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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