All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 December 2014

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 December 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

Readings: 3.1-4 & 4; Philippians 4.4-7

“He will purify the descendants of Levi, and refine them like gold and silver, until they offer pure offerings to the Lord in righteousness” Malachi 3.3

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. Its ending seems incomplete; looking for something in the future. For Christians that something more, its completion and fulfillment, is found in Jesus Christ.

In the New Testament which bears witness to him, the “messenger” foretold by Malachi is taken to refer to both John the Baptist and to Jesus himself. This is reflected in the way the opening verses of our reading are used in the Eucharistic lectionary:

  • In Advent when it is linked with the Baptist. 
  • At Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, when it is applied to Jesus, the Lord who suddenly comes to his temple, not in power and majesty but as a child in the arms of his mother.

The two are not unconnected:

  • John preaches a call for repentance to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. 
  • Old Simeon in the Temple tells Mary and Joseph that the firstborn they present to the Lord is “set for the fall and rising of many in Israel.”

Malachi gives no information about himself. No potted biography appears on the dust cover to help us. His name simply means “messenger.”  It’s likely that he was a Levite, a member of the priestly clan. He writes after the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. The temple has been rebuilt and its worship and sacrifices restored.  But all is not well.

The book has an argumentative character. It is a series of debates between God, or the prophet speaking on his behalf, and the people of Jerusalem.

The people doubt God’s justice.  Their piety has produced neither punishment for their enemies, nor prosperity for themselves: the worst of both worlds. But their challenges to the prophet – and so to God – smack of self-righteousness.  They seem unaware that their compromised worship, marital infidelity and social injustice dishonour God.

They want the Lord to come, because they think he will be on their side. But Malachi reminds them that divine judgement rarely meets human expectations – it is often as much a judgement on those yearning for it as against their enemies.   When the Day of the Lord comes, the prophet warns them, all will be found guilty and deserve punishment. God’s judgement will fall swiftly on the perpetrators of social injustice: those who oppress the weak – hired labourers, widows, orphans, the foreigner.

So,Malachi the priest is also a prophet. But aren’t priesthood and prophecy opposed to each other? This is certainly the way that much Christian, especially protestant, thought has seen things.

Priesthood is seen as traditionalist, conservative and corrupt – pre-occupied with liturgical correctness and clerical status; with sanctuary-bound religion and policing the rules. Prophets speak the truth on behalf of God to a people who have grown complacent or corrupt, forgetful of their call and neglectful of the demands of the covenant.

But the ministry of priests was not just offering sacrifices. They interpreted and taught the Law to the people. So priests could sometimes be prophets too; stirred to call for reform by what they taught. Malachi may be a priest but there is no special pleading on behalf of the priesthood: quite the opposite in fact. The whole nation needs spiritual reformation, but God will start with the priesthood.  The one who comes “will purify the descendants of Levi.” 

So we read Malachi, not just to prepare for John the Baptist and Jesus, but because the Church, the people of the New Covenant, just as those of the Old, stand in need of purification. The Church has to be semper reformanda – always being reformed; purified of its complacency, compromise and corruption.  When reform and renewal in the life of the Church become necessary, it must often begin with the clergy.    

Pope Francis has embarked on a campaign against clericalism and careerism in the Roman Catholic Church.  Ambitious ecclesiastical bureaucrats, I’m told, now fret that rather than climbing the ladder of promotion, they will be despatched from their Vatican or diocesan office desks to be the parish priest of ‘Our Lady of the Godforsaken.’ Bishops and other pastors should have about them, says the Pope, “the smell of the sheep.” 

In our own Church things seem to be going in a different direction. A radical overhaul of the structures of the Church of England is being proposed in the report of a review group chaired by Lord Green. Talented potential leaders, with growing and healthy churches, are to be identified, given special training on a sort of MBA course for church leaders and then fast-tracked to leadership in the church. 

This is the kind of report that often gets labelled “prophetic” or “radical and innovative”- if only by its authors. Those who question it are likely to be labelled as complacent and conservative – “priestly.” in other words!

When I first heard talk of it in a speech by a bishop at an exciting gathering called the Intra-diocesan Finance Forum, it did not sound much like shepherds smelling of the sheep. I hoped that a “Dragon’s Den” or “The Apprentice” approach, would not neglect such matters as prayer and spiritual discipline, pastoral care, and study of the scriptures and tradition – or our latter state might turn out to be worse than the former. But I thought: “Don’t jump to conclusions. Give it the benefit of the doubt.”  ‘let your gentleness be known to everyone.”  (Philippians 4.1)

Now, having seen a review of it by the Dean of ChristChurch, Oxford, Dr. Martin Percy, who has just moved from running a theological college, I suspect that I was too optimistic. 

The report, he says, is not rooted in theology or spiritual wisdom. 

“Instead, on offer is a dish of basic contemporary approaches to executive management, with a little theological garnish.

A total absence of ecclesiology,” (that’s theology of the Church), “flows from this.”

So, will people be taught to lead and manage an institution without knowing what it is or what it is for?

Senior leaders are to be equipped with a toolkit of organisational skills. But there is no mention of how this fits with the primary calling of bishops to be “shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles. Or what the implications for public ministry might be if bishops now move from being chief pastors to chief executives…. there seems to be no space for the bishop as scholar, evangelist, contemplative, theologian, prophet, or pastor. Or scope for senior church leaders who might be visionaries, risk-takers, and pioneers.”

The Church, as Dr. Percy says, is a large and complex organisation – the Diocese of London alone is one of the largest charities in the country – and good management is important – although much of that should be the business of lay people, not just the clergy. 

In my training for the priesthood– which combined academic excellence and spiritual rigour – for which I remain grateful – I was taught little or nothing about how to run a church, let alone how to grow one. Those are gaps which need to be filled – but not just for a clerical elite.

The Green Report also talks about “leadership”. Again, I am not opposed to this in principle. The parish clergy of the Church of England are appointed to serve their parishes, not just to be private chaplains to congregations but to lead them in mission.  In a consumerist culture that can all too easily be forgotten.  Congregations can resent the time their priests may spend on matters which do not serve their immediate needs; on people who don’t belong. Perhaps too many clergy have been ordained who have been incapable of, or even interested in anything more than being a provider of religious services to a small group of people waiting to die. Faced, as we are, with the challenge to re-evangelise our country, clergy and others need to be equipped for the task of making new disciples; not just looking after the old ones. These may not be much interested in being disciples – in continuing to learn – themselves – much less in helping others to do so.  

But I am wary of those who tell the Church it must learn from the business world. Would that be the world of banking with its recent history of institutional dishonesty, greed and recklessness; the world from which came the Revd. Lord Green, the chairman of the body producing this report?  Would it be the world of bullying macho-management?  Or that of ever-increasing pay differentials with little relation to performance?  Will we move to performance-related pay and bonuses?

When I get fed up with this kind of talk at ecclesiastical gatherings, I sometimes suggest that we translate the word ‘leader’ into German  –  in case you have forgotten, it’s der Fuhrer  – and then think about it in silence for a while.  Alas, some of my colleagues have so little sense of history that they have no idea what I’m getting at. Devotees of this kind of thinking are often, without knowing it disciples of Henry Ford who thought “history is bunk.”   But those who ignore the lessons of history are often doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Dr. Percy points out that the report talks about leadership but does not define what it means. It “shows no evidence of having solicited the views of the led. Or of former church leaders.” The Dean concludes acidly that:  “The executive managers already know what they are looking for in preferment (that’s Church of England-speak for promotion) – folk like themselves.” 

“The text focuses on training people for management tasks that the review group take as givens. No different models of leadership are discussed, such as servanthood, collaborative ministry, or pastoral care.”  If we don’t have a proper theological definition of leadership, a secular one will fill the gap.

If we are to have such a superclass of ecclesiastical managers and entrepreneurs, my anxiety is that they will be neither priests nor pastors, preachers nor teachers, prophets nor evangelists, but careerists too busy with management and strategy to say their prayers, (too busy in the office to say the office), to study theology, prepare sermons, visit the sick, hear confessions, minister to the dying or bury the dead and comfort the bereaved, or to read the signs of the times. Would they have time for the people who are never going to be a success in this world – the kind of people Jesus seemed to spend a lot of his time with?  Would they smell of the sheep? 

And if the strategy fails, as strategies often do, or if they don’t meet the strategic targets set for them and are dropped from the course, or are asked to resign from the diocese or deanery they have been fast-tracked to, what will happen to these no-longer-so-super-clerics? 

Well, if they turn up in the confessional here, I might try to comfort them with the thought that John the Baptist, to whom crowds had flocked, ended up having his head chopped off.  And Jesus was so successful that he managed to go from congregations of four or five thousand to only twelve at his last service – and one of them left in a huff – three at his last prayer meeting – and they kept falling asleep – and in the end had only his Blessed Mother, the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene and a few other women standing by his cross  –  less people than there are here tonight! 

I think we can assume that neither would have made it to a senior appointment in the Church of England.

Now these are not excuses for a culture of failure, despair or inertia.  (Pope Francis is after all sorting out the tangled administration and finances of the Vatican as well as combatting clerical ambition and arrogance.) But they do remind us that faithfulness to our calling as priests and people is about something more than management and organisation.

Like Malachi, we must look for the renewal of priesthood and Church. If Church and world are to be “an acceptable people” in his sight, then we must pray to Christ, as we do in today’s Collect, for the “ministers and stewards” of his mysteries. Organisation and management will have a necessary part in that stewardship, but they will be ‘nothing worth’ unless undergirded by lives modeled on and united with the self-giving love of Christ.  

The Book of Malachi is an argument with God’s people; one which looks forward in hope to something better.  If this report sparks an almighty row, a serious argument, about the Church’s ministry and leadership, then some good may come of it; even if more by accident than design.  But the judgement of God often comes in ways and at times we do not expect.