A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
Sunday 4 July 2021, 11:00, the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
II Corinthians 12.2-10; Mark 6.1-13
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Last weekend our services were dominated by ordinations – the making of new ministries which will be expressed over the years in communities around this part of the country. Who knows how those 22 people have got on since they left here with the commission of the bishop and to the applause of the congregation?
They form the most recent, local, link in a chain whose first link we heard being forged in that gospel reading just now. Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs, to spread themselves around the local towns and villages with his authority to teach, to proclaim the changed life coming from repentance, and to bring healing.
Did you notice how these pairs were equipped by their leader? They were under orders to carry a stick, and to wear a tunic and a pair of sandals. Beyond that – nothing; no money, no food. Basically, in the equivalent of Aneurin Bevan’s famous phrase, they were being sent ‘naked into the conference chamber’. By contrast, most of last weekend’s ordinands will have been given housing and some financial support, and all will have had some years of training. Nonetheless I bet that most of them have spent the last week a bit at sea, a bit at a loss, wondering whether sooner or later they’ll be found out.
In fact, I hope they do feel like that. It seems to me to be the right feeling. Look at the ministry into which the first disciples were commissioned: Jesus, fresh from splashy exploits around the region, comes back home – and, compared with the crushing crowds and transformed lives which have attended him elsewhere, here he finds that his ministry is a crashing failure. People here know him and his family; they’re not impressed; even his family can’t take him seriously.
In my own involvement over the years with people considering how to respond to their sense that God may be calling them to some change of direction, maybe ordination, one of the more reassuring things to encounter is a measure of diffidence, uncertainty, even reluctance, about the possible course ahead. Contrast this with the certainty, confidence, even arrogance that underpin many of life’s most successful people.
‘Leadership’ has become something of a buzzword around the Church of England over the last couple of decades – you can, for example, take an MA in Christian Leadership at Sarum College - and finding and preparing people to lead the Church has become a major focus, from the top down. Now, obviously competent leaders are better than incompetent ones, so I’m not blindly opposed to this trend. But I do approach it sceptically, for three reasons.
The first I have aired over the years to a number of bishops and others in influential Church positions – where it has not generally received a warm welcome! It’s based on my view that the particular strength of the Church of England is its organisational untidiness, which makes it almost impossible to govern and lead. No one with a tabula rasa would set up the C of E; it would not be possible to justify from any a priori grounds. For most of its history bishops and other hierarchs have been driven nuts by what I would describe as cascading levels of veto, which mean that instead of sitting at the centre and issuing instructions which are then obediently implemented, they find their bright ideas being opposed, modified, or simply ignored, all the way down the chain. And of course it isn’t just a bishop who has got used to finding him- or herself largely impotent; it’s all kinds of vicars and rectors and rural deans and so on too. It can drive a leader nuts. But it’s a strength, because it means that all those obstructive possibilities, all those potential vetoes, need to be overcome. Progress has largely had to come by consensus, and can take ages, and can even then be patchy. But changes which have come about in this way are embedded, and enduring; ungovernability can be a strength.
Another reason is far more important than the Church of England. Leadership is a dangerous and risky thing. The cult of leadership throws up indefensible things like the behaviour of Donald Trump, or the grotesque inflation of top pay which has been paired with the constant pressure on the low paid. Leaders need to be challenged and questioned.
Finally, and most important of all, our leader. Jesus came home – and could achieve nothing much. Among his final prayers was one that God would prevent the suffering he could see coming. This failed. Ultimately he was isolated and executed. Sometimes people put their faith in him and he had been able to achieve great things, at others they didn’t, and he achieved little. But his own faith was in God: earthly achievements depended on the faith of others; the boundless life of Resurrection depended on faith in the faithfulness of God.
So Paul can boast of his own weakness, his humiliations, his lack of eloquence, his constant pain. A man with many flaws and apparently great gifts as a leader and guide – but who knows that all that matters is to rely on God whom we know in Jesus. That is where our faith must be fixed – not on any leader.