We noted last week that the institutional church has been in decline for decades, that the traditional church with which most people will have identified has disappeared in many places and is struggling in others. Talking about when the Church of Ireland has gone can be seen as being gloomy, or it can be seen as being positive about the future of local churches. It can be seen as a way for the Church of Ireland to continue after the Church of Ireland has gone. Last week, we looked at worship, this week we think about ministry. How do we do ministry for ourselves?
Being honest, in most places, most parish ministry could be managed more efficiently by partnership of a good clerical assistant and self-motivated janitor. There are no real skills, nothing that could not be done by anyone who had a bit of practice, and nothing that would be transferable to another occupation. It’s not like Peter and Andrew and James and John, who were able to go back to their boats in Galilee; or like Paul, who could earn his living as a tentmaker.
One of my favourite books is Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel “Gilead,” the central character of which is the Reverend John Ames who is probably the most gracious cleric I have met in the pages of fiction.
“A woman in my flock called just after breakfast and asked me to come to her house. She is elderly, recently a widow, all by herself, and she has just moved from her farm to a cottage in town. You can never know what troubles or fears such people have, and I went. It turned out that the problem was her kitchen sink. She told me, considerably amazed that a reversal so drastic could occur in a lawful universe, that hot water came from the cold faucet and cold water from the hot faucet. I suggested she might just decide to take C for hot and H for cold, but she said she liked things to work the way they were supposed to. So I went home and got my screwdriver and came back and switched the handles. She said she guessed that would do until she could get a real plumber. Oh, the clerical life!”
“Changing the handles of the taps?” I thought, when I read it, “the Reverend John Ames has a considerably greater skills set than I have. He might have got a job as a plumber’s mate.”
Aside from all the things that clergy often end up doing, and sometimes doing badly, I think that if people were challenged as to what they really saw ministry as being about, they would talk about worship, and we noted last week that lay people can lead worship; and they would talk about serving others, which is something that can be done by every church member. We can do ministry if we wish, we can serve others if we wish.
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”, says Jesus. If Jesus’ definition of ministry is accepted, to fail to serve those in need is to fail the ministry to which we have been called, and not just some of us, it is the the ministry to which each one of us is called.
Why is this so? Why must we be servants? Why can we not just do all the ordinary things of parish life? Why must we get involved in the awkward business of looking out for other people? Why are there times when we should stand up for people’s rights? Why are there times when we must put ourselves out to promote other people’s welfare? Why get involved in arguments? Why risk being unpopular? Isn’t it much easier to be nice to everyone; to be benign and never to give offence? Isn’t it easier never to raise a voice? Isn’t it easier never to ask difficult questions? Of course it is, but servanthood is about God’s truth and God’s righteousness, and servanthood is at the heart of what we believe.
Our God is a servant God, he gives himself as a servant to others. The most famous line in the Bible is Saint John Chapter 3 and verse 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son”. Jesus comes to us as a servant, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” When the Holy Spirit comes down on the believers in Acts Chapter 2, they are empowered to serve others, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need”.
Service is at the heart of the way we understand God. Ministry not rooted in servanthood is ministry that is not rooted in God.
We are the first generation in centuries where the church has nothing with which to confront the world except the Good News of Jesus. We can no longer compel, we should never have been able to do so; all we can do is to try to persuade. The disappearance of the traditional church, the institutional church, gives an opportunity for the real church to emerge. Are we happy to meet that challenge?
As the Church of Ireland disappears, as the church with which people have been familiar fades from the landscape, people will look at our church and want to know why our church wants to remain. They will challenge us and say, “why should we believe what you say?” When the familiar things have gone, what is there that will connect people with the church?
Our ministry is what will secure the future of our church. All we have to offer in response to a world that has bidden farewell to the old church is the story of Jesus and if we do not live out that story, if people do not look at us and see us living as Jesus lived, if they do not see us as servants, they will say to us, “No, thank you. If you cannot live by the standards you preach, then why should we listen to you?”’ If people do not see us as servants, then they will attach no credibility to our ministry, or to our church, or to our faith.
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” says Jesus. His ministry was about serving others. The ministry of the early church was about serving others. If we want the Church of Ireland to which we belong to continue after the institutional Church of Ireland has gone, then we must share in a ministry of serving others.