Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Disappointed: A Retrospective Twent-five Years On

Today I celebrate twenty-five years as a priest. While, sadly, I am not exactly doing anything to celebrate, I am publishing today the text of the sermon I intend to preach on Sunday to mark the occasion. Readers of this blog, epsecially new ones, may like to read it in the context of the Personal Journey Series.

Disappointed: A Retrospective Twenty-five Years On

Twenty-six years ago this week, I was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. A year later, twenty-five years ago, on June 27, I was ordained a priest in the Cathedral Church of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chester. It is customary to celebrate becoming a priest rather than becoming a deacon, and so today, on the nearest Sunday, I celebrate 25 years as priest.

Since ordination, I have served a curacy in an urban setting on Merseyside in the north of England; I have worked as Chaplain and Tutor in Religious Studies at a secular college in the south of England; and as the Rector of two churches in a semi-rural and rural setting in the north of Scotland. And, of course, for the past seven years, I have had the privilege of being the Vicar of Christ Church, here in Hong Kong.

Twenty-five years is a milestone of sorts, and I have recently been reflecting on my ministry: what I have learnt and what has changed, both in my own perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs and in the Church and the world around me. I hope today you will allow me, for the sermon, to reflect a little bit on how I feel. There’s not enough time to say all I would like to say so what follows will, inevitably, be highly selective and runs the risk of being misleading because of that. For a fuller reflection, I must ask you to look elsewhere! Having issued this disclaimer, let me begin.

I have been thinking about this sermon for some while and about what word or phrase would best describe my feelings as I look back. I am both surprised and saddened that the word I keep coming back to is ‘disappointed’. Now let me say again that there is much more that I would want to say. I am, for example, genuinely grateful to all who have supported me both in the years leading up to ordination and in ministry since. I am today especially grateful to those who believed in me when I first told them I felt called to the ministry. This for me was around the age of 13. I give thanks to God for those who were prepared to stick by me and give me the help and encouragement I needed.

It was 1974 when, at the age of 19, I went to theological college to study for my first degree in theology. It was with tremendous optimism that I embarked on this adventure. Winnie will tell you that, while not a thoroughgoing pessimist, I am not by nature optimistic. I was, however, part of a group of people who really believed that God was wanting to do something new in the Church and the world and that he was calling us to be part of it.

I had been much affected by the Charismatic Movement and what were described at the time as the House Churches. Although people had turned from God and, as a result, the Church was witnessing sharp decline, we believed all this was about to change. God was going to renew his Church and bring many back to Him. Yes, there was much that was wrong, but through the power of the Holy Spirit it could be different.

‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’. (Galatians 5:1) The opening of our second reading for this morning.

This was a verse that resonated with us in those days. In the UK, as in many parts of the world, society was witnessing massive social change. The word freedom seemed to catch the mood. Politically, countries sought freedom from their colonial past, from apartheid, or Stalinist domination. Economically, people wanted freedom from capitalist oppression or Marxist failure, depending on your political bent. Socially, people wanted freedom from what they regarded as the oppressive institutions of the past. Sexually, women demanded freedom from patriarchy and the chance to be treated equally; homosexuals hadn’t become gay yet and campaigned for freedom from bigotry; men and women of all sexual orientations struggled for freedom from traditional forms of morality. Popular culture was all about obtaining freedom from old-fashioned standards of right and wrong.

We wanted freedom, too. We believed that freedom could only be found in Christ. The Church had lost that freedom and needed to rediscover it. Freedom from church tradition that was no longer relevant to a changing world. Freedom to worship and serve God in the new life of the Spirit. Freedom from all that oppresses and enslaves us. It was a very exciting time. A time when it seemed renewal and change were possible. A chance for a renewed Church to proclaim the Gospel to a fast-changing world.

What went wrong? Well, my charismatic friends probably wouldn’t agree with me, but the promised renewal just did not happen and the Charismatic Movement itself became introspective and focused on superficial experiences. Individuals were often affected positively by it, but the Church on the whole was not.

The low point for me in all this came many years later with the so-called Toronto Blessing, named after a Church in Toronto where it was first experienced. People received the ‘blessing’ at meetings where they passed out and had a variety of experiences, including hysterical laughter and making animal noises such as barking like a dog. In 1974, there was quite a lot of opposition to the Church. It was something that people rebelled against. By 1994, when the Toronto Blessing first came on the scene, those outside the Church had largely lost interest in anything to do with the Church. Is it any wonder? Others will disagree with me, but I regard this as the point at which the Charismatic Movement ceased to have anything positive to offer the Church.

It’s a shame because the traditional Churches did need spiritual renewal if they were to meet the challenge of the age. Instead, the traditional Churches, despite all their rhetoric to the contrary, turned in on themselves too and concentrated on political and liturgical reform. Instead of working out how we could win a lost world for Christ, we spent countless hours on internal discussions and disputes. I dread to think how much of my own ministry has been spent discussing which particular liturgy we should or should not use. We talked a lot about mission, and how we talked, but how little we actually engaged in it. I am not sure we even know what it is any more.

So now, after 25 years as a priest, the Church I was ordained in is tearing itself to bits, not over its doctrine of God, or its understanding of the person of Christ, or over the question of how a person receives salvation – disputes from the past – but over sex. While the Charismatics have been lying on the floor unconscious and while the liberals and traditionalists have been arguing over whether being gay prevents you from being a priest, the world has just moved on. The world doesn’t bother us very much, because there is not much to be bothered about.

Intellectually in the universities, in the media, and in popular culture in general, Christianity is simply irrelevant. There are places in the world where the Church can still make a political impression, but in the world of ideas, the Christian faith is not seen as having anything meaningful to contribute. Christianity is meaningless to the vast majority of people.

Instead of Christianity influencing the way people think in the world, within the Church itself many Christians have simply adopted the values and ideas of the world around them. Let me, very briefly, give as examples three areas where I think this especially true:

1. Atheism: While most people are not strictly atheists, Richard Dawkins, notwithstanding, they may as well be for all the difference God makes to them. Just as God has become largely irrelevant to the lives of many people outside the Church, so too he has become irrelevant to the lives of many people inside the Church. It’s not that people do not believe in God and not that they don’t value their time spent in Church, they do. It’s just that they are not particularly interested in God the rest of the time. Many Christians are practical atheists, their belief in God is merely a theoretical one: intellectually they believe there probably is a God, but practically this belief has very little affect on how they live their life and the decisions they make concerning it.

2. Consumerism: As communism has died as a force in our world, consumerism has taken over. It is a dominant influence in most Churches, too. As a ‘what’s in it for me’ philosophy has come to dominate in society so it dominates what happens in the Church. What makes me happy. What I want. Or as a poster I know puts it, ‘It’s all about me’. We expect our clergy to take this on board when leading services, preaching, or organising church activities and meetings. No matter that Jesus calls us to follow Him regardless of personal cost to ourselves, even leaving the ‘dead to bury the dead’ (as in this morning’s Gospel). No matter that Jesus said that it is only when we lose our lives that we will save them. And no matter that he said we must deny ourselves: the complete opposite of consumerism.

3. Entertainment: We have become an entertainment based culture. People expect to be entertained and for everything to be entertaining. That’s understood by the entertainment providers, hence the huge TVs, the DVDs, CDs, the ipod, the mobile, the internet, non-stop TV, constant celebrity gossip, and with even the news made to seem like a television soap. We expect death and disaster to be fun to watch as we enjoy our TV dinners. And Christians want Church to be entertaining too. Often it is not, hence the low priority many give to Bible Studies and sermons. Some Churches have understood this and embraced it, and going to Church has become more like going to a show. Priests have become performers. We have forgotten that when we go to Church, we go to a service. An opportunity to serve both God and those we go to Church with, and not to be entertained.

All this is bad news for me believing as I still do that God called me first and foremost to preach and teach. I believe my role, as a priest, is precisely to help people apply their faith to and in their daily lives; that the worship I lead is not for our benefit and what we get out of it, but for God and what he thinks of it; that Church is where we go to grow spiritually and to learn more about God, irrespective of whether it is entertaining or not. But as someone very honestly said to me recently, ‘Ross on Sundays most people don’t understand what you are saying and don’t want to’

‘For freedom Christ has set us free’, but we have submitted again to a yoke of slavery as we have allowed ourselves to be possessed by the spirits of the age. Spirits that tell us that God is not relevant to how we live our lives, that what matters most is ourselves and what we want, and that we have a right to be constantly entertained, even when we come to Church.

So I am disappointed. Disappointed at missed opportunities. Disappointed at our own complicity as Christians in society’s rejection of Christian values and beliefs. Disappointed that we have failed so miserably to make an impact on the world for whom Christ died. Disappointed for all the people who have missed out on the Gospel because of it. And I am disappointed in myself for not having been more effective as a priest and preacher and in my own personal failure to make a difference.

Let me stop there before you all decide that I badly need a holiday. But in closing, let me say that I am not disappointed that I became a priest. I believe there is no greater calling, no work so important, and no sacrifice not worth making. I am grateful to God that despite my own failings and the times I have undoubtedly let Him down that he has not let me down, but instead continues to allow me to serve Him as a priest.

It is my prayer, at this milestone in my ministry, that if He allows, that in 25, or however many years time, I may look back and feel less disappointed than I do now. For I remain convinced that if we are willing to accept the freedom that Christ has given and refuse to be enslaved by the world around us that we can be agents of liberation for people whose lives are trapped in sin and despair.

I am not confident or optimistic that this will happen, but I am hopeful.

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