Third Sunday of Advent - Choral Evensong
The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Malachi 3. 1-4, 4; Philippians 4. 4-7
It is a tremendous joy to welcome Wendy to her new role as Canon Chancellor of this Cathedral and Director of Discipleship, Lay Ministry and Continuing Ministerial Development within the Diocese.
She will be well-known to you all, of course, because Wendy has served the Diocese of Southwark for nearly thirty years, leading our communications team, and taking an active part in the life of the Cathedral community – indeed the Cathedral has been the spiritual home not only for Wendy but also for Alan, William and Robyn.
I bring greetings from the Bishops of our Anglican companion Dioceses in Zimbabwe to which Wendy has accompanied me on nearly all my regular visits in recent years. From the Diocese of Manicaland, Bishop Erick Ruwona like many of his brother bishops has said how glad he is this service is being streamed and he hopes to join us on-line. From the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe which Wendy and I visited in July of last year Bishop Ignatios Makumbe says; ‘Great news. I will certainly join virtually.’ From the Diocese of Matabeleland into which to Bulawayo only last year, Bishop Cleophas Lunga writes: ‘It is with a sense of joy that we in Matabeleland are expressing our thoughts and good wishes for the service of Wendy’s installation. We wish Wendy a continued fruitful and rewarding ministry. To you Dean Andrew, Bishop Christopher and the people of Southwark Diocese we say, - congratulations!!!! And may God continue to bless you all. From all of us at Matabeleland Diocese.’
From the Diocese of Masvingo – and Wendy chairs the Cathedral’s link committee with it – Bishop Godfrey Tawonezvi writes: ‘I will certainly make an effort to follow the proceedings. Wendy and all of you at the Cathedral are in my thoughts and prayers as you prepare for this historic event.’ Of the five Anglican Dioceses in Zimbabwe four are linked with us in this Diocese while the Diocese of Harare is linked with Rochester although I am glad to say the same bonds of friendship and solidarity in prayer and mutual support exist between us and all five dioceses. Bishop Farai Mutamiri of Harare has very generously also sent greetings and writes: ‘May I take this opportunity to congratulate Canon Wendy and the Diocese of Southwark on this milestone event. Be assured of our virtual presence in this service as we pray for good network connectivity on the day.’
I very much hope the connectivity is working well this afternoon and on behalf of the Diocese I send loving greetings in Christ to Bishops Farai, Godfrey, Cleophas, Ignatios and Erick. We greatly value our links with you, the people and parishes of your dioceses from which we learn so much about the nature of our worldwide Anglican family of Churches and the strong hope to which you hold fast in the face of great challenges – much greater we realise than those we are facing in this country even in this most difficult of years. We are committed to our joyful partnership in the Gospel and we are glad that God gives us through our friendship the opportunities to bear one another’s burdens as we seek to deepen our commitment to mutual support.
Today our focus is properly on Wendy.
As Wendy begins this new role, it is worth noting that the ministry she takes on is not the same as her predecessor’s but has instead a new breadth of focus. Our Diocesan Vision lays considerable emphasis on the ministry of the whole people of God — lay and ordained — and the new Canon Chancellor will play a key part in supporting and developing our common vision for lay ministry. So it will reward us, as we ask for God’s blessing on Wendy at the beginning of a new ministry, to reflect on the nature and character of the ministry that Wendy is charged to nurture and direct in others.
At the risk of sounding perhaps rather modish, our conversations about ministry needs to be somewhat less binary than they sometimes are. I say this for two simple but often overlooked reasons. First, those who serve the Church in Holy Orders never cease to be lay people: lay and ordained together, we all constitute the people - the laos - of God. And second, those who serve as lay people do so with the priestly dignity of their baptism and as full members of the Body of Christ.
All ministry flows from baptism. That is to say, those who exercise ministry do so because they participate in Christ’s ministry, just as through holy baptism each Christian is a member of the Body of Christ. Every ministry of the Church, every act of gentleness, kindness, prayer, service, or wisdom, participates in the ministry of Christ himself. “Christ has no hands on earth except ours”, as St Teresa of Avila famously put it. Or, as a less well-known monk of the Eastern tradition says, true ministry “involves participation in divine blessings and the communication of those blessings to others” (St Gregory of Sinai, Philokalia vol. 4, p. 231). We hand on what we have received. We bless others with the blessings we ourselves know.
So ministry is first and always Christ’s. It is his gift, and our privilege. It is never a right, it cannot be earned, and — if it is proffered in the correct spirit — is never about the one who offers it. We would do well to hold St Paul’s instruction to the Philippians before us: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near”.
As much as ministry participates in Christ’s self-offering, and we are all members of Christ’s Body, so ministry expresses our interconnectedness. This year we have been reminded of this fact. There are strong individualistic currents in society, but this pandemic and its economic consequences have demonstrated just how profoundly our lives are intertwined and not just in this country. Our lives are closely bound together with all the people of the world in which we live and the very future of this planet will be critically affected be the way we are willing to take responsibility to be good - indeed better - stewards of God’s creation with the vital focus demanded of us in relation to the environment and the urgent need for restorative action. We might tell ourselves a fiction in which we are each the rugged individualistic protagonist, but the truth is that we need each other and we are incomplete without each other. In the Church as in the world, I am a part of you, and you a part of me. Wendy, your leadership as our Director of Discipleship and Lay Ministry will need to discern what within our common life deepens our sense of acting together, what builds up our corporate life, and what knits us one to the other more profoundly.
The willingness or otherwise of a lay or an ordained Christian to minister in this way brings us to another point which is seldom acknowledged in our conversations about ministry. That is, ministry needs to be received as well as offered. There is always an exchange in ministry. Indeed part of the grace of Holy Orders - and I strongly believe in that grace as we cannot and must never seek to minister in our own strength – is that the more we give the more we receive and the mystery is that by God’s grace we always receive more than we are giving.
It is abundantly clear that none of us offers ministry in a vacuum. Of course I am not saying that the minister serves a kind of marketplace and that we adapt what we offer in order to find the best and most receptive market. As various as the Christian faith has been in its outward forms over the centuries, the claims of the faith are unchanging. Besides, our model is Christ himself, whose public life can hardly be read as a success in worldly terms. Our Lord was also quite clear that there will be times when those who minister in his name need to shake the dust from their feet and move to another context. But that is the exception, not the rule. Those we minister to quickly see through ministry that is self-serving, for they are not taken in as easily as the prevailing winds of social media and political spin claim. As much as we should always see Christ in others, unless those we serve can see Christ in us, they are unlikely to receive what we offer in his name. Wendy, this too is something you will need to encourage prayerful attention to in the life of the Diocese. We need ministers modelled on Christ—undefended, open-handed, willing to risk personal loss for the Kingdom of God – and also willing to take good care of themselves especially in setting appropriate whole life balances – there are many references in the Gospel to those times Jesus shared in joyful hospitality and rest and going apart to pray. Wendy needs no encouragement to give without counting the cost – we want you to flourish in this new ministry and so setting those appropriate balances will be especially important for you.
St Paul shows great wisdom in linking our gentleness with the nearness of the Lord and each of us I hope will know this from our own prayer. For who has encountered the Lord as anything but gentle? Something happens when we come into God’s presence — that is to say, when we recognise his nearness to us. Even if our prayer is raging, if we are beating our fists, so to speak, against God, we find God holds us gently until our temper ceases and we are calmed. When we enter prayer distractedly, it is God’s gentle presence that helps us lay distractions aside and centre ourselves on the abiding divine presence. Even the purification we need to make us holy — refiner’s fire, the fulling soap — these are difficult because we foolishly hold on to false ideas of self, clinging to what kills us, rather than letting ourselves fall into God’s good and loving purposes.
I would like to think it is not necessary to say that gentleness is not weakness, but since I observe a worrying inclination to relinquish our personal responsibilities to political strongmen, I think this needs repeating clearly and boldly by all our ministers: Christ’s gentleness is a sign of his strength, a sign of restraint, love, and grace. All who offer ministry in Christ’s name should draw deeply on this and let their strong gentleness demonstrate the nearness of the Lord.
And so , my friends, I express my heartfelt thanks to Wendy for all that she has offered over years of devoted service, thanks which sit alongside a strong sense of the potential in all that she brings to this new chapter of ministry and will continue to offer, the Lord being her helper. Wendy, may God bless you in this ministry which God entrusts to you. May your flourishing be a sign to others of the joy and cost of sharing in Christ’s ministry for the good of his Church, and for the world, that all might know the Lord is near. Amen.