positive – who would not want to hear good news in a troubled world? And surely the messenger of that news would be welcomed warmly? What a privilege to be called to do this – surely there could be no better calling?
But a moment’s reflection, on the background to all our Bible passages today, tells us it is not so simple or easy.
- The prophet referred to in Isaiah was speaking to a situation in which Jerusalem and many other cities were still in ruins after the Babylonian conquest. Life was difficult and messages of supposed hope were not always readily accepted. Elsewhere in Isaiah the prophet despairs of his calling in the light of the intransigence of the people.
- The letter of James was written at a time when the churches were tiny minorities called to proclaim the Gospel in an often indifferent or hostile society – with many alternative beliefs on offer.
- The passage from Luke 4 goes on to describe how the listeners in the Synagogue in Nazareth at the start of Jesus own ministry quickly turned against him – so much so that they wanted to throw him off a cliff. (If the reaction to our own first sermons had been quite so hostile I wonder how we would have coped? Sometimes a bland, ‘Nice sermon, Vicar’ at the Church door can seem like a good response!)
We are all well aware of the challenges to the mission and ministry of the Church in our own context. It is often said that Western Europe, with its deep-rooted secularism and its fear of religious fanaticism and strife, is very difficult terrain for the Gospel. In the British chapter of the recent “European Values Survey” Professor David Voas has written,
“Religion is a cause of perplexity to the British. One the one hand it is associated with Christian virtue, traditional values, the Dalai Lama and all things bright and beautiful. One the other hand it brings to mind violent fanaticism, reactionary morality, Osama bin Laden, abuse and oppression.”
We are bombarded with newspaper stories of declining numbers, growing scepticism or indifference about basic Christian beliefs, and how what people want today is a DIY ‘this worldly spirituality’.
And yet, difficult as it may be, we are called to be bearers of good news and hope to our generation – that is at the centre of our vocation, and of the mission of the Church of God.
This vocation means we have to reflect constantly on 3 key questions:
- What is the heart of the Good News?
- How is it best communicated in today’s world?
- What is my role/our role in that?
Let us consider for a moment our individual vocations – wherever they may be set.
One of the questions often asked in selection conferences, now known as Bishop’s Advisory Panels, of those exploring a vocation to ordained ministry, is what lies at the heart of their faith. It is illuminating how we answer that most basic of questions. How we answered it then, and how we answer it now. How has my understanding of the Gospel developed and deepened over the years?
In a challenging short story, called ‘The soul of a Bishop’, HG Wells gives an account of how one bishop struggles with his own understanding in the light of the challenges of modernity. ‘What do I really believe?’ was a key and disturbing question. What really underlies my ministry?
A central part of our calling is to reflect upon and explore the nature of the Christian faith, not indulgently, but so as to equip us for honest exploration and sharing with others. In our ordination vows we commit ourselves to being ‘diligent in . . . reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen our faith and fit us to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel’ – and that is a serious and time-consuming business.
Our people will not thank us if we fail to help the exploration of what it means to be a Christian in today’s plural, globalized world, so deeply affected by science, secularism and materialism. There are many challenges for those who hold to a theistic understanding of the fundamental questions of life and it is vital that we have clergy who engage confidently and consistently with these issues.
Another central ordination vow is the commitment to be a person of prayer. Not long after the demanding and exhausting start to his public ministry, Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray. His example provides the well-springs for our ministry. It is alarmingly easy to neglect this, or find our pattern of prayer runs dry. Alan Ecclestone, in his classic book, ‘Yes to God’ remarks that, ‘Growing older we do not find it any easier to pray’. And yet we also know that it is the key to what we do and what we are. However many times we falter, we know we must seek to grow in our life of prayer.
We live in a part of the world which often exalts activism and achievement. This can subtly, or not so subtly, distort our ministry into an endless whirl of activity. We may be doing large numbers of worthy things. But if our efforts are not surrounded by that deep awareness of God which comes from our prayer we lose much – possibly everything. As the Psalmist says, ‘Unless the Lord build the house, those who build it labour in vain . . . It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil . . .’ (Ps 127: 1-2). As we read in Isaiah, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength’. (Is 30:15
As well as reflecting on our own individual ministries – our prayers, our understanding of the gospel, and our own ministry, it is vital also to remember that our ministry is essentially a corporate thing – something we do together, not on our own. One of the first things Jesus did in his ministry was to call his disciples. He was not a lone operator.
We are ordained as deacons, priests or bishops in the Church of God. We recognize the Church of England as ‘part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’. The primary image of our mutual belonging is the Church as the Body of Christ as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12.
In our church polity the office of bishop expresses and incorporates our inter-connectedness. Inevitably, in a time of vacancy in see there is some nervousness about how we hold together. We all know these are challenging times for the Church of England, and for the wider Anglican Communion. Our Diocese, in all its variety and complexity, is part of that debate about the evolving nature of the Anglican tradition. We would do well to remember and reflect upon Jesus’ great prayer for the unity of his disciples at the Last Supper. His prayer ‘that they may all be one’ is not just pragmatic, it has a deep theological underpinning. God’s very presence/Christ’s very presence indwells the body of the disciples – the Church is the vehicle for the divine in the world. Any disunity damages the mission of the Church. It is not a prayer for bland uniformity, but for unity in the cause of mission.
The sense of the corporate aspect of ministry is emphasized in today’s epistle. We are to pray together in our times of thankfulness and in our times of need – as we are doing today.
It is vital that we build our sense of common mission. One of my particular hopes for our Diocese is that we shall be a place of real theological fruitfulness as we engage with one another in ‘interpreting the Gospel afresh in this generation’.
The Gospel brings hope to every situation, no matter how great or small – to the great issues of our day (such as Justice and Poverty, Climate change, and not least the forthcoming General Election about which my fellow bishops and I have written) The Gospel brings hope to the needs of each individual – to the sick, the lonely, the dying, those whose hearts are broken.
I hope we will all pray for each other at this time, for those next to you today – in our ministry together. And in the Diocese that we will pray for the process of choosing our next Diocesan Bishop, and look forward with confident trust in God. We have produced some prayer cards which I hope will be widely used – and especially on the two Sundays before the CNC meets, the first Sunday in June and the first Sunday in July.
All of this points to the most important part of today’s readings – a recognition of the primacy of God. It is the mission of God in which we are called to participate. It is not the Church’s mission, it is certainly not my or your mission. The heart of the Gospel which we remember especially this Holy Week is the out-flowing and self-giving Love of God made known in Jesus Christ. We are only equipped to be drawn into this by the Spirit of God. At our ordinations we were reminded that we ‘cannot bear the weight of this calling in our own strength, but only by the grace and power of God’, and therefore ‘we must pray earnestly for the strength of the Holy Spirit’ to guide all that we are and do in God’s name.
We are called to be bearers of hope in a troubled world. It is often a challenging and difficult task. But I and my fellow bishops know that, day by day in our parishes and sector ministries, mission and ministry which is full of faith, hope and love is carried out, and we thank God for you and for all that you do.
As we renew our commitment to this ministry let us pray that the Spirit of the Lord will be upon us as we seek to proclaim God’s Good News in our world.