Sermon 24 August 2014

"Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12.2)

Yesterday morning, as we do on every Saturday at morning prayer, we prayed for "all Ministers of Reconciliation, all Confessors and Spiritual Directors".

Recently, it has been widely reported that those for whom we pray are experiencing a vast increase in the number of Priests coming to them, suffering from depression, anxiety, guilt and generally a sense of failure of the Ministry entrusted to them. Some are very near breakdown and a few have turned to drink or drugs.

Those of you who are in Retreat might like to take the opportunity to pray for these Priests. You may already be aware of the problem. You might also pray for the Bishops and those in authority in the Church, that they see the urgency of this pastoral problem. The situation is serious. All that Spiritual Directors can do is to deal with the symptoms. The cause that needs attention is the recent expectation placed upon Parish Clergy. These demands are beyond the former realm of expectation. The model of priesthood has changed drastically. Parish priests are deluged all the time today with insistence on improvement in their levels of performance. They are pressed to increase the numbers in church each Sunday, find more money and become strong leaders, active in "hitting the targets". All of this is breeding a sense of failure and incompetence among very faithful servants of God.

The Church is ignoring the words of St Paul in today's Epistle: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" .

The source of so much Priestly distress is that the Church has conformed to the world's model of management; it is this which is causing so many broken Clergy.

The kind of language used today was described to me by one Bishop, concerned about all this, as "management speak not pastoral care". It is even possible that, in the future, the disciples of Jesus will be called "consumers" or "customers". We have today a widespread cry of despair and the Church of England ignores this at its peril.

There has been a recent article, written by the Jesuit Michael Buckley, in which he compared, in terms of "human excellence" the standards of the world and those of the New Testament. He quotes a study of the character of Socrates and Jesus: both persons died for what they believed to be the truth. Socrates went to his death with noble dignity and great poise. He remained calm and invulnerable to the attacks upon him. Throughout his trials he was always heroic and therefore attractive. In today's jargon, he was "cool".

Jesus, however, faced his passion and death with transparent horror and fear. In Gethsemane we have a man struggling with anguish and trembling with dread. He was vulnerable to the desertion and betrayal of his disciples. The end of Jesus was decidedly not attractive in worldly terms and not, as they say, "cool". Of course, the world's candidate for human excellence would be Socrates, not Jesus.

Paul tells us to be transformed to the mind of Christ, not of this world and not, presumably, to the mind of Socrates.

In Philippians Chapter 2 we have the hallmark of a disciple of Jesus, followed by the character of Jesus which we are to share. This is the famous Kenosis passage, with its description of the poured out life of love which led to the passion and death of Christ (we sing this as a Canticle at Evensong some time each month).

The pattern, therefore, of the Priests and people of God in their daily lives is one of total giving, loss to self, servanthood and sacrifice. The calling is not to the present demands of the church, not a call to be a successful leader, making constant progress and admired for hitting the target. Following Jesus means loving people into loving God, which can involve vulnerability, loss, weakness and pain - death to self, which is the victory of the cross.

I believe we have in this place a sign of hope for the people of God; for Priests and people - a hope that the traditional and time-tested values of being a Christian are still the call which comes to us all.

It might be said that this pattern of discipleship was clearly lived out in our departed - and much treasured - Brother, Timothy. He was no ecclesiastical tycoon. His name did not grace the headlines of the Church Times. In a word, in a Church, awash with words, he was very silent. When required to speak in a South African Court, during a case against an innocent black student, he refused to speak. The result was that he was sent to prison. He was not a Socrates figure; he simply loved God and people. Most of them were in prison or under house arrest.

Surely this is still, for us, a sign of hope, if only the Church would pay heed to it. In the end, Jesus never aimed at targets. He, himself, was the target.

            Simon Holden CR