I am interested in spiritual footprints – the idea that we leave marks of faith behind us where we walk. But I also think it is hard to make an unbiased reflection on our own footprints. As the author William Boyd has observed: the last thing you know about yourself is your effect. When I came here I had two personal goals, among other broader considerations. The first was to try and express the Christian faith in terms which make sense today, with a relevance to the wider world that people live in from Monday to Saturday; that would not imprison the Gospel in a long lost past; which would make people confident about expressing their faith and curious about the world God has made and will renew. The other goal was to try and create a particular momentum in this church where we could move forward together without a sense that there must be winners and losers in that process.
I know that there are some things I have not managed to achieve through a personal combination of negligence and ignorance – like any job really. Two months ago I was training some curates from the Rochester and Canterbury Dioceses and I encouraged them to be entirely themselves in their ministry and not to try and be a projection of what other people wanted them to be. This is the only way to find integrity. No-one else could be the ordained priest they were. This is good news for St. Nicholas Church because in the coming months you will have a new incumbent who will be a refreshing change from me, with a different set of gifts and empathies.
As the road forks then you face a small period of uncertainty. This is something we share with you as a family as we move to Rochester and we are wearily used to it. Tim is sixteen years old and this will be the seventh move of house he has had in that time. This kind of hyper-mobility is stressful because you do not put down roots deep enough to feel part of a larger community and end up scattering your life with half-formed friendships and commitments. For you as a church I suppose there are three questions: what will the period before a new appointment be like? Who will be the new Rector? How will we move on together after their appointment? The first question is pretty much resolved because we have an existing and experienced team of ministers in this church, led by Carol, who will continue to do the work of God. For them that question is more challenging because it will demand more of their lives without me to help support them.
I’m glad to say that the second question about the new rector is not strictly one for me. I know that on my leaving this process should move swiftly on and that some of the people who were involved in the process of taking me from here will be making up for that!
The third question about how you will move on together after the arrival of a new Rector is one I have confidence about and for two reasons. The first is that the church means all the people of God, not the Rector, and I know what you are capable of. In fact there is so much latent talent and faith among us that I count it as one of my failings not to have done more to foster it. The other reason for confidence is that this church is God’s handiwork. Like the Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts 8, it is this gift which sustains the church and brings it to fruition. I am simply not needed for this. This is not false modesty: it is a check on the reality of God’s work. We could all be superfluous, but by the grace of God he picks people to do what needs to be done.
As we face a degree of uncertainty together in 2010, the words of Isaiah 43 verse 1 should ring in our ears. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. The art of learning Bible passages by rote is out of fashion today. Those lines from Isaiah are an invitation to a better memory. Recalling this promise could transform us. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. I am told that the Bible uses the refrain do not fear three hundred and sixty-six times. I’d like to think there’s a message in that for us. There is no day of the year when we should be afraid, including leap years, because our lives are in God’s hands. The human instinct to fear things is deeply sourced in us and one of the main motivating factors in how we relate one to another. It is so prevalent that we take it for granted, like the air we breathe. But it is as spiritually damaging as breathing in toxins.
It may be unrealistic to expect absolute freedom from fear before the world to come but I know we could experience so much more peace if we opened our hearts to God every day and asked him to replace the anxieties we feel with the only fear we are called to: the fear of God himself – a fear which, unlike its parodies, is pure, joyful and invigorating. If I leave you with only one thing today, could it be to invite you to stop at some point today, think through what makes you afraid and ask God to begin to take that fear from you and replace it with a life-giving fear of God himself. As we move house this week and I take on such a different role to the one I have as to feel like a new career, I know it is a transaction waiting for us to make.
It was hard for St. Mary’s Bromley when I left them in 2005 to come here. I did it because I genuinely believed that God was calling me to work with you. Despite the shortness of this incumbency I hope you feel I was right and that we have made some lasting footprints together. Like one of those footballers that have been round the houses – Craig Bellamy springs to mind – I am off again. At least we don’t deal in transfer fees in the kingdom of God, only free loans - in the January transfer window - where you can afford to do without a player because you have so much talent on the books as it is.