Bishop of Clogher’s Sermon at General Synod Eucharist, St Patrick’s
Bishop of Clogher’s Sermon at General Synod Eucharist, St Patrick’s
‘Straitened financial circumstances bring their own opportunities.’
The Bishop of Clogher, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson, will preach at the
General Synod Eucharist in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin on Thursday
6 May 2010. Worship is a key part of each General Synod and the special service
in the National Cathedral, St Patrick’s, will follow the close of the
first day of Synod business held in Christ Church Cathedral nearby.
In his sermon, Bishop Jackson will focus on the opportunities open to the
Church during economically challenging times. He will say, ‘We know that
we are called to a future which is the kingdom of God living in and through
us … Discomfort shapes response and yet response is the route to something
different and something far better.’
He will continue, ‘We have the opportunity to reclaim, as Christian
people and as committed members of the Church of Ireland, the reality that
wise use of existing resources can take us very far when combined with spiritual
imagination … Straitened financial circumstances bring their own opportunities.
We need to see and to seize them.’
Bishop Jackson will refer to what he sees as Church of Ireland strengths: ‘Historically,
a willingness on the part of individuals to take opportunities offered them,
a sense of connectedness with one another and a desire to live in communion – these
are the things which have enabled the Church of Ireland to do good things and
big things from a small base.’ He will also say that members of the Church
need to ‘hold our nerve in the face of secular society. For the Church
repeatedly to seek the status of being a “special case” is a weakening
of its scope for mission. We are called regularly and repeatedly to engage
with who people are and what they do – and to leave the rest to God.
Such courage and conviction are a pearl of great price.’
St Matthew 13.45, 46: A merchant looking out for fine pearls found one of
very special value; so he went and sold everything he had and bought it.
Time and again, in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, we hear our Lord
offering parables as aids to understanding three things:
who he is,
what is happening, and
why things have already changed.
Parables are prophetic. They tell us what has happened and they invite us
to follow Jesus the Master. The call at the heart of each parable is that we
are to be his disciples. What I find particularly exciting is that so much
of his teaching is for people who, in other circumstances, would not have had
the opportunity to hear it – the people of the land, Galileans, those
whom God meets face to face in their suffering, in their need, in their shame,
in their exclusion and in their non-entity. The message consistently is that
the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is theirs to embrace and to enjoy – totally
We are called today to be those people, to love those people who are an extension
of who we are and to travel with them into the kingdom which is God’s
will for the church and for the world. The Gospel is being lived to the full
every single day in situations which seem unspectacular but which sparkle and
shimmer with the grace of God.
St Matthew 13 offers us a cluster of parables of the kingdom which are like
today’s text-messages. They are short. They make one or two points. Then
they have done their job. Just press: SEND. The treasure in the field, the
pearl of great price, the net full of fish of every kind, the householder who
can produce treasure old and new – we know them well. They are snapshots
of something everyday and exciting. Jesus wants his audience to hear and then
Interestingly, they are found only in St Matthew. One of the delightful things
is the quickness of response which rises to the surface in these short parables,
an agility of movement which takes us rather by surprise.
We have accustomed ourselves to a church life of accumulated worthiness, a
traditionalism which substitutes caution for creativity and a culture of paper
over against a pleasure in acting decisively. We are, although frightened to
admit it, stuck. But this is not the best of who we are. Sometimes we all too
easily fulfil the caricature of the Anglican ascribed to Michael Ramsey of
blessed and humorous memory:
Sitting on the fence
With both ears to the ground
Happy servant he
In such a posture found.
But we are not, I suspect, the only church putting our backs vigorously into
this sort of ecclesiastical gymnastics – so we should take heart!
The parable of the pearl of great price offers us in many ways a parable for
our times and for the Church of Ireland in our particular and peculiar times.
A once-looming recession has now deepened. Income, which is as essential to
the life of the church as to any other large-scale institution, is far from
plentiful. Morale begins to flag and commitment can soon follow in flagging
too. We are, all of us, in a sense held hostage to the recognition that the
past is unsustainable. Yet we know that we are called to a future which is
the kingdom of God living in and through us. This is an uncomfortable and,
in many ways, unpleasant place to be. Discomfort shapes response and yet response
is the route to something different and something far better.
Such is the climate of meeting in which this General Synod has been convened – and
we should welcome the opportunity to recognize this reality with honesty, to
debate it with honesty and to make courageous and imaginative decisions with
honesty. Because it is a real opportunity to prioritize and to be bound together
in common witness. In Synod we gather in the Spirit, are equipped by the Spirit
to face change, to hail it like a taxi which will take us where we want to
go and to cherish it. We have, during all three of these days, the opportunity
to use this time to be adventurous and imaginative every bit as much as cautious
We have the opportunity to reclaim, as Christian people and as committed members
of the Church of Ireland, the reality that wise use of existing resources can
take us very far when combined with spiritual imagination. In a climate of
ready expenditure, it was something we had begun to forget – so the learning
of it will be painful but can also be highly creative. The parable of the pearl
of great price teaches us once again that what is costly in Christ is profitable
in service and that in making space for what is worth more gives us the fullness
of God in our hearts and lives.
The merchant in the parable has developed his business; he has grown his contacts.
Suddenly he sees the pearl which he has always wanted. He does not set up a
committee or a conference call, he does not even send out e-mails – he
just goes ahead and buys it. He uses what he has to get where he wants to get.
He gives up what he already has to receive more than he could ever expect.
He risks and, in risking, gains. Grace is poured abundantly upon him and he
continues but, in continuing, he has been transformed.
The most obvious point perhaps, and one which we often forget, is that he
is not afraid to continue to be a merchant. He does what he always did, but
now transformed and in full possession of something which he always wanted – the
pearl of great price. For us, the lesson and the message is that we have no
reason to be afraid either. To many this may seem to be a highly irresponsible
attitude in recessionary times. I would have to ask you, if I may borrow a
phrase from one of my episcopal colleagues, to: think again! As a church, we
want to rise to the challenge and do our bit in our day. The signs are there
and the pointers are clear. Our lot may not have fallen in what the psalmist
calls a fair ground, but this is the ground in which we find ourselves here
and now. Straitened financial circumstances bring their own opportunities.
We need to see and to seize them.
In 2006 we had the archbishop of York to visit Clogher Diocese. Among many
of his engaging and occasionally apocryphal stories, he told one of himself
as a small boy in his native Uganda travelling with his father to market in
a pick-up. As they drove along, the young John saw a boy his own age walking
slowly along the road carrying bananas on his head. He asked his father if
they might stop to give the boy a lift. After all they were going in the same
direction. His father agreed. The small boy carefully lifted the heavy bunch
of bananas off his head and set them down rather deliberately on the floor
of the pick-up and jumped on. Some minutes later, John Sentamu looked behind
to check that all was ok. He saw that the boy had in fact set the bananas back
on his head! Decades later he remembered that and posed the question to us:
Why do we insist on taking up and carrying our old burdens when we can set
We are too good at indulging ourselves with the negative. It is the future
which lies ahead of us, not the past. Those of us who, as Members of General
Synod, have positions of influence in the church and society North and South,
East and West, need to take the initiative to help others not to take up old
burdens at this time. We need to live beyond our burdens! We need to be resourceful,
resilient, imaginative and hopeful. In three days together and in the company
of our guests and ecumenical partners, meeting and talking in Christ Church
Cathedral, we have the chance to be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit and
to take up new challenges, grappling positively with the relationship between
church and society, reaching out in faith and receiving in return.
Historically, a willingness on the part of individuals to take opportunities
offered them, a sense of connectedness with one another and a desire to live
in communion – these are the things which have enabled the Church of
Ireland to do good things and big things from a small base. Much of this instinct
for consensus and co-operation across the Anglican Communion has been under
strain throughout the eight years during which I have served as a bishop. There
have been tensions and pressures to adopt polarized positions. There have been
temptations to exclusivity even within a Church of Ireland ethos of open invitation
to what is good, wholesome and invigorating. There has crept in a sort of twitchiness,
signs and signals of a game not so much of cat and mouse but of cat and cat,
as people pad around one another politically more than they meet one another
theologically. Paradoxically this has not been my personal experience of living
and working in the Church of Ireland in these times. Strong working relationships;
the discovery of new and lasting friendships; the work of God as a binding
reality in a world of complexity and change; the recognition that change itself
is enriching of a missional understanding of ourselves and of others – these
are my tent-pegs in stormy times. Lived and living diversity, as commended
to us in the broad sweep of the work of the Hard Gospel, asks us to live a
generosity of spirit which goes far beyond the toleration of those who are
different - and it cuts every way. The Church of Ireland, as I know it, love
it and belong to it, has developed the capacity to show real unity across a
breadth of theological positions which to many, at many times, seemed unbridgeable.
This is a pearl of great price.
The signs of strong and sustainable development within church life are good
and they are very visible. Our hope is that the presence of Jesus Christ in
all that we do will move us forward from vision to action and from action to
joy. There is ample evidence of them in the Agenda of this year’s General
The Board of Social Theology in Action which will be launched this year points
the way imaginatively and practically to a radical re-thinking of the ways
in which Committees can combine strengths and look to the future in fresh ways
with new personnel. The Boards of Social Responsibility in the Republic of
Ireland and in Northern Ireland have come together with the Church in Society
Committee. Having fallen on our swords, we have every intention of rising up
again to bridge a gap which has been noticeable and painful for many years
in the life of the church – between meetings to talk about doing things
and the actual doing of those things – without losing the best of either.
As a church, we hope to renew the connection between the centre and the local
and in this way to breathe new life into both. The honouring of experience
is vital to the sensible and sustainable formulation of long-term policy. At
this we are not yet good. It is an exciting prospect. Equally important is
the need to hold our nerve in the face of secular society. For the church repeatedly
to seek the status of being a ‘special case’ is a weakening of
its scope for mission. We are called regularly and repeatedly to engage with
who people are and what they do – and to leave the rest to God. Such
courage and conviction are a pearl of great price.
Exciting movement forward between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist
Church in Ireland has taken place, not least in relation to the ‘hard
talk’ required for the mutual recognition of ministry. The Covenant is
very much part of the weave of both churches. Recognition of ministry at the
deepest level is essential if we are to give a lasting structure and a loving
solidity to the community-based work between both our Churches already in place – and
I hope and pray that we shall fulfil what is a personal dream of mine, namely
that training for ministry, lay and ordained, might soon be shared between
both Churches to the enrichment of both. This final push towards mutual recognition
of ministry will need both energy and elasticity; it will demand rigour and
relaxation. It needs to let the Spirit breathe through the open spaces. It
will bring both Churches to a place which neither has inhabited before. It
will take both beyond where they can each take themselves. In the ecumenical
belonging of both, it will model something urgent and realizable of the future
shape of things in terms of co-operation and regard for one another which is
new and needed in religious Ireland as a whole. Ireland today is hungry and
thirsty for a united Christian witness. A united Christian witness makes more
and more sense as the days go by. It opens doors and enables people to see
that they are meant to remain open. Energy and excitement are needed on the
part of all Members of the General Synod to move us from exploration to engagement.
Such engagement also is a pearl of great price.
The Theological Institute is one of the most exciting developments in the
Church of Ireland in the recent past. It has met head-on the need to prepare
those who will do the work of God in specific ways in the foreseeable future
for a ministry with their eyes open to the world. It has professionalized ministerial
formation while at the same time deepening and broadening the vocational formation
which lies at its heart. It has grappled honestly with perceived and real disparities
between non-stipendiary and stipendiary ordained ministry as never before.
It offers an equivalence of status to residential and distance learning. It
provides equivalence of training possibilities to lay and clerical alike. And
it is not frightened to factor in pioneer ministries as part of the essential
weave of the church in what is already a post-parochial age, a recognition
of which we ought not to be fearful. People everywhere are asking theological
questions – and we need to be able to converse with them. And yet the
life of the Institute has only begun! The possibilities which it offers to
be a focus of co-operation and shared learning for the whole Church of Ireland
is only beginning to be seen. The opportunities which there are for parochial
and diocesan groups, senior management teams in dioceses and many others to
use its space creatively, spiritually, imaginatively, constructively are now
beginning to be realized. Time and again, I am struck by the range of possibilities
which lie ahead of us as the Institute takes root in the life of our church.
The Institute too is a pearl of great price.
The Season of Easter takes us forward in the same way as Jesus took his disciples
forward into Galilee from Jerusalem, back to those people of no accepted worth.
For Christian people, the death and resurrection of Jesus is something living,
something with flesh and blood, an untidy system of belief which generates
actions which are good for other people. The strongest Siren voice when things
are difficult is the one that says that from within your own strengths you
can find the means to carry on. Partnership, friendship, living ecumenism,
dynamic encounter with people of Faiths other than Christianity, engagement
with the secular world – these are the ways in which the prophecy of
Joel will be fulfilled among us: In the last days, says God, I will pour
out my Spirit on all mankind. (Acts 2.17)
The event of Easter takes us forward to the witness of Pentecost. At all points
in the compass, God is encouraging us to seize the moment and to use it. Let
us listen to Jesus. Let us follow the lead of the merchant for whom what he
wanted was worth giving up all that he had. In giving up what he had gathered
up, he received more than he ever expected: the Lord himself.
so he went and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13.46)