Re-Constituting The Royal Priesthood

Sunday 15th June 2008
Year A, The Forth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Matthew 9:35-38; 10:1-8

Abstract: Although the Church recognises that the harvest is great while the workers are few, it has become sclerotic and inward looking. The Lambeth Conference will only serve to show that the hierarchical model of church has broken down. We need to re-constitute the idea of Peter's "Royal Priesthood".

One of the recent newspaper stories which I have enjoyed most came from India; the rising cost of oil has revived the agricultural use of camels which are more efficient than entry-level tractors. I am not a Luddite but I do like instances of ecological coherence, of elements in scale, working together; there is a place for tractors and a place for camels, a place for minis and a place for 4 x 4s; and, the point of my talk today, there is a place for leadership and a place for service.

Reading today's Gospel, I wonder whether the people of Galilee turned up their noses at the arrival of a mere Apostle because they only wanted the best, the boss, Jesus; but, put it the other way round, the most wonderful human being that ever lived, our own Saviour, was prepared to trust his Apostles, people like us, to spread the Word of the Kingdom on his behalf.

From what we know of their religious observance and ethical codes, the people of Galilee knew what Jesus and his Apostles were talking about. At least they knew what they should do and that they were falling short; yet Jesus still expresses the worry that the harvest is great but the workers are few. How worried, then, should we be today when the harvest is numerically greater and the workers fewer, absolutely and proportionately; and, at the same time, the knowledge and consciousness gap between those who are attentive to the Word of God and those who are either indifferent or hostile, is getting ever wider. Like a great edifice that is sinking into the sea of ignorance and callousness, the Christmas tip of Christianity is the only part of it left in view to those who are far away from it; the nearer you come, the more you see; but ever fewer come nearer.

The usual reaction to this sad state of affairs is to wring our hands at the falling number of vocations (although the position in the Church of England is slightly better at the moment) and call, in the current jargon for "Fresh Expressions of Church", of focuses of worship outside Parish Churches like this in entities such as The Point.

An increase in the number of clergy and options for worship are both good things in themselves but to think that they are solutions to our problems is to delude ourselves. Likewise, to bemoan a past which is supposed to have been Christian and compare it to the present is also to miss the point. Bishop Michael Nazir Ali says there is a vacuum where Christianity once was - and he might be right - but nostalgia and defensiveness are both unhelpful responses. There might have been a high degree of church-going in the past but there was no golden age; we only have to read The Acts of the Apostles to know that. Taking matters one point further, correct analysis, if it is to be had at all, is not enough.

What we need is a reconstitution of Peter's "Royal Priesthood" so that we all serve in the fields, reaping the harvest of The Lord. But the Church - clergy and laity - has got itself into a sclerotic mindset; we have become obsessed with the ever more expensive, gas guzzling, shiny tractors and we have looked askance at the grumpy, graceless camels; you and me!

How are we to change this? How are we to liberate ourselves to work in the fields? I say "liberate ourselves" because there is no point in waiting for the tractors to admit that there are places where they should not or cannot go.

Last month in Peru Margaret and I saw agricultural terracing at more than 4,000 metres above sea level where farmers and their work animals ploughed, sowed and reaped where no tractor could ever go. The incredible grandeur of almost vertical cultivation spanning a height differential of more than 3,000 metres was made up of a massive variety of micro ecologies, so varied that while some were planting, others, 1000 metres away, were harvesting.

We, in our relatively flat country, are so used to seeing issues in flat terms, that we find it difficult to live with what we think of as untidiness, by which we mean that people are not doing the same things in the same way at the same time. But the problem with uniformity is that it starts out with the intention of producing simplicity but ends up creating complexity; diversity, on the other hand, really does require simplicity.

More fundamentally, complexity requires control and diversity only flourishes without it. In that context, let me quote Archbishop Rowan from an essay written before he became our Primate: "Christianity is simply the tradition of speech and practice that transmits the question of Jesus ... It is to this that the church answers, not primarily to considerations about doctrinal accuracy or institutional coherence." Its mission is obscured by "neurotic efforts at control."

At this point as the tractors - or should I, in this sad age, say tanks - are rolling towards the Lambeth Conference, how much time will the bishops spend thinking of how to mobilise the whole church to spread the Word of God? Do we suppose that Jesus made his Apostles jump through a variety of doctrinal, ecclesiological, liturgical and ethical hoops before he trusted them to proclaim The Kingdom? I do not want us to take this to mean that we should not know what we are talking about; but there are different kinds of expertise and different kinds of talking. There's church talk and world talk. We need to face outwards not inwards and that involves all kinds of approaches to a postmodern world which won't make any particular effort to understand why one of the most frequently used words in The Bible is Circumcision.

When the tractors roll away from Lambeth it will be even clearer that the hierarchical model is broken. If ever there was a time for the camels it is now. How often are we told that we need to revert to the practices of the early church, that We need simplicity and diversity? In an environment of micro ecologies, we can come into our own but we are not going to be able to contribute simply by asserting, by saying that we should be valued more highly and trusted more fully. We need an agenda of personal action, not an agenda that we think that other people should follow.

That sounds very daunting so let me end with some practical suggestions; we must: first, abandon false modesty and face up honestly to what we can give to our church, as support workers or labourers in the field; secondly, we must take a much greater interest in what is going on in our church and not leave it to 'them'; thirdly, we must read and study the Bible and theology so that we are better equipped for our tasks; and, finally, we must pray, every day, in passion and in silence, recognising that in our own brokenness we are strengthened to serve Christ in the power of The Spirit.