Sheep & Shepherds

Sunday 19th July 2009
Year B, The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34; 6:53-56

One of the very earliest Monty Python sketches portrays the disastrous consequences of ovine flight. Commenting on the scene, a shepherd says: "Observe that they do not so much fly as plummet. The trouble is, sheep are very dim; once they get an idea into their heads, there's no shifting it; and this idea has been put about by that most dangerous of creatures, an ambitious sheep called Harold who has figured out that there's not much point standing in a field for a couple of years and then being eaten; he has patently hit upon the idea of escape."

Now as a Yorkshireman, brought up in the Pennines, I am particularly partial to sheep and we could at least take from the Monty Python sketch the idea that sheep can be single-minded and tenacious but, left to themselves, they are pretty helpless, so they do need shepherding; and what is attractive about sheep in both the Old and New Testaments is the idea of the working relationship between shepherds and sheep.

The passage from Jeremiah is, along with Ezekiel 34, one of the most withering in the Old Testament about the failure of secular and religious leadership. The Chosen People had put their faith in kings, and followed the teachings of their religious leaders, and look where it had got them? Into ignominious exile in Babylon.

Jesus surely had these prophesies in mind when he saw the people passing before him, desperate, disorganised and in need of a shepherd: the Jewish monarchy had never been restored after the exile and they were now under Roman occupation; their religious leaders had become rigidly legalistic, lacking any heart, and they only carried a faint, desperate hope of a Messiah to get them out of their misery.

Writing some 25 or 30 years later, St. Paul could see the mission of Jesus from a wider perspective: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, had come to care for the whole human flock, not just the traditional flock of the Chosen People; and, in one of his classic statements of the theology of Grace, Paul says that without God we are nothing; that we can do nothing on our own which is, essentially, the condition of sheep, which puts the notion of Harold the sheep into perspective. Harold realises that his life is seriously circumscribed but his strategy, so to speak, is to escape rather than to seek solace from his shepherd; and he raises an important issue which should warn us about the limitations of metaphors and analogies; you can only take them so far. In terms of the way we relate to Jesus as "the Good shepherd" we are sheep but in the way we relate to our human essence, as creatures of the creator, we have free wills and consciences, so in this context the depiction of us as sheep refers to our humility in the care of Jesus but it does not free us from the obligation to think and to act in accordance with our consciences. Therein lies both the power and the limitation of metaphor; we are sheep but we are not sheep.

As some of you know, I have just returned from the General Synod in York, and this is a good time to report on our Shepherds, our Bishops, who stand in succession to the leaders so roundly castigated by Jeremiah and Ezekiel; and I have to say, as if you did not know it already, that all is not well and that, in short, our Bishops could do with a Jeremiah or Ezekiel to turn up and read the prophetic riot act. at one level, we already know the problem: there is nothing given to us by God or humanity that is easy and simple that the Church of England cannot make difficult and complicated. We are obscuring our clear, simple message in bureaucratic verbosity. If Jesus had wanted his church on earth to be like this he would have chosen lawyers not fishermen; there were plenty of them about, as the Gospels attest.

Our shepherds have grown in number as their flocks have declined but there is so much to do in the farm office: structures to be erected to diffuse and deny; rules to be made for those who cannot be trusted; curbs to be placed on the enthusiasms of the naive; all must be made neat and tidy. And this is where the ovine metaphor reaches its limits: because although in terms of our salvation we quite properly behave towards our Bishops as sheep behave towards their shepherd, in the area of the exercise of free will and conscience, in the exercise of our function as members of the "Royal Priesthood" and in the exercise of our secular competences, we are supposed to be active assets to our Church.

But there is a much more serious malaise in the farm office and that is that some of our shepherds are now only really interested in rare breeds, in pedigree sheep who have very particular fleeces; these are the 'Orthodox' sheep. In terms of our Anglican history, the idea of orthodoxy is deeply suspect. The Church was established with a prayer book rather than a detailed theological confession precisely to avoid abstruse doctrinal arguments. The Church of England is a broad Church built upon Queen Elizabeth I's iconic statement that she did not want a window into men's souls. She wanted a church in which all the sheep, no matter what their pedigree, were under a unifying shepherd. But that settlement is under a systematic pincer attack by those who want a doctrinal purity based on their view of Scripture and those who see a role for the Pope in our affairs. This is an alliance of convenience against gay clergy and women priests and bishops, and it won't last, but it might survive long enough to destroy the open-minded equilibrium of our Church.

The problem, which you may have observed, with the shepherd in Monty Python, commenting on Harold's initiative, is that he lacks heart and is even a little sarcastic; and this is where the metaphor of the shepherd has its limits, just as the metaphor of our being like sheep has its limits. Shepherds aren't much use unless they stay humble and close to their sheep. Jesus talks about a lost sheep, not a lost subordinate clause; he talks about a good shepherd, not an orthodox shepherd; he talks about feeding his sheep, not regulating them. We don't just want to be governed by Of Flock, we want something much better than that.