Simple Service

July 16, 2017

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Deuteronomy 28.1-14, Acts 28.17-end, at the Installation of Canons Evensong on Sunday 16th July 2017, the Fifth after Trinity.

Good preaching and teaching always involves a splash of simplicity. It’s good when people understand what you’re saying and it’s also good when any insights you might have are simple enough be put into practice. I suppose, then, that I should not be so down on Deuteronomy. It has a simple message, which it expresses every way up:  only obedience brings blessing; there’s no blessing without obedience; with dis-obedience comes disaster. (The last bit comes just after the text of our first lesson.)

We could go into reasons behind that message, but that would make things more complicated and not really help today, because I want to confess before Mark and George that leading, governing and managing the cathedral is actually not very simple, which is why we’re so grateful for the skills and experience they bring to the table.

I remember only a few sermons, but one I do remember for my vicar-training days was given by Simon Barrington Ward a former Bishop of Coventry. He said, I tell my curates that life in hard – not to be depressing, but because it is true. And in the same spirit I say working on Chapter is complicated and maybe precisely because of that, often fascinating and always worthwhile.

Deuteronomy may have its drawbacks, but second reading from Acts is wonderfully multi-layered and useful. For example, everyone who read the book when it was first circulated would have known that Paul was martyred at Rome, but Luke, who wrote it, didn’t end with his death. Instead, he draws parallels between Christ’s last days and Paul’s. So Paul explains to his Jewish audience how he hasn’t fought against his arrest but has used it as an opportunity to witness to the good news. He explains that he has never sought to undermine his native Judaism, but only to demonstrate its fulfilment.

In these ways, he is just like the Jew Jesus, and so Luke hints that if Paul is to share in a death like his so he will share in a resurrection like his. Luke wishes to allude to this hope but not to rob Paul’s last days of their poignancy.

What I’m reacting against in Deuteronomy is the way in which obedience seems like the golden buzzer in Britain’s Got Talent – sadly, ITV rather than BBC – when contestants who get buzzed by the judges like this are showered with gold ticker-tape and go straight through to the live semi-finals.  Lucky old them! Paul’s obedience, however, leads, like Jesus’s, directly to danger and confinement. And the blessings of his obedience are not for him to enjoy, for the most part.

Further complexity lies in the fact that none of these outward hardships seemed to matter much to Paul. He minds much more about is his fellow Jews. They are his first concern when he arrives as a captive in Rome. The unbelief of many of God’s people weighs heavily on him. Even in Rome the response to his passionate proclamation is mixed.

All he could believe in his sorrow was that this failure was somehow held in God’s purposes, so that by the disobedience of the Jews, the Gentiles could now hear the message. That was a consolation to him, but he never found their deafness to the gospel easy to accept, because he loved his people and wanted them to know the salvation he knew.

However, Paul had an enviable sense of perspective and therefore a resilience, that he was working within a mystery, with its roots in the ancient traditions of his culture. This allowed him to embrace the complexity of his calling.

The Chapter of this Cathedral is also working within something big. I don’t really mean the building, but the currents of culture that have made us what we are today. Included in that would be not only the landmark events of the Norman Conquest, the Reformation and Civil War but the latest cultural currents that have made cathedrals objects of intense curiosity to many, currents that make them complex institutions with multiple and sometimes competing purposes to fulfil. They are not simply big churches, but also cultural icons, regional beacons, volunteering hubs, performance venues and tourist attractions. They are both a liability and an asset. They are places where the gospel is proclaimed in glory but, at the same time, places shaped and changed by a variety of partnerships with secular bodies, like the Lottery Fund.

Chapter needs to maintain a multi-dimensional vision and for this it needs people with an overarching vision of the coming kingdom of God. We need ordained members, who often bring gifts to do with Christian teaching, worship and community building, and we need lay members who as well as their faith bring skills and experience from their professional lives. When these perspectives come together we can do something that is both wide and focused, and we can plan and respond intelligently. I’m sure that under Dean Catherine’s leadership we are going to do much more to sharpen our imagination of what we are trying to achieve in and through these multiple dimensions.

As well finding focus and setting direction in the shifting tides of culture, as Chapter must if it is to lead well, there are the joys of governance. At the moment risk is the over-riding issue, all the risks caused by the temptations of money, sex and power. We need people on Chapter who are prepared to oversee work, often done by our fine team of staff and with the external scrutiny of many other bodies, to ensure that we are well regulated. It’s not the most glamorous work in the world, but in the present climate there are few second chances if things go wrong. It’s one of those things where the reward is no news and the ability, as ++Justin once put it, to take risks safely – the right ones, that is, to do with the boldness of our outreach.

And finally there is management. Chapter’s job is not to get bogged down in fine detail, but to listen to the actualities of a situation and respond according to our vision and values. Often it’s a case of trying to stay in balance. Another dean recently said that he didn’t have a strategy for his cathedral because he believed that the moment battle was joined in real life strategy went out of the window.  That’s hardly right: strategy allows you to keep the big picture alive in the midst of the midst of battle, even if it sometimes has to be revised. Good strategy helps you to manage – often to thrive and in the worst of times to survive.

We are glad that Mark has joined us and that George is continuing on Chapter. They will hear nothing new in this picture of leadership, governance or management. But maybe we’ve polished the frame a bit through contrasting our readings. We don’t look for our obedience, feeble though it can be, to cash out directly as prosperity. Life is complicated. Cathedrals are complicated. We sink or swim in the deep waters of culture and our expectation is only, as our Bishop and Diocese puts it, to live the mission of Jesus, as faithfully and energetically as we can.

Luke offers just one blessing of obedience as the final word in his book. It translates as, ‘without hindrance’. He means that even in the most complicated of situations or the most complex of roles there is a place to live in tune with the Spirit, who brings freedom to live by the faith and values we espouse, and where our skills and experience can be fully given the service of others, however complicated things get. Thank you George and Mark for your willingness to serve and may you find this simple freedom, which comes as both blessing and gift.