Reading this morning’s gospel [Luke 22:24-30] about authority given to the apostles, I re-inhabited my Christian upbringing in which I was taught to be ready to die for episcopacy but not to trust bishops. This creates an interesting internal dialogue these days. Paul Avis has written extensively about the episcopate. He is a champion of episcopacy as a mark of the Church; but he makes the proper distinction between the office and the individual. We notoriously fail. Many of you know the story about Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang of York complaining to Bishop Hensley Henson of Durham about his official portrait that it made him look ‘proud, pompous and prelatical'; to which Henson replied, ‘And to which of these epithets does Your Grace take exception?’ We are all too aware at the moment of the consequences of unaccountable prelacy. Bishop David and I would fall down more often than we do were it not for all of your prayers and the honesty of our colleagues.
Were I looking for inspiration for my own episcopal portrait I can go to a godly source, a Christmas special of Call the Midwife. Cynthia, one of the young midwives, is struggling to discern her growing sense of calling to the religious life. She talks earnestly with Sr Julienne about the depth of her desire to respond but her sense of complete inadequacy. ‘I have nothing to give, nothing to offer up, in exchange for his love’, she says. The decisive moment in her discernment comes as she watches a heart-rending moment of intimacy between a couple whose lives have been devastated by an abusive medical system, whose futures have been betrayed by the system that should have healed them. The woman thought she was expecting a baby, only to be told that – unbeknownst to her – she had had surgery that would make that impossible. Her partner tells her that his privilege is that she let him love her. Hearing that, Cynthia suddenly understands that God is calling her to respond by letting Christ love her.
This morning we gather as ministers, lay and ordained, with one another and with members of families and churches, to renew and be renewed in our commitments to ministry. We gather to be reminded that we need Christ’s healing to be ministers of that healing, and, at present, we are deeply aware of how much the Church needs healing. That healing begins with our real penitence for all the ways in which we have failed. Our only recourse at the beginning of these three most holy days, is to throw ourselves on that depth of love and mercy that took Christ to his cross. Only this makes sense of our gathering with thanksgiving for our shared calling as ministers of that good news. And today also as we gather we launch our diocesan Way of Life, in which we commit ourselves together to be renewed in prayer and holiness, and all that builds up our common life as the Body of Christ in which all may be safe, joyful and holy.
As we come to affirm our vows and commitments, I want to say an enormous thank you to you for all that you are and do, for the ministry we share. Thank you too to your families and friends for the support, the care, the challenge that you give to those who are in public ministry, and the ministries you yourselves offer in the unfolding adventure of your calling in Christ. God’s call on our lives, first as disciples and only subsequently to whatever form of ministry, is never static. It is a daily call to turn to Christ. We are called to seek the grace for our lives to know that new every morning is the love. We are called to grow in holiness, to become more and more like Christ, and enter ever deeper intimacy with God. We are called to become ever more the people God created us to be. That is true for us individually, but also for us as a church. The snapshot of life in the earliest church given us in the reading from Acts makes clear that this is about common life – reading Scripture together, praying together, breaking bread together. It is about a shared sense of justice, marked by visible generosity. When we move shortly to the west end, under the Way of Life sculpture, as well as affirming our ministerial vows, we will all affirm together our commitment to continuing in the apostles’ fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers.
Our diocesan Way of Life is about finding ways to deepen our discipleship and grow in holiness together. It is a vehicle for us to express the primacy of Christ in our lives through prayer. It is not intended to supplant existing commitment or rules of life, but to help us nurture a confident people of God by seeking to ‘raise the spiritual temperature of the diocese’. That is why, as you’ll see in the ‘goody bags’ that are there for you to take away after the service (and please do take them!), there are resources for use as individuals, as groups, with young people, and with families. The dedicated pages of the website are evolving, with a suite of resources to help us to continue to deepen in prayer, to grow in holiness and in friendship with Our Lord.
I have no desire to make The Way of Life another burden to carry with guilt. My only desire is to resource and equip us for the primary thing we are called to do – to respond ourselves to the divine address, and then to play our parts in building up the body. At the ordinations of priests, we pray for the candidates to be renewed in holiness. One of the things bishops are here to try and do is to nurture God’s people and lead the church in the way of holiness. And the first thing any of us promises at our ordination is, by the help of God, to be diligent in prayer, reading Holy Scripture, and such studies as will deepen us in faith and fit us to bear witness to the truth of the gospel.
Prayer is our first ministerial priority. The Way of Life is not a thing apart from every other dimension of our diocesan strategy – it is not separate from concerns about safeguarding or money or buildings or, or, or… It is as we pray that we grow in that intimacy with Christ that helps us respond to his love, without which there is no hope of prospering Jesus tells his squabbling disciples in the gospel that he is among us as one who serves. He who will give up everything, as we shall sing later in the service, ‘for love of those who loved him not’, is the pattern of our calling, the model for the Way of our Life in him.
We try to live up to that calling all the time. Many of you will have heard me say before that as a priest, you are always a priest – as a wife or husband, child, parent, sibling and friend, in our rest and in all the other work to which you are called. There is no off-day from being who we are. As we live our callings as ministers it is in our characters, right through our souls like the pattern in a stick of rock. It is as we seek to grow into that likeness, go deeper into that friendship with God, that by grace we become more the person God created us to be, lead a life that itself speaks the gospel we proclaim. And it is how the treasured flock we are given to care for recognise us, and recognise in whose name we minister.
This is a calling whose weight we know we cannot bear on our own. And we have nothing to offer in exchange for God’s love except ourselves. It is also fraught with challenge – the temptations to despair or cynicism, or to what Archbishop Justin described in the IICSA hearing as the ‘lunacy’ of a clericalism which is self-regarding and unaccountable, to cultures that are disconnected from or simply deaf to wider realities, to living in cosy huddles afraid of the possibility of change. Jesus rebukes his disciples for behaving in the manner of the kings of the Gentiles, where ‘those in authority are called benefactors’. Where power cannot be challenged, where voices are silenced, where it is easier to look away than to confront the uncomfortable. ‘But not so with you’, he tells them. ‘The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’. It is as we seek to grow together in prayer and holiness, accountable to one another for our discipleship that we can be renewed in our call to service in the pattern of Christ who tonight will wash the feet of those who will betray, deny and abandon him.
It is Christ among us as one who serves who calls us; it is Christ broken, silenced, abused and abandoned who stands as truthful judge in the face of weak and fearful power; it is Christ who invites us to learn of him to pray, to live, to grow in holiness, and to discern more clearly what it is he calls us to do, and who it is he calls us to be. As we walk the Way of the Cross in these three days, we proclaim the primacy of Christ, and we pray to be open to all the love he has for us.