MAUNDY THURSDAY - Clergy Renewal of Vows

‘The example of his humility’

Address by Bishop Peter John Lee at the Clergy Renewal of Vows

Maundy Thursday 2008

‘Help us to follow the example of his humility by walking in the way of the cross.’
All this week we have been praying these words from the Palm Sunday collect, which no doubt are inspired by the reading from Philippians 2 which is entrenched for Palm Sunday, regardless of whether we are in Year A, B or C. Somebody in the Liturgical Committee clearly thought it was important.
As I have reflected a bit ahead of this service, I have found myself thinking again about the traditional understanding of the Orders of Ministry in the Anglican Church. There may be a personal reason for that, because by the grace of God I hope to celebrate the 35th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate in June – the same month in which I hope to celebrate the 18th anniversary of my ordination as a bishop. Spending half one’s diaconal ministry as a bishop is quite thought-provoking, not least because of the strong temptation for bishops to lose sight of the notion of servanthood. What I wonder, is diaconal episcope – or episcopal servanthhood?
As you know, our church has put the words, ‘Remember that you never cease to be a deacon’ into the ordination service for the priesthood; sadly, we have left it out of the consecration service for bishops. It might do bishops good if we put it there too.
Before trying to reflect on orders of ministry specifically let me make three general observations.
First, I was recently in a meeting of the Church Unity Commission at which we were having another go at the issue of moving towards a united church. We might remind ourselves that the Anglican Church in Southern Africa covenanted to seek that form of structural union exactly 40 years ago, and we have never (or never yet) reneged on that undertaking; every time the next step has come before Provincial Synod, we have endorsed the progress so far and taken the next step forward. My colleagues in the CUC laugh at me for predicting that it will take our church another 30 years to achieve the union we are discussing; in view of the rate of progress so far, I don’t think that estimate is unrealistic. In fact I know there are many in our church who would resist the very idea if it came to a real decision; but I think our children will probably see things differently and may take to the idea quite easily. Please put that comment in a time-capsule and read it in 2035.
In our meeting we were again looking at what we find difficult in each other’s churches, especially in forms of leadership and oversight. The Presbyterians were making their usual points about the hierarchical nature of our church and particularly the power, status and glamour associated with bishops. When we asked them to express that not in terms of what they dislike, but in the positive form of something they treasure and which they think is threatened by our way of being church, they said the issue for them is the core doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. For them, our style downgrades the God-given role and dignity of lay people, both in regard to the gifts distributed to all Christians by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of ministry and in the processes of church governance, where they believe that better decisions are made distributively than by letting one body at the top call all the shots. They have the same problem about the high-handed way in which they perceive local clergy to operate in some parishes and in some communities.
Now whether or not we think that their perceptions are accurate, we could do with listening to what they are saying. There have been times in our church – both through spiritual moments like the charismatic renewal years of the 1970s and 80s, and in decisions of synodical government – when we have taken the priesthood of all believers quite seriously. For example I notice that some of our clergy are not holding properly called Vestry meetings because they do not observe the requirement of Canon 27:7, which says that the notice of meeting (as it appears on the parish notice board) must include the functions of the vestry as set out in section 27:5.This includes not only accounts and elections but ‘the care, with the Incumbent, of the Parish in matters affecting worship, stewardship, ministry, education, evangelism, unity, development and social responsibility’. That is a deliberate expression of the responsibilities of the  body of Christ in its local expression, recognising the gifts which the people of God have been given to carry out that responsibility together. Very similar guidelines are given for Parish Councils in Canon 28 – for which the Vestry is meant to be choosing people. But I wonder if our Vestries and Councils are doing these things, or being allowed to do them – or indeed if we as clergy really think the laity are capable of doing them.
I say this because it seems to me that we go wrong when we talk about the ordained ministry, if we do not see it as held within the body of Christ as a whole, and if we do not see ourselves as servants of the whole people of God. In fact, as Rick Warren would say, it starts in the mind; we need to see ourselves first as part of the laos – the whole people of God – long before we are given a particular function within that people. When we get to heaven there will be no reserved seats for clergy; in fact the exhortation to churchwardens at their admission to office, that they must see to the seating of the people without respect of persons, will take on a whole new meaning. We are part of the people of God, not their lords and masters.
One of the great errors which we clergy make, is when we start to think that the church exists for our benefit, not the other way round; the church is not there in the first instance to look after our stipends, our housing, our transport, our allowances and our pensions. We are there for the benefit of the church, not the other way about.
I am not saying of course that these items are unimportant, or that the church should be allowed – as it has often done – to exploit and overwork stipendiary or self-supporting clergy. I have often said that the joy of the Anglican system is that the bishop and the churchwardens can gang up together to work for the welfare of the clergy. But it is like the Christian approach to human rights; where others fight for their own rights, Christians ought to fight for the rights of other people – with as much passion as others fight for their own. That is the second great commandment.
Similarly there is something unattractive about clergy advocating for their own comforts. This can be very awkward, I know; I face just the same embarrassment about getting the plumbing fixed at the Bishop’s House, as you do about leaks in the rectory. But we have to find ways of getting these things done caringly and responsibly without exploiting our position to extract money or gifts from God’s people; nothing gets us an ugly reputation more quickly, or turns off the taps of lay co-operation in the mission of God more decisively. We need to set up a good system and then trust it, knowing that we have been called to a life of sacrifice which may take very real forms. That is tough but it beats compromising the integrity of our calling every time.
The potential for corruption here is not only about benefits but about the use and misuse of power. If we want to lead and to govern according to the scriptures and the law of our church, we will have to learn co-operation, participative procedures, and humble conflict resolving ways; not try to solve everything by throwing our weight about. It starts with holding God’s people in respect for their humanity, their gifts and their right to participate in the life of their own church – and then to offer our own gifts and contributions as part of a community of faith, not as outsiders imposing ourselves on others. That is unfortunately how some of us behave and how we are perceived by Christians in other churches; if we can get it right we will find ourselves not only bearing more fruit but having that much more common ground with sisters and brothers in other parts of God’s family. We might even earn the right to question some of their ways of doing things – but that has to be earned, not presumed.
So much for the context in which we should think of our ordained ministry – that of the whole gifted people of God, of which we are but a part.
My second general comment is a sad one, but it has to be repeated here.
All of us Christians are called to a lifestyle worthy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and that lifestyle is part of the message that we bear to the world. Caring and honest Christians get noticed, and the credit accrues to our God. Conversely, greedy or abusive clergy are the worst possible advertisement for the Gospel. That is why the newspapers love to catch us in a fault, because they love to paint our efforts at Christlike goodness as self-righteousness, and they love to spot the inconsistencies between what we seem to claim and what we actually do. Of course we would do better to adopt the humble style of struggling sinners in the first place and not suggest that we are somehow holier than anyone else; but we also ought to be sensitive to the damage our lives cause when we blatantly disregard some of the basics of Christian behaviour.
Now I need to tell you at this point that I have been required to suspend another priest from his ministry because of very grave charges against him in terms of Canon 37. I do not wish to name the categories of charge in public; the priest in question is innocent until proven guilty, and the charges laid have to be tested.
However in this context some of our problems of conduct do need to be named; they are our responsibility. It is only 2 years since the previous Rector of Sebokeng came to this very service to acknowledge paternity of a child and to seek the forgiveness and acceptance of his fellow clergy. Then after making all kinds of promises he abandoned his ministry on 2 days’ notice to go and work for a rubbish company.
I find myself deeply distressed when I think that I have now worked in Sebokeng and Evaton for 20 years; I have known many clergy passing through the parish, and have the greatest respect for the godliness and hard pastoral work of many of them. It is deeply disturbing that at least 4 of these clergy over the years have been charged with sexual misconduct and at least 2 with financial extortion. That reflects so unfairly on the many clergy of integrity who have served there.
It also creates an ongoing perception that our church tolerates conduct which in fact conflicts severely with our calling. As I said to the councillors whom I was admitting to office last Sunday in Sebokeng, when I spoke about financial management in the church, it would serve us right if all our members bailed out and became members of other Christian communities, if they find that we simply cannot be trusted with their giving. The same applies if they were to find that they cannot trust youth leaders or clergy with their daughters.
After Sunday’s service I was asked to visit a youth group in which young people fall into trances when they turn to prayer. There are clearly serious spiritual issues surrounding several of the young people; are we surprised, when the spiritual quality of the leadership is in question, the protection of godly leadership and priestly intercession seems to be full of holes, and the spiritual needs of the young people come second to extracting fees for unveiling tombstones?
That is why we presented a draft financial policy at synod, which we need to agree and observe. It is not only finance that needs some policy. Not for nothing did Paul tell Timothy , ‘take heed to yourself  and to your teaching’ (1Tim 4:16).
Now let me turn to less grievous matters. My third general observation arises from reading some Anglican reports in readiness for this year’s Lambeth Conference. I was greatly encouraged to read about some of the initiatives which are trying to link theological education more strongly with mission. The International Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism, in its report endorsed by the Anglican Consultative Council in 2005, quotes the words of Martin Kahler speaking in 1908: ‘Mission is the mother of theology’. They bracket with that the well known words of Emil Brunner, ‘the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning’.
We always seem to lose our perspective when we forget that what we are all about, is being called by God and sent by God to change the world. That ‘sent-ness’ is what mission means. We as clergy – and indeed the whole church of which we are servants – are called into that missional flow from the heart of God towards the needs of the world. If we start to think that anything else is ‘the name of the game’ – whether it be church building or counselling or maintaining the church as it is, or our own role and status within God’s church – we have already lost the plot. Everything else will then be at best ineffective and at worst, corrupt. We are here because of the missio Dei – the outreach of God in and to the world; nothing less, and nothing else.
If we are then called to ordained ministry, that ministry has to be seen at all times in the context of what God is trying to do in God’s world, to bring healing and relief to that world in its pain. Some of our preoccupations then really begin to look very trivial, self-centred and silly.
At the Lambeth Conference of 1998 I was in a section under the chairmanship of Bishop Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, which focussed on mission and evangelism. We produced a report which has stood the test of time rather well. It contains a wonderful section on the bishop as leader in mission for the diocese.
The report accepts the traditional understanding that the bishop is the chief minister of the liturgy for the diocese, especially at baptism and the eucharist; and that he (or as we fervently hope will soon be the case in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa – she) is the chief teacher and the chief pastor in the diocese. But, said the bishops, the bishop should also be the leader in the outreach of the diocese. He should shape the diocese’s missional strategy and constantly charge parishioners to engage in it. This is what the late Bishop Rich Kraft of Pretoria meant when he often said that the bishop is ‘the bearer of the vision for the diocese’ – he should make people aware of what the vision is and exhort them to work at it.
One of the results is that we should think of the bishop not only in a centripetal model, whereby he sits on a throne in the cathedral and everything flows to him; but in a complementary centrifugal model where energy flows from the centre to the edges, and the bishop himself is not only found in the middle but visiting new outreach initiatives, smaller congregations, impoverished homes and marginalised operations in the life of the church. The constant temptation of our church to behave like secular society – and so to regard what happens at the centre as more important than what happens at the fringes – needs to be reversed, not least by the presence of the bishop on the front lines of pioneering ministry. When I conducted the first ever Confirmation at the Sicelo informal settlement last month, in an incredibly hot and crowded zinc-roofed garage, and when I led the visit to the landfill dump at Boipatong before Christmas, I was consciously doing what that Lambeth report so profoundly challenged me to do a decade ago.
In this sense every bishop is a missionary bishop, every priest is a missionary priest, and every deacon is a missionary deacon.
This point touches on the link between episcopal and diaconal ministry. To sit on a throne, high and lifted up, with all sorts of others proffering service to me, precisely negates the image of Jesus kneeling on the floor with the calloused feet of his disciples in his hands, offering them service in the Upper Room. Here is the problem so many of us have with the phrase ‘servant leadership’, because we want to be servants but when we come to lead, it is quite hard to do so without becoming arrogant and pushy – not to mention, impatient with the slow response of others. I suppose it is all because we find it so intensely difficult to begin to be like Jesus. Yet that call remains irresistible; it is all about serving. That is what the Son of Man came to do – not to be served.
As many of you would have heard me say at ordination retreats, becoming a deacon is not a big step. We don’t suddenly become what we were not; because all Christians are called to be servants, when we become deacons we are merely lifted up as visible models of what we were supposed to have been all the time. The danger is in the being lifted up and made visible; for the words in the collect about ‘following in the way of his humility’ echo Philippians 2 in describing the series of steps downwards which our Lord Jesus Christ took before being proclaimed as the name above all names and the Lord before whom every knee should bow. In a world where being upwardly mobile is everything, our model in life was downwardly mobile and calls us to be the same.
That is why we ‘never cease to be a deacon’. Unfortunately some of us whose diaconate was transitional – a kind of airlock between the life of the laity and the work of the priesthood – probably  never grasped that until much later. We may not have wanted power but we certainly felt called to leadership – and never really grasped the basic stuff about going around washing people’s feet. I will not easily forget Archbishop Desmond saying that it had taken him an unconscionably long time to work out that what God really wanted of us was to serve one another; yet some of you will remember when we did the renewal of deacons’ vows one year at the footwashing in Riverlea, during his Holy Week retreat, that he was the first to come trotting forward when I called the deacons to renew their promises. I think that if I can speak for myself, the problem for many of us was not that we never became truly deacons, but that we became priests before we had worked out what it means to be Christians.
These thoughts are well expressed by Rick Warren in the book we have been studying together as clergy this Lent. Here are a few of his gems strung together:
‘We serve God by serving others…Jesus measured greatness in terms of service, not status…Everyone wants to lead; no one wants to be a servant. We would rather be generals than privates….Without a servant’s heart, you will  be tempted to misuse your shape for personal gain…Your shape reveals your ministry, but your servant’s heart will reveal your maturity.. .Real servants make themselves available to serve…Real servants are faithful…Real servants maintain a low profile.’ Then comes his punchline like an uppercut to the jaw – ‘Service starts in your mind. To be a real servant requires a mental shift, a change in your attitudes’.
So there we are, trying to work out how to be disciples while being bombarded with demands from others for counselling, advice, wisdom, teaching, and example – not to mention chairing meetings and fulfilling all the administrative demands from the diocesan office! No wonder we sometimes struggle to keep our compasses set on true North, and to live authentically as Christ’s faces in the community. No wonder that task is made harder by being elevated in other people’s regard, and confused by fancy regalia and titles like ‘Father’ – not to mention some of stuff I get on the church door like ‘my lord’, ‘your excellence’, ‘your worship’ and so forth! I sometimes tell congregations that they would help me if they would come out of church and say ‘good morning, my servant’; for actually, in spite of being dressed like something off a Christmas tree, that is the truth of who I am.
You may be wondering what happened to the priesthood in these musings. Nothing really; priests mostly have the same issues as bishops on a smaller scale. Both need the antidote of remembering daily our servanthood, and then going out as servants to the neediest parts of the missio Dei, rather than hanging around headquarters feeling important.
This is why – if you will forgive what seems like a logical leap, but isn’t really – our first need is to get our spirituality settled into place at the heart of our lives. Our daily encounters with God are the supreme antidote to taking ourselves too seriously; that is where we should be reminded in a very obvious way, that we are servants of God even before we are servants of the people. As we then intercede – bearing, as the ordination service says, the names of our people on our breast before the Lord – we both serve the people and prepare to serve them when we get off our knees. That way we see them as they are, and see ourselves rightly connected to them. It is much harder then, as Ezekiel puts it, to eat the sheep when we are supposed to be feeding them.
Remember then, that you never cease to be a Christian; you are forever a member of Christ’s body alongside all the others, not a race apart with more privilege than part to play. Remember that you never cease to be a deacon, living out in the eyes of others the servanthood that should characterise us all. And if you should be a priest or a bishop, remember that everything you do – especially the distinctive functions of leadership, teaching and presiding at the sacraments – is to be done in the spirit of a deacon and for the good of the people, and of God’s world to which we are sent.