Sermon for the Collation of Robin King, Mina Smallman and John Perumbalath as Archdeacons

Chelmsford Cathedral 15 September 2013

Well, ever since the television sitcom Rev introduced us to the fiendishly, Blackadderish cad of pectoral cross wearing Archdeacon Robert not only has it become cool to be an Archdeacon, we have had to put a separate column on their expenses form to cover taxi fares. I fear the recently acquired glamour of the role may have gone to their heads. And what’s worse for us bishops here in this diocese; we are about to be seriously outnumbered.

But the creators of Rev were not the first to think that an Archdeacon’s ministry might in many respects be episcopal. An Archdeacon has always had their own jurisdiction for all sorts of responsibilities for the safe management and running of the church, but in this great diocese of Chelmsford, we believe that all ordained ministry is best understood as oversight, enabling and encouraging the ministry of all God’s people, and in particular we believe that we will be better able to meet the challenges of our vast and varied diocese by bringing effective leadership closer to the parishes. This is the reason we have created three new archdeaconries. This is the reason Robin, John and Mina are collated as the new Archdeacons of Stansted, Barking and Southend today.

When we first discussed these proposals at our Synod two years ago, one Area Dean, who had better remain nameless, said, Bishop if the answer is more archdeacons, you are clearly asking the wrong question. Actually he fully supported the proposals, but like many of us, couldn’t resist a good gag. But the point needs to be addressed. Why more leadership, when parish posts are being reduced. Let me lay out the answer. First of all, these new posts are paid for by reductions in central staff elsewhere, so there is no increase to our budget or to parish share, and no posts are taken away from parishes. Secondly, and this is the really important point, although numbers of stipendiary clergy are going down, numbers of ministers is going up. Whereas the ministry in yesterday’s church invariably meant a Vicar, and possibly a Reader and then a willing band of volunteers to help out where necessary, now our whole understanding of ministry is properly rooted in the biblical revelation that ministry belongs to everyone, and that every Christian has a share in this ministry, and that each of us is called to use our gifts and passions in the service of the gospel. And from this theological vision many other ministries have developed. Our Reader scheme is reborn this year as training for Licensed Lay Ministry. We have introduced a scheme for Authorised Lay Preachers. We already train pastoral assistants and Evangelists, and it is our aspiration that every single benefice in the dioceses has a trained evangelism enabler. If you add in the huge flourishing of ordained self-supporting ministry and the challenges of a rapidly changing culture, and pioneer ministry and the need for us to plant new churches into new neighbourhoods and into the networks in which most of us today actually live our lives, then it is not so hard to draw the conclusion that we need a different sort of leadership to serve a different and more missionally focused church. Hence our new archdeacons.

And this change is not just happening at the so called ‘centre’ .  I want you to know that I continue to believe that the centre of the church is the local Christian community, the Eucharistic church gathered around the table of the Lord, therefore gathered by the Lord himself. All our churches are therefore beginning to explore how they might better serve their locality by forming what we are calling Mission and Ministry units, that is communities of Christians and churches under the oversight of a minister and enabling us not just to sustain our life in every parish, but develop new life and new expressions of church.

There is, I believe, a gospel paradox at work here: in the Chelmsford diocese we have too many churches; and the solution is to have more! What I mean by this is we have too many churches where the model of church is a Vicar and building. And this cannot be sustained either theologically or financially. And we need more: a new biblical and theologically coherent model of church, where the church is the people of God, not the minister and the building,  a worshipping and witnessing community serving its locality and , where appropriate, developing new expressions of life and Christian community.

It is for this reason: to take seriously the constraints we are working with; and the great missionary challenge facing us; that we are renewing and reimaging ministry at every level of church life. And the first significant step in this change is our seven new archdeaconries, giving us a greater sense of belonging at a more local level, and then releasing our seven Archdeacons to work with Area Deans and Lay Chairs in establishing our Units and developing our life.

Today is an exciting and hugely significant day in the life of our diocese. It answers the question about leadership structures that our predecessors have been asking for forty years. But it is not the end of the story. Our archdeacons will now be more available to the parishes they serve. And whether they arrive by taxi or on foot, they are here to help all of us become the church that we believe God is calling us to be in this day and for this culture.

Yes, surprisingly, the answer is more archdeacons: a different sort of leadership for a different sort of church serving a different sort of world.
And finally, let me address the googly bowled at us today by today’s Lectionary. It is a parable that many have struggled with, and I fear that some cynical souls may see in the crooked cunning of the unjust steward an archdeacon in the making. On the contrary I want to tell you that it is Christ, for the Lord praises the unjust steward whose conniving ingenuity wins him friendship and respect. Yes, it is a very strange story, but we have a very strange God. His grace at work in Christ, and supremely at work though the cross, is no lover of respectability or manners. As the great American theologian Robert Farrar Capon who died this week put it: “He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.” The forces of righteousness and respectability combined against him, the church itself still has trouble coping with his unorthodox inclusivity, but Jesus remains our only mediator and advocate precisely because he meets us, shrewdly, in in our confused and muddled lostness. And there in the midst of it he plants his cross.

So, if like Jeremiah in our first reading, you new archdeacons, my dear colleagues and comrades in Christ, find yourself saying, I’m too young, or too inexperienced, or too sinful, or too thick, then I will say, look to Jesus who has already by his cross and resurrection done all that is necessary to draw, not just Essex and East London, but the whole world to himself; and we his church, this ragtag, keystone cops, barmy army people of God are simply called to live this redeeming truth out beautifully and shrewdly so that others may have access to the only free lunch on offer: the wedding banquet of the Lamb, foreshadowed in the Eucharist of the Church.

So Robin, Mina, John, thank you for responding to this call. Know you and your families have the support and the prayers of all of us. Do not worry about what to do, or what to say, because the Lord has already done it and already said it, and it is his words and his deeds that we long to hear and see in you so that together we may witness to Christ and point the world to his cross. Indeed it shouldn’t just be bishops wearing crosses. And I don’t mind if Archdeacons do too. We are each called to bear the cross of Christ and proclaim him Lord of all.

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