Of the many exciting developments here at St. Mary’s surely the most exciting is the arrival of our new curate, Timothy. In just a week he will return to us having completed his MA and will begin his three years here in what he will find to be a continuous learning process. I began that process seven years ago, although mine was somewhat speeded up by Robert Atwell’s departure to become Bishop of Stockport. This meant we had an interregnum less than a year after I began my time here. Short of Marjorie being called to the house of bishops – well, you never know! – it’s unlikely that the same thing will happen to Timothy.
To begin with it was all fine, as I came under Linda’s wing, and a very kind and capable wing it was too, but then in June 2008 I was priested. For those of you unaccustomed to church language, this is the point when, a year after you are ordained, the bishop lays hands on you once again to make you a priest and thus able to celebrate communion. Once this had happened the church wardens made it clear that it was time for me to take on my full share of duties. This meant me taking the 8am and 10.30 eucharists one week and Linda the other. It was then that the full weight of responsibility I’d assumed hit me. I remember waking up in panic the night before my first Sunday of “flying solo”. Who was going to lay out all the stuff for communion I wondered, and would they turn up? If they didn’t, where on earth would I find things? What about intercessions and readings? Who was doing them? Would they turn up? And what about stewards, and coffee after the service and so on and so forth. Round and round all this went in my head until I’d got myself into a right old stew. I was now realising that, a year into my time here, I didn’t have a blind clue as to how the place worked.
Of course, everything went like clockwork, as it generally does, but from that moment on I have never taken for granted the extraordinary, often unseen effort that gets this show on the road, week in, week out. This experience speaks to me of what the church is really about – a coming together of people to pool their resources to serve a common aim, the result being greater than the sum of the parts. Above all, it is an exercise in interdependency. This was the big lesson of my fearful musings that night – the realisation that for all my dog collar and three years’ training, for all the laying on of hands by bishops, I was only going to be as effective as a priest as the efforts of others would allow me to be. Likewise, the extent to which I was effective as a priest, would be significant in enabling others to develop their distinctive role both in the church and their lives more generally.
This insight seems to be the thrust of what St. Paul is saying in this morning’s reading from Romans:
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”
There is then – or should be – an essential equality in our relationships within the church. As Paul puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians, God has so arranged the body that:
‘…..there might be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all members rejoice together.”
Sadly, this truth is all too easily forgotten, with far too much emphasis often given to the clergy as the embodiment of the church, as if the other members don’t matter that much. It’s easy to see how this happens, for the visual focus of worship features clergy more than anyone else, most obviously at the eucharist, but as I learnt a few years ago, this can be misleading.
We were on holiday in the US paying our first ever visit to Chicago. We stayed in a lovely B&B which was right next door to a church, so I had absolutely no excuse not to go! It would have been recognisable to anyone here at St. Mary’s, being at the high end of things. The clergy wore fancy vestments, there was incense as I recall, and the priest celebrated the eucharist with all due decorum. But was there anyone there to greet me as a newcomer at the beginning of the service? No. Was there anyone to shake my hand at the end and have a few friendly words with me or offer a cup of coffee? Again, no. Such was the unfriendliness of the place I felt the eucharist had been robbed of its significance, feeling as it did far far from being a sacrament of grace.
Nothing could have illustrated better the truth that the church is about so much more than what the clergy do or don’t do, or however well they do it or don’t do it. For the extent to which the church is a place of warmth, excitement and welcome is in large measure dependent upon everyone who is a member playing their part and making their contribution according to the gifts that they have been given, however small or hidden from view they may be.
In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus challenging the disciples with the question “who do you say that I am”? Eager and impetuous as ever, Peter replies that he is the Messiah and for that affirmation Jesus tells him that he will be the rock on which the church is built. Now this is significant because in recent weeks the gospel readings have been at pains to stress how weak and vulnerable the disciples were in general, and Peter was in particular. One of those gospel stories was the feeding of the 5,000 and it’s got some interesting things to tell us about our life together as the church.
You may recall that the disciples were all for sending the crowd away to find something to eat only to have Jesus say to them “you give them something to eat”, to which the disciples reply, rather pathetically, “but we’ve only got five loaves and two fish”. Now, please don’t get hung up here on whether a “miracle” really happened or not. If you do, you will miss out on so much of the meaning of this and other stories. To obsess about such things is to ignore Jesus’ own way of teaching which was to teach by way of parables. The point about such stories is that they are deliberately ambiguous, leaving as they do the hearer to work out the meaning for themselves.
In pondering the different ways in which we might interpret the story I came across one offered by the biblical scholar William Barclay. He thinks it quite likely that many in the crowd would have set off for the journey to hear Jesus with provisions of their own but that they wouldn’t have thought of sharing what they had with others had Jesus not taken the lead by offering to share what the disciples had brought along with them. Looked at this way Barclay says, the miracle was not the literal multiplication of loaves and fish but the transformation of naturally selfish people into ones willing to share for the benefit of all.
What better illustration could there be of what it is to be church? For the real lesson is surely how what may seem to us like a very meagre offering – “but we’ve only got five loaves and two fish” – becomes so much more when shared with others. Now you may think that, like those first disciples, you’ve not got much to offer, that others are richer, cleverer and more able than you, but the church works in a different way from the rest of the world, thank goodness. As St. Paul is at such pains to remind us, the church – when it true to itself – honours and values the contribution of all.
We are blessed at St. Mary’s with some outstanding examples of people volunteering their time and their gifts and it’s this that gives the place its sense of purpose and energy. I have a hunch though, that we’ve only just begun to realise our potential as a church. So when you find yourself feeling that you’ve got little or nothing to offer, just remember those words of the first disciples – “but we’ve only got five loaves and two fish” – and what became of their supposedly meagre offering when it was put into Jesus’ hands.