St Bride's: Sermon Series

Faith in the Ministry

I am honoured to be asked to deliver the second in your Lenten series on the institutional life of the Church – dinosaur or dynamo – as applied to the parish church, cathedral, the Church Commissioners our church schools and today ‘Ministry’, which I take to be ordained ministry.

My contention will be that ministry will continue to be a dynamo – that is a conduit for God’s grace and energy – in so far as it [and the people called to serve in it] are able to be flexible and adaptive to the needs of the Church and the world. If ministry is not able to adapt it may indeed become a dinosaur.

But first, how does the ordained ministry fit in to the economy of the Church?

As today’s epistle reveals, all Christians are called, because of their baptism, to share in the ministry of the church to the world – some by being faithful disciples who, nourished by the Christian community, take the values of the Kingdom into their work, family and leisure – some called to focus and resource that discipleship through being called to the particular ministry of deacon, priest or bishop.

And those called to the ordained ministry should be deployed in a variety of ways to serve the needs of a changing church and changing world. Some to minister in their home community, others to be open to deployment across the Church as whole; some in parish ministry, others in fresh expressions of the Church’s life; some paid and some voluntary; some as pastors, some as scholars, some as persons of prayer.

There is quite a range of opportunities for ministry today and a growing recognition that the Church should be flexible in its systems so that as people grow and mature in their faith and ministry, they may wish to stretch their ministry in new ways.

But how do we harness God’s grace and energy through the ordained ministry?

One of the many things I love about St Bride’s is the music and I have three models of the ordained ministry to share with you – one to be avoided [perhaps a dinosaur] and two, I suggest, to be emulated – and they are images drawn from the world of music: solo and ensemble. 

First, what a priest should not be – but many are.

I recently read an article in which an American journalist described an interesting and amusing sight he came across whilst walking through the square at Harvard:

On a cold overcast October afternoon, I noticed a large crowd of people gathered around what appeared to be a banjo player. As I approached, I realised that this was not just a banjo player, but a gentleman, (whose name I later learned to be Eric)…who played banjo, guitar, bass, dobro, harmonica and sang – all at the same time. I smiled…he not only played all of his instruments simultaneously, but he played them all well. And when I looked around, the rest of the crowd was also full of smiles…shaking their heads and watching in amazement. Some members of the audience were trying to figure out how the contraption worked while others explained it to the person next to them... The left foot controls a series of capos, which stop the strings at the frets, while the right foot controls a plectrum over the strings. In addition to the guitar machine, (Eric) also plays dobro which is a guitar with a metal resounding chamber played with a steel slide. He also plays an harmonica which is strapped around his neck (and he sings).

I don’t know if you remember the last time you saw a ‘one man band’ like this. But it is clear from the article that the author, and the crowd, was full of admiration for Eric’s musicianship, versatility and ingenuity…

But this no longer a suitable model for the ministry of a priest? A one-person band who could do lots of things rather well and all at the same time…the sound produced may be slightly unusual, but we would be really rather impressed that a priest could do lots of things at once.

A priest is no longer seen as a one-person band that does everything and is the source of all wisdom and authority. A priest today is seen much more as one who oversees and enables the gifts of others.

So my second model of priesthood — and this time, one to emulate — is drawn from my time as a vicar in a market town in Hampshire, Petersfield. Living there I learned of one its former citizens: the professional singer, Wilfred Brown.

Bill Brown lived most of his adult life in Petersfield from the late 1940s when he came to teach at Bedales until he died in 1974. He was an outstanding human being — a deeply committed Christian, who had worked in Germany after the war to help orphaned children. Brown was gifted with a beautiful and exquisitely clear tenor voice and was a famous oratorio singer. He wrote movingly about the role of the solo singer, in a way which can easily been applied to the ministry of the priest. What he is talking about is ‘being a musician’ (for us a priest) and the formation and experience that needs to undergird that being:

Whenever I look at an audience — and, among musicians, only we singers have this privilege — I recall that I am not only there to express myself or to impress others by making noises. On behalf of everyone present I have to render articulate things that are stirring in every heart, but which without me without would have no point of focus. Without the aspirations of the listeners I am as powerless to kindle a flame as a burning glass on a sunless day. Yet, were it not for a mediator, the poem would remain so much print, the melody a crazy string of dots. The dormant ciphers can be brought to life only through the exercise of a sacramental gift, and God has generously given this gift to people like me who had done nothing whatever to deserve it. It is therefore my duty to stand in all weathers at the cross-roads of human experience, assimilating all that I may observe, so that the quintessence of any given emotion may irradiate my voice as I sing of it and my listeners thrill to this as being the articulation of something within themselves.

When a priest represents the Christian community – most acutely at Holy Communion -- he or she is there to focus the ministry of all God’s people and also as an empowered representative of Christ the High Priest.

And now I come to my third model of priesthood.

Nan Harrison Washburn is a female conductor of several orchestras in the United States.  She operates in what was until recently largely a man’s world. Nan wrote these words:

At its simplest, the conductor’s job is to hold the orchestra together…being an effective conductor is all about developing a sense of timing and directing players to play at exactly the right moment…(G)getting people to play together and feel good about it, is the essence of conducting. It’s a continual study not only of your own technique and your understanding of the score – and there’s no end to understanding a symphony – but also a study in human behaviour and getting along with people and getting the orchestra to play together as a group…There’s a real misconception that conducting is about power, and you get what you want. I don’t like the term ‘maestro’; to me, if I am doing my job well, it’s like big chamber music. I’m (just) part of the interaction with 70 (other) musicians. 

To continue with the musical imagery, a priest in this mode – unlike Eric, the one-man band — is one who conducts an orchestra rather than frantically tries to play all the instruments by him or herself.

The Holy Spirit has given a range of gifts to the Christian community –some public, some hidden – to be developed and shared so that all contribute to building up the people of God to proclaim, in deeds and words the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom.

The role of the priest is to lead an ensemble, a group of individuals who have been gifted by the Holy Spirit. The priest is to preside over the Christian community gathered in one place, focussed in the role as president of the Eucharistic family he shares with his or her bishop; to lead and to teach. He or she should know the score well – the scriptures and the tradition of the church. In fact, unlike most conductors, he or she should not only know the score well, but the God who inspired that score. And be able to understand the capabilities of the instruments in the orchestra. He or she should know how to keep the beat, a sense of time (God’s time) and how to balance the competing ‘voices’ of the orchestra. At times, priests not only conduct the orchestra, but also interpret and even compose as they explore how the gospel can be ‘proclaimed afresh in each generation’; that is brought alive in a particular time and for a particular place.


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