Words to those about to be ordained in the Church of God
You’ve probably all studied liminality, which is one of the most Anglican words ever, and now you’re living it. That strange, formless period of time when your life transitions from one shape to another. And it’s when we open the door on a new kind of life that the wind flows into the house in a fresh way. Listen carefully to the Spirit of God this week, because you are in an unusual place. At the same time, don’t obsess over it if not much happens. God chooses when to meet with us; we are not his diary secretary.
In sending you on your way today, I want to share three parts of the ordinal we will be hearing more about on Saturday.
It says we are to be messengers and watchmen of the Lord. These are words with less meaning today. Messengers have been replaced by digital comms; watchmen have been replaced by satellites and algorithms. Watching TV is a passive pursuit. Being a watchman is active; it participates in the event itself and helps to shape it. There is a prophetic side, too. Where do we see the kingdom of God approaching, in our local community and national life? It isn’t always easy to spot this. We’re like an ancient watchman peering into the distance, trying to work out whether the small, ant-like figure is bringing good news or bad news. We are people of hope, and cannot live simply for the present. This challenges us not to say simply that everything is going wrong in society, but to wrongfoot people with a different message.
And we should embody this hope. Most messages today are instant and trivial, with information we don’t need and soon forget when it is overtaken by something else. This itch for something new should be contrasted with the need for enduring stories that draw out a response. Ancient messengers couldn’t make it up; they risked their lives if they dissembled. In fact, they risked their lives in sharing the news at all. The first rule of communication has always been to shoot the messenger. It is a precarious occupation. But it is also a highly relational one. We found out about God because someone told us. And they didn’t mean us to keep it to ourselves.
We live in a gloomy and nostalgic culture that fixates on a future that is bound to be worse than the past. I do not mean in any way to downplay deeply serious issues right now, but if we believe there is to be a coming new creation, formed by the death and resurrection of Christ, we should weave this imaginatively and sensitively into the prevailing gloom.
The ordinal also says we are to be formed by the word and to call our hearers to repentance.
When we are formed by the word, others will be too. That’s not to big up our importance, but to accept the power of human imitation. As a nation of individualists, we imagine ourselves to be self-formed. The I did it my way myth piped through the speakers of every crematorium every week. Astute scholars like Michael Sandel are helping to break up centuries of this philosophical fantasy. In reality, we do it the way others do it because we grow up in the same culture and we copy one another. One epidemiological study from Harvard shows we each have the power to influence the lives of up to eight thousand people, if we are only moderately networked. And it’s there in scripture, easily overlooked. St Paul doesn’t just say, be filled with the Spirit. He also says: be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. In some way, the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in our copying of others – provided we choose the right people to copy.
That call to repentance, that metanoia, is about the transformation of our character. Our public culture is devoted to personality rather than character. We are valued for being loud and for being bold in taking the floor with others. For being funny, and out there. Fewer people seem to think there is a virtue is quietly listening to others; we have to make our mark instead. But the fruit of the Spirit is our goal: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
I don’t think you need me to tell you the impact in a church when people lose sight of this goal. How damaging it is when poison infects the church; the impact when people act in a certain way. Occasionally it is the clergy themselves who are guilty of this and the effect is calamitous. But your character, expressed kindly, will influence countless lives for good in God’s time.
A third thing the ordinal says is that we should resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor and intercede for all in need.
So how do we resist evil? We could spend a lot of time looking at this. One thing is sure. Evil does not usually signal its vices with a brownshirt and a goosestep. Evidence across history, and today, shows we often don’t recognise it until it is too late. In communities that have good trust levels, we tend to impute the best motives to others and fail to see what is staring us in the face. We speak of epiphanies, but these are usually to do with good things. There are reverse epiphanies too. And we need discernment and bravery in facing up to them.
These few words in the Ordinal are an antidote to the social Darwinism that poisons us (and you’ll know I’m not blaming Darwin for this, because he would probably have been appalled at the way his theory has been abused). The US political thinker, Ayn Rand despised the Christian faith because in her view it stood in the way of the natural state of things, where the weak perish and only the strongest survive to pass on their genes. You are probably appalled by that. You would be equally shocked to know how many of our politicians credit her as an influence on their own thinking.
The defining act of God on earth was located in the weakness and pain of Calvary. Walking the way of the cross asks us to shoulder those who are weak, not force march them until they drop. And it call us to speak up for those with no voice, because human systems, however well intentioned, tend to support the powerful and defend the rich.
Part of this task is to intercede. There is an activist side to this. How do we step into the breach for those who have no strength and to advocate on their behalf when life is too complicated for them? But there is also a prayerful side. How do we intercede; that is, pray for those whose lives are on the edge? Intercession is the radical identification with those in need. It is an art and a sacrifice. And it is the very first thing we are called to.
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