This evening we had a reception for those being ordained as Deacons and Priests in the Diocese of Southwark next Sunday, 4 June. They are a mixed bunch of people – evidence that God doesn’t call clones and honours the flawed humanity we bring to the party. As I left I wondered what the future will hold for these people who have given up much in order to respond the call of God on their lives. Where will they be (and what will they be like) in ten or twenty years from now?
No idea. Not a clue. I have given up trying to imagine people’s future trajectories – experience has taught me to be open to surprise. But it has also taught me to be open to hope. I was reminded of Jürgen Moltmann‘s wisdom:
God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.
These people soon to be ordained will need to discover (if they haven’t done already) the need for hope to be a wide space and not narrowed down by their own prejudices or theological/ideological straitjackets. Experience (as well as our reading of the Bible) tells us that God will not be pinned down to suit our own comforts; we must beware of trying to shape God in our own image.
Tomorrow I will be leading a Quiet Day for clergy at Worth Abbey and will be basing my addresses on the story of Jonah from the Old Testament. Many people think it is a kiddy’s story about a weird bloke being sicked out of a whale’s stomach; it isn’t. It is about a man discovering (but not very well or willingly) that God’s love and mercy cannot be limited by our own limitations or desire for God only to behave well to the people of whom we happen to approve. God has a habit of never sticking to our moral formulae – which can sometimes be embarrassing.
I recently read the book about Anglicanism and the future, called The Hope of Things to Come. Like most edited books, it is a mixed bag. The first two chapters by Dr Charlotte Methuen are very interesting, but spoiled by lack of proofreading by an editor: there are loads of typos and words transposed. But, these chapters and the book as a whole repay careful consideration as they address a generally Christian and specifically Anglican approach to tradition and change in both world and church. Charlotte Methuen quotes Sir Thomas More (1478-1535):
Tradition is not holding onto the ashes but passing on the flame.
However, the flame of hope – indeed, of confidence – can only be passed on if it has first been received and held. And that confidence has to be rooted not in a particular tradition, but in the person of the God whose character and activity the tradition is supposed to be about.
My own hope for these ordinands is that their experience of the church will blow oxygen onto the flame and make it dance… and not let the flame die out in order to preserve and honour the wick. I hope they will play like Brazil against Chile (full of flair, creativity, enjoyment and imagination) and not like England against Germany (er… you know what I mean…).
The job of the bishop is to fan the flames, keep the fire burning, feed the embers when they are in danger of dying. In the words of the great Bruce Cockburn song/prayer (sort of):
Love that fires the sun keep them burning.