This is the basic text of my Maundy Thursday sermon in Bradford Cathedral and streamed for the clergy and lay ministers of the Diocese of Leeds:

“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

We do not lose heart. Good for Paul.

But, what if we do? What if mood or circumstance or experience close down our horizons and dim the lights of love and vocation? What if the exigencies of the last year have ground us down and diluted our confidence? What if we are no longer sure how to do our ministry when the ground has moved and the familiar ways don’t work any longer?

Do we carry on pretending, in the hope that things will improve? Or that my mood will change when the sun comes out and the trees begin to blossom? Or that God will do a miracle and transform my personality and make everything OK again? (I remember when I was younger thinking that this is exactly what God had done to me; but, it turned out to be the steroids.)

Well, I recently had a conversation with someone I hadn’t met before who challenged my contention that what we need in these strange and testing times is hope and not optimism. Optimism assumes that things will get better – often despite all the evidence; whereas hope draws us through the reality, however good or bad that might actually prove to be. I think the challenge was around whether that hope ought to be showing a bit more brightness (optimism) – an upbeat vision for the future. I will return to this shortly, but it is a challenge I have thought about a lot since the conversation.

Because I think this goes to the heart of where we are as a church – and as clergy and lay leaders – emerging from a dreadful year of lockdowns, isolation, tragedies and loss. Without warning, we have had to adapt practices, invent new rituals, create community using unfamiliar media, try to shape a changed workload – especially when the normal means for exercising pastoral care have collapsed. It has reminded me of my feeling as a parish priest that if I were to have a slogan or motto, if would be in three-foot high letters around my study wall and would say – confidently – “Everything you do is wrong!”

I wasn’t being miserable. It’s just that if I visited one person, then I wasn’t visiting a couple of hundred others, and, to someone’s mind, I will have made the wrong choice. In ministry we get used to having to set priorities in pastoral care that might always prove to be the wrong ones. But, we get on with the job anyway, despite a lack of certainty regarding our choices.

And this last year has demanded of our churches and ministers an exhausting willingness to change, innovate, limit and expand – and all without any certainty that we are, in fact, getting it right.

Did some of us feel overwhelmed by the new demands? Yes. Did others among us look at our neighbour’s creative enthusiasms and feel inadequate (not least, technologically)? Certainly. Did some use lockdowns as an excuse for laziness? Possibly. Did others become manically activist and hide the fear behind new initiatives or organisation? Probably. Did some feel paralysed by insecurity or dread of being seen to fail? Inevitably. And did some look at their neighbour’s weakness and compare themselves accordingly? Maybe.

And that is all OK. If that complex of reactions is the reality, then that’s what we will deal with. But, how might we think about all this on this day, as we sit with Jesus and his friends as they rehearse their foundational story and celebrate the liberation of his people in the Exodus? How are we to think about our re-commitment to our vows as ordained clergy or our commissioning as lay leaders and disciples of this same Jesus?

(I am conscious today that we celebrate this service in communion with our sisters and brothers in very different contexts across the globe, particularly in Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the USA, Germany and Sweden. The contexts might differ, but the commitment is the same.)

Luke 22:24-30

Jesus has come with his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. Their minds are full of hope that the liberation of God’s people, celebrated in this meal, might now – this year – be incarnated afresh as Jesus leads the expulsion of the Roman blasphemers, heralding the return of God among them. They have been praying for several hundred years for this moment, repeatedly being let down by would-be messiahs who promised much, but always delivered only disillusionment. Yet, now, what Jesus had spoken of as the “Kingdom of God” was imminent – something to be anticipated and celebrated. Spirits are high.

Yet, here, in this upper room, Jesus is surrounded by people who have missed the point and argue about their status. For one of them, Judas, Jesus is not going about things in the right way and his hand is going to have to be forced. No doubting Judas’s passion for the kingdom of God or his personal commitment to seeing it realised. Another of them has a self-image that is illusory and deceptive: Peter might think he is made of granite, but will soon discover that his rock is actually leaky limestone.

Betrayal, denial, illusion, optimism. All are there in that room.

It’s the loneliness of Jesus that gets me.

Yet, what Jesus does is take a longer-term view. He re-frames the story of Israel’s liberation, knowing that his friends don’t quite get it. Broken bread and wine outpoured will one day make a different sense for them, but not just now. Jesus isn’t trapped in the ‘now’ to the extent that he can’t see the way forward. He knows also that things said and done now will, when circumstances have changed, complete a picture. A bit like when you look at one of those 3-D images that look like a mess until your eyes re-focus and you suddenly see the dinosaur looking out at you.

In other words, and translating this to our context, being a minister or leader in the name and image of the Christ whose name we bear means seeing beyond the moment, looking into an uncertain future, but knowing that re-telling the story, re-framing the narrative, adding different colours to the picture, might only make sense later. Our job is to look further and deeper and to tell the truth that goes beyond fear.

Terry Eagleton, the Roman Catholic Marxist philosopher, literary theorist and theologian, in his book Hope Without Optimism glosses St Augustine as follows: “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith.” (p.41)

You see the point? We articulate hope because we love the people we serve, and we do all this in faith because the world is uncertain and people are a mystery.

At this Passover meal Jesus strips everything back to its essentials, conscious of the contradictions and limitations of the people with him, then goes out to pray as events take their tragic course. Which suggests that our task is also to articulate the heart of the gospel, expose ourselves I prayer to the God who has no illusions about the nature of the rock from which we are hewn, and then face events with faith and love and courage. Even with hope.

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:12

This is why Paul can confidently urge the Christians in Corinth to hold mercy and encouragement together. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” We will not be discouraged because each of us knows that our ministry is rooted in the mercy of the God who knows us, and that this mercy has to be experienced before it can be shared.

And what is this ministry of which Paul writes so passionately? Well, he speaks in chapter 2 of “proclaiming the good news of Christ.” He goes on to tell us that we are the “aroma of Christ to God”. We are a “letter, to be known and read by all” – “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit”. (3:6)

This vocation has not changed from Corinth to now. Paul writes passionately about his sufferings and chides the Corinthians for their fickleness, desertion and easy distraction. In other words, he walks in the shoes of the Jesus he serves … in being surrounded by people like you and me and Judas and Peter and all the rest of them. His world is one of uncertainty and fear. His own mortality was ever before him and he demonstrates in this painful letter the real impact on himself of the pressure to adapt, innovate, move on and drive mission, despite the poverty of the tools he had to implement his task.

Does this sound familiar? It should do.

As Paul goes on to note, the treasure of the glory of God is contained in clay jars. After this last year we need no reminder of our limitations and fragilities. But, we also find ourselves re-orientated towards the glory rather than the clay. We fix our eyes on the glory of God and the promise of the good news of Jesus Christ, empowered by that same Spirit that breathes and blows through the chaos of creation bringing order and life.

As spring has brought sunshine and warmth, and as restrictions have been relaxed and people congregated in parks to leave their rubbish in heaps, people in our communities are grasping at optimism and cheerfulness. The vaccines are working their scientific magic and people are booking holidays in the summer. The world feels a bit brighter and shouldn’t we all be joining in and talking it up?

Well, maybe. But, for us as clergy and lay leaders – all of us followers of the Jesus who went to a cross and bore the wound marks in his resurrected body – we are called to a deeper task: to be both realistic and hopeful, courageous and cautious, and to navigate the changing territory with faith, hope and love. If everything opens up, we will not aim simply to go back to how it was in early 2020; and if we face further lockdowns, we won’t be knocked off course, but will adapt again. For our vocation is not to tick boxes or hibernate until the ‘normal’ resumes, but, rather, to navigate reality and create new norms – ones of faith and hope and love … whatever the circumstances that shape our every day.

I guess that what I am commending is what Walter Brueggemann calls “a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways”. (Virus as a Summons to Faith) Freshly faithful among a people whose strength lies in what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called “the solidarity of the broken”.

This is why we now need to open our churches and consider how they can be a locus of hope and joy for our communities, not just our congregations. The need for joyful evangelism has never been greater. One day soon we shall be able to sing again; and when we do, we need to offer vocabularies for all the questions, lamentations, hopes and fears, aspirations and meditations that lead us to open our hearts and voices to the God of mercy who has engaged us in this ministry.

Thank you for all your service in the last year. Thank you for being colleagues and not competitors – the very message Jesus was trying to get through the skulls of his friends. Thank you for your patience and longsuffering. Thank you for ordering pastoral care and for kindling the flames of theological and spiritual hope. Thank you for praying when words have failed; for burying the dead when you couldn’t do justice to the bereaved; for living with criticism and a sense of failure, but with conviction and determination. Thank you for keeping people connected, for sacrificing much in order to love your neighbour through this curse of a public health disaster. Thank you for holding out a confident joy in times of stress and struggle.

We are not out of the woods yet. When we do finally emerge, the world – and the church – will be different. And this is a glorious opportunity to take stock, let go, newly embrace, innovate, negotiate, navigate and shape a different future. This is our vocation now, and we are in it together. No shame, no fear.

For “since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or, as John Bell put it in a song I quoted at this service in 2019 – the last time we met together in one place:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

The first time I met Bishop Tom Butler he left me in tears.

It was in his study in Leicester in 1991. I sat on an orange box. He and Barbara had only moved in on the Monday, this was the Thursday and he was due to be enthroned on the Saturday as Bishop of Leicester. I had moved from a wonderful curacy in Kendal to a bit of a disaster in Leicester. The mistake was obvious after only a few days in post as an Associate Vicar and my world felt like it had collapsed. I had moved my family (with three children) and we were going to have to move again. Without going into detail, I thought of throwing the whole thing in.

Tom asked me questions, then told me to leave the diocese and start again somewhere else. That made sense. But that wasn’t the thing that brought me to tears. Two things did:

1. He gave me complete clarity about process: “Deal with me regarding jobs/posts; deal with the Assistant Bishop for pastoral care of you and your family.” I never needed to consult the Assistant Bishop, but I knew where I stood. When things got so bad I had to be pulled out of the parish, Tom acted decisively and with clarity. That is what I needed.

2. Tom prayed for me. That’s when the tears flowed. I have no idea whether or not he remembers this, but I do.

There are some in the church who wish to divide the words ‘pastoral’ and ‘managerial’. Apparently, Tom Butler is a managerial bishop – and some have accused me of being the same. Well, I see it as a compliment in one sense. Why? Because the dichotomy between ‘pastoral’ and ‘managerial’ is a false one – and a dangerous one. What some people mean by ‘pastoral’ (when asking for it in a bishop) is someone who won’t challenge, who is malleable and won’t interfere too much. But pastoral care begins with getting the administration, communication and ‘business’ right: how do you respect someone who says they care for you pastorally when they then double-book you, fail to reply to letters or emails and don’t do what they promise to do?

A bishop is called to be an accountable steward of the resources of people and stuff/things. He is not called primarily to be ‘nice’ or popular. If niceness and popularity follow, then that is fine; but episcopal leadership and ministry are not good for people who want to be everybody’s friend. The alternative to good management of the resources God gives us is, presumably, bad management. Can anybody show me how bad management equates to good pastoral care?

Tom Butler has led the Diocese of Southwark through nearly twelve years of challenging change. Holding this diocese together was never going to be an easy task and Tom’s early days were not easy for anybody. But he leaves with the respect, gratitude and affection of thousands of people in the diocese and beyond who realise that pastoral care means attention to detail, careful handling of structures, utterly fair treatment of clergy and people, consistency of practice and a life rooted in prayer for those you serve and lead.

Tom’s ministry has spanned nearly five decades and the Church owes him a huge debt. As was recognised by politicians, peers and civic representatives this afternoon at the civic reception prior to Tom’s Farewell Eucharist in the Cathedral, wider society owes him a massive debt, too. He has never been content to let the Church live in a private religious ghetto. His final words today before leaving the Cathedral were the proclaim Jesus Christ and love one another.

The Cathedral was packed. The applause was long and resonant with affectionate respect for Tom and Barbara. They will be hugely missed here. And, for a second time, Tom brought me to tears as he left his diocese having faithfully done what he was called to do. Only he knows the cost of this long ministry – some of us got glimpses. He has been faithful in preaching the gospel, faithful in leading the church and (contrary to the behaviour of some) has never simply cherry-picked the bits of church he likes. But, if I could be half the bishop he is, I would be satisfied.

Tom deserves a long and happy retirement. And the Church of England must hope he will continue to serve her with the wisdom, clarity and loyalty he has exemplified thus far.

Others will have their own say. I remain hugely indebted to Tom and will miss him.

Yesterday I visited two thriving inner-urban churches in Croydon. I don’t often get emotional, but yesterday was different.

CroydonIn the first church I confirmed ten people, including adults who have come from right outside the church and found here that God has found them. They have also found a church that offers beauty in worship, a lively engagement with the good news of Jesus Christ, and a multi-ethnic community of wonderful people who welcome all-comers. After the service everyone went through to the hall for coffee before returning to the (by now cleared) church for a huge lunch – about 100 of us. I didn’t want to leave. I love it there and would happily join the church if I lived there (and wasn’t the bishop).

In the afternoon I went to another parish in a neighbouring area for a formal visit. The Vicar went there nearly four years ago when the church had an average congregation of 15 and was an obvious candidate for closure. I promised her that if she found the job was not do-able, I would look for a good parish for her – for she had at least tried to do the impossible. She told me yesterday that she had asked her congregation what they would like to do on my visit to show the bishop what their church/parish was all about – and they had said they wanted to have a party.

Having had an hour with the vicar in the vicarage, we walked to the church with the possibility that nobody would be there. When we walked in there were in the region of 150 people from dozens of different ethnic origins, of all ages (from babies to very elderly) and all types. There was a brass band to play for the brief Harvest Celebration at the beginning of the party. And there was a huge feast of food and drink to be shared. When I was asked to say something, I got very choked up and struggled to get the words out.

FeastEvery image of heaven in the Bible seems to involve a feast. Jesus was criticised for partying too much – and with the wrong people. Yesterday I glimpsed heaven in two churches with inspired leadership, sacrificial ministry, encouraged people and a generous openness to their parishes.

And all this hides the day-by-day ministry of working quietly in some tough places in tough cirumstances and addressing some tough challenges. The clergy (and others) are fully involved in the life and institutions of their local parish communities. They command huge respect and affection from local people – including those who don’t darken the doors of the church.

I don’t want to identify the parishes as the attention won’t necessarily be helpful. But their clergy have my unmitigated admiration and I am immensely humbled and proud to be their bishop, to learn from them and to be inspired by them.

I realise this sounds a bit cheesy. And, yes, there are lots of parishes like this in South London. But I needed to say it about these two in particular today.