s212o02 St Richard's Patronal Festival Lockleys 23/6/02

(Ezek 34:11-12, Ps 84:5-12, Phil 4:10-13, Matt 25:31-40)

I shall judge between sheep and sheep. Ezekiel 34.17

I do not intend to speak this year about the life of St Richard. Next year will be the 750th anniversary of Richard's death, so I thought I'd leave that until then. (This is in spite of "A Prayer Book for Australia" noting his death was in 1256) I have little doubt that you have heard all about Richard once or twice before :-) Actually most of you will have heard about him many more times than me. You would be able to correct me if I said something wrong!

The usual feast day for St Richard is April the 3rd being the date of his death, but the anniversary of his body being brought to Chichester for burial is June the 16th. We choose this date as it is generally more convenient - though why we seem to celebrate him a week later here at Lockleys is still a mystery to me. The burial date is called the date of his translation.

I must confess some wry bemusement that we celebrate the anniversary of a person's death. It's the same with great musicians. It has an element of incongruity that we celebrate the date when they stopped their wonderful work.

My words today are about the communion of saints, and are inspired by our Primate who spoke at our recent Synod. He said of all the things he could speak about, he chose two topics, the ecumenical implications of the ordination of women and some reflections on the priesthood of all believers verses the apostolic succession. When he said this I thought these were hardly the topics I considered were particularly current, but how wrong I was!

I will not talk about the first but confine myself to the second, where he made the point that it has been our practice to ordain people through the laying on of hands by those who previously have had hands laid on them. His point was that we are not a democratic church - which implies we have only a relevance in this age. No, we are a hierarchical church whose relevance spans the generations as well as having a relevance to this age. He made the point that we lose a significant part of our authority if we neglect one part of this.

For those outside Australia, and for those less familiar with current trends, the motivation for these words are no doubt the current push in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney to have lay people authorised to celebrate the Eucharist.

We consider ourselves episcopally and synodically governed and both are important. I have often had cause to reflect that Jesus was killed through the democratic will of the lay people. However, of course, the "democratic will of the people" were stirred up by the religious authorities whose positions of power and authority were being threatened. I find it extremely interesting that the gospel accounts frequently detail the antagonism of the scribes and the pharisees to Jesus - both the scribes and the pharisees were the unordained lay people in positions of power and authority because of their moral uprightness. Only late in the story the priests really come onto the scene and perhaps one can assume that they had little option but to accede to the power the lay authorities wielded. Shades of Anglican Synods to this day, indeed :-) At the parish level, the Rector works with the vestry in a balance between ordained and lay people.

In the end no form of government satisfies everyone all the time. Consultation can lead to delays - even missed opportunities. Autocratic rule means the opinions and insights of others may be missed. A classic case of this was in our recent Synod debate on if and how the Bishop in Synod might appoint a new assistant Bishop. A fairly unworkable consultative process was put up which was heavily modified to make it more workable. Even our patron saint, St Richard, was denied access to his estates by the King who preferred another candidate, so I guess such controversy has been going on for a long time. I really wonder why we invest so much authority in clergy?

One of the reasons that this question comes about, is I suspect, the "mystical" importance of clergy and their calling, traditionally ascribed to them. I recall being told that my grandmother on my mother's side had the front room where the doctor and the minister were "entertained" if they called - never anyone else. Fortunately some of this aura has dissipated, but it still lingers around those of us who have "gone into the Church". My aura has slipped a little of course :-)

Other people assert that clergy are no different from ordinary folk - and it is certainly true that the same sins beset members of the clergy as anyone else. The more vocal say that the clergy are just part of the laity - the whole people of God. One particular member of Synod, the widow of a member of the clergy, stridently tells anyone who cares to listen - this, in no uncertain terms.

I suspect that the difficulty is that all this has been fostered by the conception that what we do in church is the most important thing - when the reality is that the most important ministry is what we do after we leave. There is simply no point coming to church and then treating others as lesser human beings after we leave.

What then is the importance of Church? Many years ago, Catherine got involved in a "Penguins" group, the female counterpart to "Rostrum", where people can gain confidence to speak in public. She too gained a lot of skills through her association with them, but after a time we changed parishes and she did other things. And I reflected then, "Penguins" is necessary to give people skills to use in their everyday life. Some are called to keep the organisation going - all are called to use the skills they get elsewhere.

So there are people called to keep the organisation of the Church going, so that others can be lifted up and (hopefully) more able to love in their day to day lives. If the love doesn't extend beyond the community of faith, then the plans God has for a peaceful society are thwarted, of course to our own detriment. It is not that the Church is the only group committed to fostering a more loving and egalitarian society - schools, governments, as well as many others have this as their aim. Indeed it really is the proper aim of taxation, though we usually only begrudgingly admit it.

But the reality is that the Church is not especially able to get people to change. It has been the observation of some - that marriage often serves to knock some of the sharp edges off people. If marriage only serves to possibly do this, the Church is proportionately less likely to achieve much worthwhile in people's lives unless they actually seek change. I mean, I have about an hour a week to bring some influence to bear :-)

God can judge between sheep and sheep, and this is a neat trick if ever there was one. I have never considered myself much of a judge of other people - but perhaps I'm putting myself down. I suspect that a good shepherd would be able to tell a sheep from a goat, though I have read somewhere that the differences were much less in Palestine in the time of Jesus. It is clear that God can differentiate, though in the end perhaps there will not be much differentiation to do. There will be those who welcome the prospect of eternal life with others, and those who won't.

Today is our Patronal Festival. We celebrate that we are a Church which spans all ages as well as our own. But we do not look at St Richard or any other member of the clergy as having special status before God. It is what we do when we leave this place that is important, for the life of the whole community.

The "good old days" weren't really. I was only commenting last week about the old adage "children are meant to be seen and not heard" - and how far we have moved from this, and to our benefit. Indeed perhaps more people did come to church, but that was very often when there wasn't television or radio or very much else to do. People today are taught to think for themselves, and so there is a real possibility for love and informed commitment these days. Of course it doesn't always work.

It is easy to look back and venerate the contribution that the saints of old have made. In this place there are still "foundation members" alive and with us. But let me say that putting together "bricks and mortar" is the easy thing. People can pitch in and work together, when there is something concrete to do. The harder thing is something which faced them as much as it faces each of us - are we merciful towards those different from ourselves?

We face an enormous task as we try by our loving to heal the hurts the Church has inflicted in the past. We will have to compete with television, radio, playstations, the internet, and a multitude of other distractions. We work under the added difficulty - our "plant" needs only maintenance - hardly the excitement a building program would generate. Now the task has been made even more difficult, as society has been made aware of the mistreatment of children by a minority of clergy. We will all be tarnished with the same brush - we cannot be trusted. More and more western society is becoming more private. Individual's rights reign supreme. But we in the Church have had a part to play in bringing this about, as we have often been exclusive and sometimes abusive. I believe there is little point in bemoaning the fact that others seem so little interested in commitment to an organisation, or to being rostered to do something when their experience of the Church has been negative rather than positive.

Some time ago I saw one of those "flash back" wry comments on how society has "progressed", and this one went something like, in the good old days divorce was something only actors and actresses in America did. Perhaps we might stop and think that some of the adventurous lifestyles of the "bold and the beautiful" have encouraged some people to extricate themselves from abusive relationships. I am not commending divorce, but I cannot see that God wants an abusive relationship to continue, world without end. Amen.

Today we celebrate our patronal festival, and we celebrate the fact that here in this place we have a caring community of people, ready to listen and to foster the ministries everyone has to offer. We rejoice that we are not alone in our faith, that there are others around us who believe in a prodigal God. It is this that is the essence of being the sheep that God chooses, that we are prepared and rejoice to be with others.


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