All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 26 July 2015

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 26 July 2015

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


“The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; only one who has little business can become wise. Ecclesiasticus 38.24

Last week I took some time off from ‘the study of the law of the Most High’ to conduct a little business. I went to the Building Society to pay in some cheques.  The lady dealing with me peered at one of them, looking perplexed. What was puzzling her? I wondered.  Was it the signature in purple ink with a cross in front of it? Could I persuade her that the Bishop of London’s signature really is ‘+Richard Londin’, and, yes, he does use purple ink?  

But no, the problem was that the cheque was made out to the Revd. Prebendary Alan Moses.  What’s this word? she asked, pointing to the mysterious term.  As there was no one queuing behind me, I explained that it was a very old church title connected in my case with St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Fortunately, she believed me.

As ecclesiastical anoraks know, the office of prebendary goes back to the Middle Ages. Cathedrals, like St. Paul’s, which did not have monastic foundations attached to them, had a college of clergy to celebrate and sing the daily services.  Each was supported by the income from land or property which was known as a ‘prebend.’ 

My prebend is Holborn, and if I still enjoyed the income from it, I would be a very wealthy cleric indeed and would have so much leisure that, like Canon Vesey Stanhope in Barchester Towers, I could spend my days living on the shores of Lake Como while paying some hard-up cleric to do my duties.  Well, those days are gone, along with the money from my prebend, taken over by the Church Commissioners in the 19th century equivalent of what the Church of England now calls “Reform and Renewal.”  

My prebendal duties are pretty light: I have to recite my portion of the Psalter, Psalms 12 to 16, each day, so that between us the College of Canons recite them all each day.  I can sit in my stall in choir at cathedral services I choose to attend. I can volunteer to preach on weekday feasts – so yesterday I was preaching at the evening mass for St. James’s Day.  

A prebend provided what the Church calls a ‘stipend.’  This is not just an old-fashioned churchy term for a wage or salary. A stipend is not payment for work done.  It provides an income which allows one not to work.  Now don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mean that it is a license to be idle, although some have taken it as such. A stipend frees priests from having to earn a living in the secular world. They are given a ‘living’ so that they are available to exercise their ministry. 

Nowadays, we do have a good many clergy, who like our own Fr. Julian, earn their living in the secular world. They used to be called ‘non-stipendiary,’ NSMs, but that sounded a bit negative, so they have been re-badged as ‘self-supporting ministers.’  In many places, the Church could not manage without them.

All this is by way of preamble to addressing our text from the Book of Ecclesiasticus.

Ecclesiasticus belongs to that type of biblical writing called the Wisdom literature. This has much in common with similar writings of the great civilisations of the time – of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It seems to have developed in palaces and temples as training material for imperial administrators and for priests.

Tonight’s passage, at first hearing, might sound like intellectual snobbery.   An ancient Egyptian document which has survived, deals with the same subject: the relation between those who practice wisdom and those who work at various trades and businesses. It does so in a very different tone: contemptuously dismissing those who earn their living with their hands and not their heads. Ecclesiasticus, on the other hand, speaks positively of the farmer, the smith, the potter, and other artisans.

Their labour and skill are essential to the well-being of society: ‘Without them no city can be inhabited….they maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade.’

Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people,

      nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.

They do not sit in the judge’s seat,

      nor do they understand the decision of the courts;

they cannot expound discipline or judgement,

      and they are not found among the rulers.’

The writer identifies here a division of labour within society. This was especially stark in societies where those exercising those crafts and skills would mostly be unlettered. The literate and learned depended on them for the material necessities of life. They depended on the learned for good government and justice.

From earliest times in the Church, while much local leadership would be in the hands of people earning their living, and even Paul, who had been trained at the feet of the great rabbi Gamaliel, would sometimes support himself by practicing his trade, we see that there were those who were supported in their missionary work by their fellow-believers. The apostles ordained the first deacons to deal with what we might call social care in order to be able to devote themselves to the ministry of the word.

Schools of Christian wisdom would develop to train people to commend the faith in a pagan society and to a classical culture.  After the fall of Rome, what survived of classical as well as biblical learning in the West, did so in the monasteries. They became the centres of learning. Later, the universities would take over this role.  But for long these too were dominated by the clergy. Both institutions provided an educated elite that rulers could call upon for the administration of their realms. 

The Reformation brought to a head a crisis which had been brewing because of social and economic change.  The rise of the universities and the growth of an urban middle class, with wealth, education and leisure, began to undermine the established division of labour in Christian society. No longer were the monks a superior caste, set aside by education and lifestyle as first class Christians while the great mass of Christians were definitely second class and dependent on them for salvation.

The Reformation would bring, as well as greater levels of literacy, a sense in which the ministry of the Christian was seen as not being in the cloister but in the world: in home, community, workplace. With this came a new emphasis on a parish clergy who would be learned as well as godly: sometimes more in hope than reality.  Christians drew strength and inspiration for their responsibilities in the world from their worship, from the teaching and sacraments they received, which is where having people with leisure comes in.

Nowadays, in our society, the clergy no longer have a monopoly of education. Some will minister to people at least as highly educated as themselves. But it remains true, that at least until they retire, most men and women are concerned with earning their living and their responsibilities at work, at home, in the community..  They have only so much time and energy left over for that ‘wisdom of the scribe,’ which ‘depends on the opportunity of leisure.’

Last week, the Revd. Professor Owen Chadwick died as the age of 99. In his Church Times obituary, David Edwards described this scholar priest as one of the two cleverest men in the Church of England in his age: the other was Owen’s brother Henry.

It is said that Chadwick refused episcopal office. Edwards thinks this just as well.  The bureaucratic and managerial role of a modern bishop is incompatible with scholarship. The Church would have been impoverished if Chadwick had accepted a mitre.

There is much talk these days of appropriate training for senior leaders in the church. The emphasis is on management and business skills. I do wonder if, by assuming that the bureaucratic, managerial model is the right one in the first place, we are not putting the cart before the horse.   Should we not be asking what bishops are for in the light of the ordinal? If, for example, they are the principal guardians and teachers of the faith, ought they not to be given time in which to study that they might teach more effectively?

In a recent Church Times spread on Church Growth, a professor of religious studies suggested that the clergy should never speak for more than five minutes. I wonder how many five minute lectures she gives and what her students, at least those who want to learn and are paying her salary, would think of her if she did.

Academics are not the only ones prone to such nonsense. Fr. John Gaskell, whom John Betjeman described as the finest preacher in the Church of England in his day, told me that when he was a curate here, a layman, a member of the PCC, would say to him each time he preached: “So many minutes today.”  The barely-veiled implication was that this was a good many minutes too long.  This pulpit clock-watcher never betrayed the slightest interest in the content of the sermon.

Increasingly clergy in the Church of England are being taught on part-time non-residential courses. It is claimed that the products of such courses are as good as those who are trained in theological colleges and read theology at university level.

It is no insult to those who work very hard to fulfill the requirements of such a course in their spare time, to say that this cannot be true.  They simply do not have the time.

There is a real threat at the moment because of what is known as the “Law of Unintended Consequences.”  The most poorly thought out bit of the 21st century Reform and Renewal programme which the Church of England is embarking on is about the future of theological education and ministerial formation.  The danger is that our theological colleges and our links with the teaching theology in universities will be lost by default. Because they are more expensive than part-time courses, church bureaucrats will be tempted to go for the cheaper option. 

In the face of the intellectual demands of Christian life, mission and ministry in today’s world, for lay people as well as priests, we need better-educated clergy, not worse. To go for the cheaper option might balance the books in the short-term, it might even enable us to ordain more clergy, but it will be disastrous in the long run.

Ordinands cannot learn everything in two or three years at theological college, let alone on a part-time course.  The education of its ministers must be ongoing. The Church has a responsibility to provide for that.  The clergy have an equal responsibility to take it up – and not slip into that ‘blokeish’ anti-intellectualism which tempts some who feel that it makes them more ‘real, or  ‘down with the people.’  In my experience, people do not appreciate being treated as stupid.

My college Principal, who became Bishop of Edinburgh in time to ordain me, used to say that he could work out the date of the ordination of most clergy by the books on their shelves: they had not bought one since.  I made a promise to myself that he would never be able to say that of me.  As I look back on twenty years of ministry here, I hope that promise has been to the spiritual profit of those in my pastoral care.

Clergy do need to know something about management and money, they need to be efficient and practical, but above all, they need to know about God and they need to know God. They need to be men and women of study and of prayer, if they are to be of any real use to their people. Their people, if they know what is good for them, will see their responsibility to provide them with that leisure which allows for the growth of wisdom and to draw from it.