Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bishop John's Sermon should be shared!

A sermon on the occasion of ordination to the diaconate of Alan Kelb and Thomas Leslie and the ordination to the priesthood of Bethley Sullivan and Robert Whalley.

Today is a great day in the life of this Diocese. We are here to make 2 deacons and ordain 2 priests. The variety of ministries to which they are called by God reflects clearly the changing face of the Diocese and the changing needs of church in the 21st century.

Thomas has completed his theological education at Trinity College, and will serve as assistant curate here at the Cathedral. At the same time he is working at Cathedral College, building and strengthening relationships between School, parish and Diocese. His path is perhaps the most conventional of all of our candidates.

Alan is travelling on the apprenticeship model of training, championed so successfully in our neighboring Diocese of Bendigo by Bishop Andrew. Alan has significant ministry skills and experienced gained over many years. He will continue to supplement his theological education as he serves as a deacon. His ministry will continue in the parish of North Albury and he will continue to work as a chaplain at Wangaratta High School. He will be an important bridge between community and church.

Bethley was originally ordained to the vocational diaconate, and has provided honorary ministry in the parishes of Alpine and Beechworth.  I received advice from the examining chaplains who had worked alongside her that they sensed that she was being called from diaconal to priestly ministry; which I must say was a bit of a surprise to Bethley. After due process that sense of vocation was affirmed, and she is today being ordained priest for honorary service as priest in charge of the Beechworth Parish. Ordination in the fullness of life and honorary service represents an important transition in the models of ministry obtaining in the Diocese of Wangaratta.

The least conventional path to ordination has been followed by Rob. A sophisticated theologian, with wide experience in theological education and chaplaincy, Rob has journeyed with the church for most of his life. But ordination never seemed to be the way. When it was right for him to explore, it wasn’t right for the church. And when it was right for the church, it wasn’t right for him. In the end the hound of heaven caught him, and we are blessed that the catch was effected here. Rob is my chaplain, and is rapidly making himself invaluable in facilitating the Episcopal ministry I exercise. In addition he has become for us the champion of lay education, and is dreaming all sorts of exciting programs into existence.

Four very different people. Four very different ministries.  For the reality of today’s church is that the conventional or paradigm notion of ministry as full-time stipendiary ministry in the parish context is no longer the only way of understanding ministry in the church. The face of the church is changing rapidly as is the landscape in which the church is called into being. The very nature and place of the ministry of the church is in the process of change, and it’s not yet clear what the future will look like.

Some things are clear. Conventional stipendiary parish based ministry, whilst till central to the life of the church, is already not the only form of ministry. An increasing diversity of models is likely to reflect our desire to connect with a rapidly changing world. We are all called to discover a new place for ourselves in the new landscape. The harvest is still plentiful – the labourers need more sophisticated tools to bring the harvest in.

Despite our changing sitz im leben, we can make some general observations about leadership in the church.

In the first place it needs to be said clearly that the call to ministry is the call of GOD! God takes the initiative and we respond. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Each and every account that the bible offers of the call to ministry follows this pattern.  Isaiah’s call, or Jeremiah’s ordination to suffering or the calling to mission of the seventy. Ministry is not our private possession. Ministry is not something we control for our private benefit. I go cold in side when I hear the imperial claim to my parish or my ministry. Ministry in the church is the ministry of Christ in the world, to the world and for the world, and God calls us to the inestimable privilege of taking our part in this ministry. Ministry is gift and privilege, but never possession. We take our place by the grace of God alone, and not by our own merit.

It follows that God calls us as we are, warts and all, and uses us. “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us.” We don’t need to pretend to be what we’re not. We don’t need to claim for ourselves competencies we don’t have. We don’t need to be envious of the gifts, skills or achievements of others.  We don’t need to advance ourselves at the expense of others. For God calls us as we are, and sets us in our proper place in Christ’s body. The ministry of the church is, then, interdependent and the very being of the church is interdependent.

What then can we say about ministry of leadership in the church? What does it look like? What are its inherent characteristics? How can I recognize if it’s authentic? At a level these are hard questions to answer. In a sense leadership is as varied as the infinite variety of people    God calls to the task, and the infinite variety of situations in which they are called to operate. We can nevertheless make a couple of general comments.

A good leader in the church is one who proclaims the word of God with authority in the community in which the leader operates. Of course we must resist the temptation to play God – our human limitation needs to be frankly acknowledged. But we need not ever be apologetic – the kingdom of God deserves to be proclaimed with a shout and not a whimper. The leader is called to proclaim with authority by word and deed the good news of God in Christ in the ever changing context of the world. In his customarily profound but Germanically opaque manner, Hans Kung puts it this way:

Something like an interpreter, simultaneously representing yet independent of the ‘general will’, (the leader) emphasizes the cause, the one needful thing, for which the community is, not only on behalf of this or that individual but to the (big or small) world, with energy, tenacity, intelligence and imperturbability.

Models of leadership are ten a penny. There’s lots of useful stuff to be found to help us in our task, not the least in the terms of modern secular management theory. But we do need to remember always that the church is not a small business, or even a multi-faceted franchise operation with the bishop as Ronald Macdonald or Colonel Sanders in the centre. I don’t want to be too pious here – modern theories of management can and do provide useful insights.

But the paradigm model of leadership in the church is self-giving, loving service; and the paradigm leader is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. So if anyone should be great they should be servant of all and slave of all, just as the son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

There are clear implications for us leaders in this. The role of loving service, the call to compassion is a costly call. It requires us to surrender power and security. It compels us to operate beyond our comfort zone, on the risky ground of faith and in the landscape of the other. It exposes us, as nothing else exposes us. It lays open our vulnerability. And so we can easily retreat as a means of self-protection. We can claim power. We can put on the uniform of professional competence to maintain safe distance between ourselves and the risk of the other. We can use piety as a weapon of control. There’s a terrible ambiguity in the ministry of leadership that we need to acknowledge. It can either open us up to or shield us from God’s reality.

There is one more important point to make. Leadership in the church is as much about being as it is about doing. Of course there are myriad tasks to perform. But mere task efficiency does not make a good leader in the church.

Some few years ago now the late Monica Furlong wrote these memorable and wonderfully politically incorrect words in a letter to an Anglican priest and spiritual director called Ron Swain

I am clear what I want of the clergy.  I want them to be people who can, by their own happiness and contentment, challenge my ideas about status, about success, about money, and so teach me how to live more independently of such drugs.  I want them to be people who can dare, as I do not dare, and as few of my contemporaries dare, to refuse to work flat out (since work is an even more subtle drug than status), to refuse to compete with me in strenuousness.  I want them to be people who are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who can face the emptiness and possible depression which often attack people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied.  I want them to be people who have faced this kind of loneliness and discovered how fruitful it is, as I want them to be people who have faced the problems of prayer.  I want them to be people who can sit still without being guilty.

This might be a charter for idleness. Or it might be a vision of one at peace with self and with God, and so fully available for the joy and the struggle of ministry. As we ordain Alan and Thomas and Bethley and Robert, may we and they carry this vision of ministry with us as we continue to celebrate the everlasting joy of the Gospel in the places in which God plants us?

For Christ’s sake.

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