Sunday, 19 July 2009

Entertaining doubts on a Sunday morning

This morning I found myself stepping down from the pulpit with a sense of doubt. These were not those ‘nagging’ doubts about God or the gospel —they usually come at about 4am, and I have learned to treat them as one does ‘mood swings’. No, this was a much more determined doubt, a ‘Have we got it right?’ doubt, an ‘Are we barking up entirely the wrong tree doubt?’, indeed a ‘Have I spent my whole life on the wrong cause?’ doubt, to do with Anglicanism.

To make matters worse, the reason was my own preaching. We’ve been working our way through Mark, and I had meant to spend just a few moments on 6:34, just before the feeding of the five thousand: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”

The plan was to point out to the congregation the link with Ezekiel 34, where the Lord condemned Israel’s ‘shepherds’, and then chapter 22 where we read about the conditions in Israel: corruption in high places, falsehood amongst the priests and prophets, and then in 22:29, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

However, I’d forgotten my notes (or rather I’d printed off last week’s sermon instead of this week’s) so I was ad-libbing slightly, and I began addressing the issue of social injustice. Here, from memory, is roughly how it went:

“The failure of the leadership —the shepherds —in Ezekiel’s day had created injustice,” I observed, “And we see much injustice around us in the world today. But look at what Jesus did when, in his day, he saw the people as ‘sheep without a shepherd’.”

“What would we do in the same circumstances?” I asked. “Surely we would try to address the causes of injustice. But what does Jesus do? It says, ‘He began to teach the many things.’ But how would this help? The answer is that injustice is, in the end, caused by people, and so by teaching the people, Jesus was addressing the injustice.”

“But Jesus was not addressing the rich and powerful. So how would that help reduce injustice? Because he was empowering the poor by what he taught them. And that is the best way to reduce injustice, because there are more poor people than rich and powerful people. So in England, in the eighteenth century, the Wesleys empowered the poor, not the rich and the powerful, by preaching the gospel to them and empowering them, and they changed societies and communities.”

But as I was preaching, I could feel at the back of my mind a realization that what I was saying didn’t quite work. So often, the gospel has not changed society, because it has not empowered people. And my doubt is this: whether Anglicanism, and specifically the Anglican understanding of priesthood, will always disempower people, and can therefore never really change society.

As evidence of this, look at all the fuss that is made about ordination generally and women’s ordination in particular. Where in the pages of the New Testament do we ever find a heated discussion about ordination? Circumcision, yes, but ordination?

And then what about the link between ordination and the sacraments? It is no wonder people want to get ordained in the Church of England, if this is the only way you can, literally, get your hands on sacramental ministry. Hence women’s ordination is an issue of ‘justice’ because ordination is power. But where is ordination an issue in the New Testament?

I simply do not find convincing the argument that Jesus passed this on as an ‘apostolic’ ministry at the Last Supper. Michael Green, when he was principal of St John’s Nottingham, used to point out how in the Corinthian correspondence a great deal was said about the Lord’s Supper and the need for discipline, but nothing about who should ‘celebrate’ it. As he said, can you imagine that in a situation parallel to what we find in Anglicanism today?

So I found myself with my head in my hands after the sermon (people probably thought I was praying) wondering if we haven’t got it all wrong. How is the Church going to empower the poor, when the ‘rich’ —the rich in talent, and learning, and leadership qualities, and language skills, and the ability to work the middle-class ‘system’ of Bishops’ Advisory Panels and DDOs —monopolize the ministry of word and sacrament? Surely this is why the Church of England has never truly reached the poor in this country (except through works of ‘charity’, done in a condescending way and never really making a difference) and why only truly ‘indigenous’ ministry from the poor to the poor can work to transform the poor, such as we see, for example, in the best of Pentecostalism.

In short, am I simply part of the problem —along with all my dog-collard brothers and sisters —because merely by being what I am, I stifle the life of the Spirit by creating a dependency culture? Am I not colluding in the power structures, even whilst I try to preach the gospel for the poor? Are we not just as fearful as the religious leaders were in Jesus’ day, that if just ordinary people took on the privileges of priests and bishops then we would lose our influence?

I note that in Acts 4:13, the Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John were ‘agrammatoi kai idiōtēs’. The NIV translates this, ‘unschooled, ordinary men’. A more blunt version would be ‘ungrammatical idiots’. Would you and I trust them with what they were doing? I ask again, “What would Jesus do?”

Revd (still) John P Richardson
19 July 2009

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  1. John,

    I think one of the things to remember here is that Anglicanism is essentially an historical construct in which Christianity can flourish (or not) as the case may be. I too don't get the impression that Jesus envisaged the whole gamut of national churches, clergy and laity, WO, moving pews and all the other paraphernalia and bickering that goes on do you?

    Jesus Himself appeared in Israel at a time when the nation was far from being God's ideal yet Jesus worked within and outside the existing religious structures of His time.

    The important thing is the message of the Gospel and the freedom to be able to preach it. This can still be done within the CofE - in fact the great advantage of the CofE is that most people still see 'the church' as being essentially Anglican. It is after all a visible presence in most towns & cities. I believe that this was one point Tim Goodbody was trying to make in his recent apologia.

    As a leader in a a Baptist church I find that people are less familiar with Baptists as a 'church' than they are with the CofE. Indeed, I have always thought that you Anglicans have one over on us here. I find it easier to invite people to an Anglican church than I do to a Baptist one despite the fact that unlike Anglicans we Baptists are wet all over..

    In the parable of the wheat and the tares, although there were weeds growing, the real stuff was also. It is this that people will respond to if they can see the transforming reality of the Gospel in our lives. So I think we will always have this somewhat messy outward appearance of the 'church ' yet we must not forget that the wheat is there as well. At the end of the age God will clear the rubbish away but this is the current scene.

    So I wouldn't worry too much about all the fuss re: ordinations and so on. Get on with preaching what you know to be true. You are in fact part of the solution, not part of the problem. You have a far greater effect than you imagine.

    A saying by an Assembly of God pastor who I once knew and is now in his 90's which is somewhat pithy but I have to found be true, is

    "Bloom where you are planted - you can be 'scent' where you are"!

    Chris Bishop

  2. Encouraging as always - thanks Chris.

  3. I must say that I entertain doubts about Anglicanism every Sunday morning, unless I am skipping church! That's nothing to do with any particular congregation or preacher. Yes, the entirely unbiblical way we have set up priests as a special caste is one of a number of serious problems with the system.

    On the matter of DDOs, perhaps that is a special problem here in Chelmsford diocese. A friend of mine here recently took three years to get through the DDO system and be recommended, whereas your previous commenter Rachel, in another diocese, was sent straight to the bishops' panel and accepted for ordination within six months of her first enquiry.

  4. The 'other side of the coin' (at least in NZ, but I think this would be true of England), is that as much as the 'system' permits talent etc to be discerned and recognized through ordination, it also weeds out those for whom the placement in a pulpit with pastoral responsibility for parishioners (ie vicars) is going to be painful and unproductive. I see priests much less as a caste and much more as a group of people the whole church can trust to be responsible in the particular ministry of leadership through preaching, presiding, and pastoring.

    In my experience of ministers 'crossing over' from other denominations to serve in the Anglican church, their uniform testimony is: (a) you have better structures in place to care for your ministers (b) you do not have hidden hierarchies.

    Nevertheless, John, your point re our failure to empower the poor remains as a challenge to the 'system' to reform to meet that challenge.

  5. This discussion causes me to reflect gratefully that the church who nurtured me in my journey trusted the laity and stretched us. We were an empowered congregation, trusted and listened to. We have two associate ministers whose ethos is very much about building collaborative ministries. These sorts of churches do exist where delegation is everything. I was one of the people given responsibility to lead by ministers who had more faith that God could work through me than I had belief in myself.

    I see my future role as one in which I expect to see God releasing people from their insecurities so that they can be the very best version of themselves and bring their offering, whatever it might be, to the table.

    When Nicky Gumbel spoke at college, he discussed how new Alpha participants move quickly to become the next Alpha leaders. God does not require us to be the finished product. When the Church learns to give power away, we will be all the better for it - serving others so that they can learn the joy of serving others so that they... you get the idea...

    My journey was quick, yes, Peter. I am not sure of the reason for that. I have a lot to learn but I think that I am beginning to realise that I will always feel this way until the moment I meet Him face-to-face.

  6. Good post John, I share many of your concerns viz 'priesthood', and I wonder whether you arguments could not be extended to take in all manner of Anglican 'givens' - Establishment, Diocese's, the parish system, chaplaincies - indeed the notion of sacraments as commonly understood. Where is all this in the NT?

    I've always had a 'low theology' of the church and correspondingly never identified any particular denominational expression of it as 'the church', or even 'the best expression of church'. I'm a low church charismatic evangelical, arminian, paedobaptist disestablishmentarian. The CofE is the best fit for me, but it might not be for everyone... In good conscience I signed upto the 39 articles and thus became an Anglican, my problem is I wonder whether the rest of the CodE subscribes to them.

    Lee Proudlove - Nottingham

  7. Thanks, John - much appreciated.

    Lee wrote:
    I share many of your concerns viz 'priesthood', and I wonder whether you arguments could not be extended to take in all manner of Anglican 'givens' - Establishment, Diocese's, the parish system, chaplaincies - indeed the notion of sacraments as commonly understood. Where is all this in the NT?

    Please note that in the vast majority of the Anglican world, 'establishment' is not a 'given'.

  8. Dear John,

    Laugh! For a change, I laughed my way through your blog! Often intrigued, which is why I stay with you; sometimes glum; but never usually laughing...I was stopped in my raucous path by the mention of Michael Green. Do you think that incredible prayer warrior has been praying for you?

    On "if just ordinary people took on the privileges of priests and bishops then we would lose our influence?"I ask "what influence?" For many years, the only influence the Church of England had on me, what to put me off coming to church. It was an executive decision on the part of the Holy Spirit that got me involved.

    ...lose your notes more often!

    Irreverently, and ungrammatically yours,
    Christine Standing

  9. Your post led me to think of humility. People, either laity or clergy, often forget the practice of humility as taught by our Lord. Doubts are humbling.

    Thank you for your honesty. I, for one, trust the humble, honest preacher.