GSC – Easter 4 2019
Did you know that every bit of England and Wales is chopped up and put within a Church of England parish? You may not know which parish you live in and you may be surprised to find out you actually live in a parish that is different to the one you might think. It doesn’t really matter which parish you live in, you can attend any church you want: the only time people tend to find out which parish they live in is if they want to get married and they come to get the banns called. Then, they need to have the banns called in the church they wish to marry and the parish church where each of the couple live. It’s a rather quaint way to ensure any reasons why the marriage cannot take place are registered and so the priest says, “If anyone knows any reason in law why these two persons may not be joined together in holy matrimony you are to declare it now.” Followed by the awkward pause, of course.
A great benefit of the parish system is that we can say with certainty that everyone in England lives in one and therefore has a parish priest and a parish community praying for them. We my friends, whether we live in the parish or not, are asked to pray for the ten thousand or so souls who live in this mile and a quarter squared that is the parish of St Mary the Virgin. It’s a great example of where structures support pastoral care and where structures reflect our theology, what the Church is saying, and this link I want to think about evening. So in this instance, we want everyone to be part of the Church and to know Jesus better and so everyone in the land is placed in a parish. This same impetus fired up Paul and Barnabas in our first reading.
In that section of the Acts of the Apostles the exclusivity of God’s call to the Jews is crumbling: Paul and Barnabas are gathering together experiences which we’ll hear them present next Sunday as to why the whole world, non-Jews included, need to hear the message of Christ’s Resurrection. Paul and Barnabas realise, as we’ll hear in two weeks’ time at the Sunday Masses, that they then need to relate their experiences to the wider church, such as will see gathered in Jerusalem to discuss what they have experienced and how the whole Church ought to respond to that. These revelations concern the anger of the Jews and their lack of cooperation and welcome of Christ. And it will also involve accounts of how non-Jews had started worshipping the Saviour. But there’s a process involved, inherent in the Church’s life: Paul and Barnabas need to follow the protocols.
On Tuesday this week we will celebrate St Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace Judas, he having failed to ask for forgiveness and killed himself. In this situation, the apostolic structures and the individuals had to be replenished. And it’s a set-up that continues today and we need to be clear that it is not simply a system that could be replaced by a supposedly better system. The presence of Bishops in the Church is essential to the Church’s life and the Church of England has always taught this. The Bishops are to be shepherds to us and whenever we have major celebrations we do this with our Bishop, be it next Sunday when we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, or when just before Easter we gather with the Bishop for the Chrism Mass at St Andrew Holborn, where Bp Jonathan blesses the oils. He is our father in God and I am only here because he cannot be in all his parishes at the same time.
Shepherds have a dual role in the life of the flock, as we learn when we consider the crook that he carries, seen also in the crosier that bishops have with them. It has the curved end to draw the sheep closer and the flat end with which the shepherd can whack away any evil. This is the image our Lord gives us in this evening’s Gospel, the closest thing we have to a Parable in St John’s Gospel. The sheep follow the shepherd and they are subsequently known by the Shepherd, He is close to their heart and they on His.
It’s an image Jesus’ listeners will have known developed in Ezekiel 34. There, as the destruction of Jerusalem six hundred years before the birth of Jesus is being prepared for, the criticism is made of the shepherds who have abandoned their sheep. These shepherds who are criticised in this instance are as much the political leaders as religious ones: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” It’s a condemnation that bishops and priests must hear and be warned of but it is also a gauntlet thrown down to all of us to do these very things. Is there someone from our congregation, from a community you’re part of, to whom you could reach out? To whom could you communicate the love of the Good Shepherd?
There are other structures too: we’re part of East Haringey deanery synod and this parish has representatives who then elect representatives onto Diocesan synod from across the Diocese of London. General Synod is then a parliament-like organisation that helps steer the bishops towards what is God’s will. It’s a rather tired system I suspect and not one that is ordered by our faith, it is accidental to it, not essential. We also have our own structures as a parish in the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda for traditionalist Catholics in the Church of England. As part of this Forward in Faith has a national assembly every November and it might be that you want to join Forward in Faith, which you can find means of doing for £30 a year on their website.
I think three things have emerged that these structures provide us. They speak of the universal call of God, they enable our participation in the life of the Church, and they guarantee the handing on of the deposit of the faith. On Saturday this week the Church commemorates Pope St John I and he teaches us a lot about bishops and structures and the purposes they have that I’ve been talking about this evening and so I finish with him. Pope John I died in the year 526, a time of social disintegration and political chaos. Pope John and the Roman Emperor were good Christians. The ruler of Italy, conversely, was a heretic, an Arian, someone part of a sect that said Jesus was not God. The Arians were being attacked and persecuted by the Roman Empire and so the ruler of Italy asked Pope John to go the Emperor in Constantinople and plead for clemency and kindness. The Emperor and Pope John agreed that Arianism was a dangerous threat to Christianity, which had to be kept out and must not poison the beauty of the faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But Pope St John was willing to argue that they, the Arians, the heretics be treated with respect and with love. It shows us the life of a true pastor, the structures working. He ended up being imprisoned by the Emperor to whom he had gone to ask for leniency and kindness and he wasted away in a prison cell so the Church celebrates him as a martyr.
May St John pray for us that we might work hard to ensure the Church, her structures and the arrangements we have here at the Good Shepherd are focused on extending care to people, preaching the unchanging Good News of Jesus Christ and drawing many more to participate in the life of the Church here. Amen.