Godly integrity + Godly relationships = Godly influence
A reflection from a country archdeacon
I have now been ordained just over 21 years. All of my ordained life has been served in the Diocese of Bendigo. I now find myself as the Archdeacon of Bendigo and Vicar General of the Diocese. This involves me being in regular contact with the Bishop, being on a wide range of diocesan committees, offering pastoral support to various clergy as well as the leadership of one of the few growing parishes in our diocese.
Over the years, it has felt at times that I have been serving two masters. Sometimes the diocesan demands have meant that I haven't devoted the time needed to grow the parish as quickly as I would have liked. At other times my serving in the parish has led to frustration at a diocesan level where I have not had enough time to think clearly through key issues.
In a diocese like Bendigo there are not the finances to employ full time archdeacons or specialist ministries, and so clergy with any sort of ability are drawn away from their parishes to the detriment of their local ministries. Yet without those clergy offering their time and energy, the diocese could not function at any great level of effectiveness.
In our Diocese of just less than 40 active clergy we have the whole range of theological positions represented. As evangelicals we are working directly with both liberal and Anglo-Catholic clergy. When the cultural and theological divide is so great, how can one work meaningfully with and have a ministry to other clergy? There are a number of principles which I have found useful in this task:
1. Living the cross is as crucial as preaching the cross.
Discussions with clergy can be so frustrating. We can make the mistake of avoiding debating key issues in an endeavour to claim what in reality is a superficial unity. Alternatively, we can get drawn into the battle lines, lining up opposite each other and firing our bullets and seeing who can inflict the most damage. We then retreat into our corners and mutter about the heresies we have just heard espoused.
My approach is to model the cross in my life and ministry. First, Jesus' death for us on the cross and the subsequent offer of forgiveness for the repentant, ought to be modelled in our relationships. Just as we come to Christ through the confession of our sins, so too we draw closer in relationships with others as we are willing to admit our faults to them. In particular, a willingness to apologise to those we have hurt mirrors our relationship with God. Similarly, modelling forgiveness towards those who have hurt us reflects the Father's attitude to us. This may sound obvious but I continue to be amazed at how few Christians (and clergy) actually have the courage to say, 'Sorry'.
Secondly, I have discovered that winning can often mean losing and losing can often mean winning. Christ's great victory on the cross was in human terms an abject failure. It was in Christ's weakness that God was acting most powerfully. I believe the church is often consumed with people who have to win. My experience is that victories are often hollow and can cause great division and hurt. However, God in His amazing graciousness can pull His victory out of the jaws of defeat.
Similarly the cross is about the grace of God acting in history to bring about his will. Sometimes, in our efforts to defend the Gospel, we appear to convince ourselves that success depends on our efforts alone. Our faithfulness is important, but God will work out his will.
There is a great danger in seeking to control an agenda so much that we fail to allow God to work his will in his way. One of the remarkable aspects of Jesus' walk to the cross was that he willingly chose the cross, yet at the same time allowed others to control the situation.
It is in fact a freeing thing to be able to faithfully present a position to the Bishop, or to senior staff, and then to pray and believe that God will do his work whether your view is accepted or not. It can be difficult, but working with and supporting the Bishop despite disagreeing with him or other diocesan leadership, may in fact create the conditions to be heard on other issues.
2. Non – evangelicals respect the Bible
It is clear to me that respecting the Bible is different from believing it to be the ultimate authority. At the same time, we can rejoice in the power of God to speak through His word to specific situations. In general, most Christians and clergy I deal with believe that the Bible at least contains God's word, and are willing to listen for his voice through the scriptures, even if they question its authority. This then gives us the opportunity to use scripture to speak to any particular situation.
In the pastoral situation, I remain convinced that reading appropriate Scriptures to allow God to speak, is the most powerful tool we have (2 Timothy 3:16 & 17). Furthermore, every time I use the Scriptures my confidence in them is increased. I can be sure too that it is in fact God who is speaking, not me. The joy comes when we hear others acknowledge the voice of God through his word. My hope in sharing the Scriptures with fellow clergy is that their own confidence in the word of God will be developed.
3.The Value of Prayer
After I was appointed archdeacon, I realised that the distances to be travelled to visit fellow clergy would make regular contact impractical. I therefore decided to ring a number of clergy each Saturday evening to check on how they were going and to pray with them.
Sometimes the conversations are superficial, at other times real concerns are raised. However, almost without fail, the fact that someone else was praying for their ministry was valued. I cannot think of a time where my offer to pray was rejected.
The church can be dragged down with fear and suspicion. There are barriers, significant theological issues, which divide us, and these cannot be minimised. However, some barriers are theological and others are ones created by either our own perceptions or those with whom we disagree.
By living the way of the cross as much as preaching it; by using the scriptures wisely and pastorally; and by praying with those with whom we disagree; we can break down some of those barriers. In so doing we can make a valuable contribution right across the whole range of theological perspectives in the Anglican church.
Stephen May is a country archdeacon and Rector of the Parish of Eaglehawk in the Diocese of Bendigo.