Below is a sermon preached by Archbishop David Hope at the consecration of Glyn Webster as Bishop of Beverley.
York Minster – 25 January 2013
‘You shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord’.(Jer:1.7-8)
A pretty daunting charge by any account, as not only the prophet Jeremiah was to discover to his cost, but also the one whose Conversion we celebrate today – St Paul – and indeed many others similarly commissioned in the Lord’s name to speak to His word to His people. And now today Glyn this somewhat awesome and forbidding charge is laid upon you as you are ordained bishop in the church of God.
So the question might well be asked – well what actually is the work and office of a bishop? It was such a question posed around the dining table at Framley Parsonage – a novel by that well known 19th century writer on church affairs of the time – Anthony Trollope. And the answer comes directly from the Archdeacon – ‘Why he sends forth to his clergy either blessings or blowings up according to the state of his digestive organs!’ Would that it were just as simple and straightforward as that!
What a contrast then with the ‘job description’ if I may so describe it which the Archbishop will put to you in just a few moments now. Indeed every time I read it or hear it I begin to think what an impossibility, who on earth can be expected to be and to do all these things – leadership, oversight, pastoral responsibility, maintain the unity of the church, minister discipline; promote the church’s mission, proclaim the Gospel boldly; confront injustice, have a special care for the poor and needy, to know and be known by your people; to be the principal minister of word and sacrament, to baptise and confirm, to be diligent in prayer and the reading of Holy Scripture – and so the list goes on and on and on.
So just where might we begin? Well I think Richard Holloway, that somewhat ‘rogue’ bishop of the Scottish Episcopal church puts his finger on it when he writes in his autobiography – ‘ The bishop is pastor pastorum, pastor of the pastors, and it’s the best thing about being a bishop. It means keeping in touch with the clergy and their families, who are far from immune to the problems that afflict the rest of humanity, but may be disposed to pretend that they don’t happen to them because of the expectations that are imposed on them by their parishioners’. He mentions too his delight in the numerous visits he made to parishes throughout the Diocese. Its precisely the same thing which that declaration I mentioned a few moments ago set out about the bishop knowing and being known both by clergy and laity – and indeed by many more in a wider context altogether. In other words when there is so much and so many demanding of our time – at the end of the day the office and work of a bishop is and must be personal – those personal relationships, networks and interactions which make for the wholeness and well being of family, community and society – and not least of course the household of God, the church itself. And in this I know that you Glyn are singularly well equipped – your ever generous hospitality, your gift for friendship, your love of kitch and the fact that you are so well known by so many both here and here abouts – and more widely too – your pastoral abilities and gifts for church and non church alike, in fact your sheer basic common sense (and just remember by the way he’s no pushover either ! ) – your ready availability, to the extent that, as my mother used to say, you are about as well known as the bellman!
But then, as Holloway rightly goes on to comment – ‘ It’s not all fun and dancing in the aisles….The church is a bureaucracy and bishops are bureaucrats who spend a lot of time in meetings, which come in layers of ever deepening complexity….this involves the manufacture of many committees, the universally practised displacement activity for people who are not quite sure what they are supposed to be doing or where they are going…’ never a truer word spoken I say. Look at the Gospels – did Jesus ever form a committee, set up a working party, dream up a Synod? No – he simply met people where they were – Peter and James and John – and called them – ‘come follow me’; an invitation to discipleship – later to become an appointment to apostleship. He met Mary Magdalene and the other women and invited them to walk with him too – Mary Magdalene becoming the apostle to the apostles. How the church today needs urgently to shake off the disabling shackles of hierarchy and bureaucracy so that it can be free to travel light, to embrace an altogether new asceticism – a theology of ‘enoughness’ as Lambeth 1998 puts it, to live the gospel so that the light and life of Jesus may be the more manifest to all and for all.
Now then Glyn – whilst you are being ordained bishop to serve a particular constituency in the church you will need to remember that you are a bishop to and for the whole church and will need therefore to keep not only your own horizons wide and your vision large but also that of those whom you serve and to whom you minister. And here I would suggest another aspect of the ministry of any bishop becomes particularly relevant – that rather grand sounding title – ‘pontifex’ – which actually means ‘bridge builder’ – a ministry so urgently necessary in our church today. It will mean that as bishop, yes you will have your own views, just like any one else on controverted issues of the day. You may hold them fervently and passionately, yet you are still called to maintain, even further, the unity of the church. And this will mean that as well as speaking out – and yes you will constantly be leaned upon to speak out about this that or the other thing – you will need to learn too when to hold your tongue – a time to speak and a time to shut up ! Remember the comment of St Ignatius – ‘A bishop is never more eloquent than when he is silent’. Quite a challenge for those more loquacious among us!
Where there are differences and disputes, instead of acrimony there ought to be sensitivity, a readiness to listen deeply and carefully to the one with whom we differ. A fine phrase of the Chief Rabbi is I believe so relevant and pertinent here – we need to recognise what he describes as ‘the dignity of difference’. And of course in view of the recent decision in the Synod with regard to the Ordination of Women to the episcopate everyone, whatever their views will need to exercise particular care in ensuring that their sometimes strongly felt and strongly held views in this matter, as indeed in others, are expressed with care and understanding one towards another – and that will be something of your responsibility Glyn as a bridge builder bishop to ensure that the channels of communication and dialogue remain open, constructive and above all courteous – that word so beloved of one of John of Beverley’s devotees – Julian of Norwich – and in so doing, whilst not compromising your own views, seek to interpret as impartially as you can the one to the other. Indeed it is Paul himself who urges us – ‘Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’.
Thankfully the unity and communion we have and share is not ours by right, it is the gift of God’s amazing mercy and grace, given us all in baptism where indeed quite irrespective of our views about particular issues, gender or race, colour or creed, ordained or lay, we become one with Christ in his death and resurrection – a beloved child of God – hence the regard and the care we ought to have the one for another and not least where there is difference and dissent – ‘honour the dignity of difference’.
Now whilst both the expectation and the temptation will be to concentrate your endeavours on those to whom you are specifically directed to minister – and yes they will need all the support and encouragement you can give, not least in uncertain times and sometimes hostile times, remember too there is a world quite outside and beyond the church. Many of the parishes you will serve are in urban areas right there in the thick of it, in the thick of the challenges and upheavals and struggles of local people and where the church’s influence in its prophetic service together with other agencies both voluntary and statutory are deeply committed to making those words of Jesus a reality – ‘I came that all may have life – life in all its abundance’. It’s both a costly and costing ministry on the part of the clergy and their families as well as the members of their congregations.
And if there is one single issue at all to be addressed it can never be only that which arises from being obsessed with the internal agendas of the church – the one single issue which ought to be occupying all our endeavours – the one thing on which surely all can unite is our commitment to evangelisation – the challenge in the world of the super highway, in a nation where there is anxiety for the present and fear for the future on the part of so many, is how we communicate effectively and convincingly and without compromise the astringent message of God’s love for us and for His world given us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, celebrated here and at every Eucharist in this mystery of our salvation, and from which we are sent out and sent forth to be the light and love of Jesus Christ for all. And in this there is no place for discrimination of any kind.
Minorities matter – yes, they can be irritating and exasperating, (and don’t I know it!) but often their confidence, their doggedness and determination is also a potent sign of their commitment to the same Jesus Christ quite in spite of differences with the majority – a different reading and interpretation of scripture and the tradition maybe, yet equally a protest for the things of God and where space and distancing can in the end be both necessary and healing for all.
‘You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’
But then when all has been said and done, as that great missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote – the bishop ‘is to be both an evangelist and a shepherd, but first he must be a disciple. His effective authority….will be in proportion to the closeness with which he follows his Lord….One might define the ministry of a bishop as ‘so following Jesus in the way of the cross that others find it possible to follow too…It is true bishops have functions, but these are secondary. If I may put it in pictorial terms, he is not so much facing towards the church as facing towards the Lord and his ministry is to encourage others to go the way he is going’.
So then Glyn – indeed all of us – be on your guard lest as St Paul puts it in preaching to others you yourself become a cast away. In other words eschew paper for people – and above all for the One who has called you, as with and for us all – ordained or lay, bishop, priest or deacon – we are all in it together, as the saying goes, brothers and sisters in that fellowship of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church throughout the world and down the ages. Never become so busy or so immersed in the clamour both of the church and the world that you do not and cannot make the time daily to stop, to be still, to be silent – simply to be with Jesus – to watch and to pray.
With this in mind, and having started out with Anthony Trollope, I conclude now with a cautionary tale tinged with a gentle humour recounted by William Dalrymple. It comes from one of the fifth century monastic settlements in Upper Egypt and it concerns a novice ‘who was very careless with his own soul’. When the novice dies, his teacher is worried that he might have been sent to Hell for his sins, so he prays that it might be revealed to him what has happened to his pupil’s soul. Eventually the teacher goes into a trance, and sees a river of fire with the novice submerged in it up to his neck. The teacher is horrified, but the novice turns to him saying,’ I thank God, oh my teacher, that there is relief for my head. Thanks to your prayers, I am standing on the head of a bishop’.
So, Glyn, may Mary the Mother of God, St John of Beverley, St Paul and all the saints pray for you this day before the throne of grace; and for all of us, pray for your bishops, pray for each other, for the whole church that each and every one of us may daily so follow more faithfully, gracefully and joyfully in the way of Jesus Christ crucified and risen that many others yet find it possible to follow too – Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and for ever. All praise to His name!