Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of my ordination as a Baptist pastor. After all these years, there are a few reflections I would like to share.
I’m still a pastor. My initial sense of calling came when I was very young and it was very much shaped by the passion and vision of the 1960s and 70s, when in every aspect of society we lived by Bob Dylan’s words ‘the times they are a’changing’.
It was a time of immense creativity, as social traditions and political structures were challenged, modified and in many cases transformed. At the time of my ordination in 1976, I was passionately committed to the idea of ‘the servant church’, a local community model on which I wrote a Master of Theology thesis. For me, the church was to be all about participation in the community, envisioning what God is doing in all aspects of life—neighbourhood and home, work, sport, politics and business. People’s lives in their totality are the arena of faith, not just stuff that happens on Sundays for an hour or two. So the gathered church is the gathering of all that, into prayer and thanks, into learning and sharing, support and challenge.
After all these years I still believe all that, with the same passion. It’s fundamental to this vision that the church is not primarily about the church. It’s reason for existing is for something God is doing in all the world: it’s the idea that Jesus called ‘the reign of God’ or ‘the commonwealth of God’. It’s a vision of life in the world with a creative, inviting and life-affirming God. For me, it means ethical, healing, celebratory life. The actual expression of this in ‘church’ should have these elements as fundamental characteristics, too.
So, after all these years, I still believe: in God and what God is doing. My faith is not primarily in the church, it is in the living God whom I know as holy trinity: the mystery at the heart of all things, known in three magnificent and inter-twined ways. God is the creative source of all that is, continually creating and calling into possibility new dimensions of life (all life, not just human being). God is also working to restore and heal what is broken or is as yet unfulfilled. The life of Jesus is for me the supreme expression of this dimension of God: reconciling, healing, and restoring—again, not just for individuals, and certainly not just in regard to moral misdeeds, but so much more. And then God is also the mysterious ‘spirit’, who enables the whole creation to live, to move towards its true being and destiny—providing and evoking new possibilities and renewing the hope of life itself. Once again, this is not just for individuals or for humans alone, but is the very essence of community, the community of all life. God is this community and as we live with this vision we realize that we are indeed alive in God. We come from and go to this life.
It is only on this basis that after all these years I say I still believe in the church. I do not believe in any specific form of the church as the church. I am a radical protestant, a dissenter from that form of faith which defines specific structures and ideas of ministry (and therefore ordination) as definitive of the church. On the contrary, I believe in the freedom of the church to be responsive to every place and time, to what God is doing here and now, and so also the responsibility of the church always to work out in this time what it should be. I am a Baptist because I believe (even when many Baptists seem ignorant of this fundamental dimension of their historic identity) that this is what it means to be the church: together to read the Jesus message, to pray and reflect upon our situation, and to ask: So what is God doing here and now and what, therefore, should we be and do in response? The community that is responsive in this way and forms itself in this way is the church in which I believe.
As a consequence, after all these years I am still very critical of the church as we see it. When I was younger, I would commonly use a form of prayer which confessed a number of things, including the church’s wealth amongst the poor, and its sometimes trivial and shallow forms of worship. Well, that and so much more. We have to confess the church’s addiction to the past, its appalling abuse of children, women, people of colour, people of other faiths, and again so much more. We have to confess that so often the church has placed itself in the place of God: that is called idolatry. We have to confess that so often the church’s first concern is its own self-preservation. I remember a colleague once saying that it is amazing that the one human institution that professes the idea of resurrection simply cannot let anything die. We could go on: but to list our failings is not the point. What is crucial is to acknowledge our frailty and blindness, and to be open to the possibility of learning from others, healing from God and from life itself, and restoration of hope. No one and no institution is condemned forever to the consequences of our mistakes, unless we choose to be. That is why I do not give up on the church. It is worth being critical of the church, because it is possible for things to change.
Thus, after all these years I am still trying to help the church. I have given much of my life to teaching and training people who might help the church to grow to be more like its calling, more like its founder and more characterized by the Spirit which lives within and around and ahead of it. It is to this calling, to help the church to be the church, that I was and am ordained. Today the language we use for this role has been changed in many quarters, but I still hold to several valuable New Testament terms. We actually can’t do without the term ‘minister’: it does not indicate an office, but rather a role and a calling, to serve the community. The term ‘pastor’, which comes from the idea of shepherding, is another valuable word we must not lose or devalue into an idea of individual care. It has to do with that, sometimes, but is much more about the overall care of the community and its life together. The two inter-twine. I reject utterly the idea of the ordained as somehow special or superior. It is a specific role and calling, but so too is every role and calling—and every Christian should be ordained to their life and calling, and equally held accountable for it, in the life of the community. Baptism is ordination to life in and with God, and the ordination of pastors is a specific development and focussing of that, in a place and for a time, with a people and for those people, that they too might live out their discipleship, individually and collectively.
After all these years I am so deeply grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, the people with whom I have been able to learn and grow, and the sense that God is still at work with us and inviting us into new and creative ways forward.
Thanks be to God.