“Thank you so much to the Wardens elect, and to the outgoing churchwardens for the ministry you exercise week in and week out. ” That was the opening line to Bishop Steven’s annual Charge to the churchwardens who tirelessly serve our parishes. His words are applicable to every churchwarden in the Diocese:
In the first week of September, as you will remember, I made a walk of prayer across the city of Oxford and visited every parish church. I remember the warmth of your welcome, especially from churchwardens. I saw at first hand the care invested in the buildings. I heard something about all the many different activities which take place on seven days of the week and of the great challenges you face and the joys of ordinary church life. We prayed together for the renewal of catechesis and the rekindling of faith in every place. I made marks in chalk near the entrance to every church, holy graffiti, much of which is still there.
I am planning a similar walk this September across the deaneries of Berkshire in the first week of September to get to know a different area of the Diocese of Oxford in a deeper way.
We meet for this Visitation service on the Feast Day of St. Matthias. Matthias reminds us that God often calls people into service at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. I would imagine that very few of the churchwardens here this evening put themselves forward. I would imagine very few ran for office or campaigned for the role.
Most will have been asked to serve by clergy and congregations and will, mostly reluctantly, have agreed, not because you are unwilling but because you do not want to put yourself forward above others. You enter into the task for the first time or for another year carefully and prayerfully, wanting to give your best energies to the role. Know that you have the support of your clergy and your parishes who know you and who have seen qualities in you which they respect.
Some of the opportunities and challenges you face are clear already. Some will only reveal themselves in the coming year. Know that in each one you are held in prayer and love, that advice and help is available, that God will equip you for the task to which God has called you. A warden is someone who holds something in trust on behalf of the community not just of the church but of the parish. The Church is here for every person in the Diocese and all those who come to study and to visit. The role of churchwarden is an ancient and vital role.
I have three elements to my charge this evening to the Wardens and to everyone who exercises ministry, lay and ordained:
The first is to remember to watch over yourselves as well as over the Church of Jesus Christ.
There is a moment later in Acts when Paul calls together the ministers of the Church in Ephesus. He looks back over his ministry among them and he gives his own charge to those who will serve the church in every generation. At its centre are these words:
“Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers”.
We might translate that word as wardens.
All Christian leadership is founded upon this principle that the foundation for being able to watch over the church is being able also to watch over ourselves: to take care of ourselves in the midst of challenging and demanding roles. To pace ourselves. To not wear ourselves out in ministry. To be resilient so that we can support others. To give due time to our families and close friends. To take days off and holidays. To seek and accept the care and support of others. To note the warning signs of stress or illness and seek support. To understand that God loves you as well as everyone else in the Church. To be prepared to live gently.
Much is written and spoken of about the stress on clergy and rightly so. To be a priest is a demanding and difficult calling. But lay officers also bear their share of stress and difficulty. Learning a new ministry is often about learning to take care of yourself in that ministry for the sake of all you are called to do.
My second charge is to remember always to take care of the weak and the vulnerable in both church and community.
There is a moment in the gospels where the disciples are pre-occupied and arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus takes a little child and stands beside him or her, in the very centre of the group. Jesus says to them:
“Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, for the least among you is the greatest”.
We are living through painful and difficult times as a church as together we repent of the terrible evils of the abuse of children in church and in society. The safeguarding guidelines and training are all in place but as the recent IICSA report shows us there is much we still have to do to make things right. The responsibility falls on all of us to help our churches to be safe places now and in the future. One of the ways in which we do that is by placing the weak and the vulnerable at the centre of our thinking and of our actions as we exercise imperfect leadership of an imperfect church.
As churchwardens, as clergy, we need to take safeguarding seriously. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, including our own mistakes and set care and safeguarding of the vulnerable at the heart of who we are.
Care the vulnerable will include care for the poor and the homeless. Congratulations on all that has been achieved again this year in the Oxford Winter Night Shelter which I visited a few weeks ago. Care for the vulnerable will include building churches where people can talk about issues and questions of mental health and wellbeing and find help and support.
We can also make people vulnerable as we wrestle with our theological questions. I have set clear expectations of inclusion and respect towards LGBTI+ people and their families in this diocese. They must not be left feeling on the margins of our church.
Jesus takes a small child and places her in the midst of the quarrelling disciples who are playing their games of power and he says: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me”.
Let’s be that kind of church. Take care of the vulnerable.
My third charge is this: make room for others.
To be a churchwarden is to be given a position of trust. Jesus tells a parable about a man who goes to a far country and gives talents to his servants he leaves behind. Two invest the money and return it with interest when their Lord returns. The third buries his treasure in the ground and returns it just as he received it. That is not the way.
The Lord of the Church is entrusting to you the well being of the parish churches of this Diocese. Set as a goal for your time as Warden handing on to others a church which is in a better place that you receive it this evening. You may have to focus on the care of the building. You may focus on the wider mission to the community. You may focus on environmental issues. You may focus on renewing ministry to children and young people. You will, I hope, focus on learning and teaching faith and making new disciples. Make room for others.
I have observed churchwardens over many years in many different places. There are Churchwardens who put so much into the role and are so enthusiastic that they gradually take over and accrue tasks to themselves. Power and influence and gifts become concentrated in a small number of people. It becomes increasingly difficult for others to find a role and find their place.
There are churchwardens who see their role very differently. These are the wardens who constantly make room for others: who encourage others first to come in and next to be involved. They give away their roles and ministries. They spot new people to be stewards and for the coffee rota. They have an eye to training up their successors. They give away power and responsibility. They constantly encourage others. They make room.
It is striking in the Acts of the Apostles that we never hear of Matthias again after he is appointed as one of the twelve. I wonder if that might be because he is so good as raising others up in ministry and developing their gifts and making room. I expect like all of us, he was often overwhelmed by his role and needed to depend on the grace and love of God.
Watch over yourselves. Take care of the vulnerable. Make room for others.
Thank you for all you have given and all you will give to building up the Church of Jesus Christ. Watch over yourselves in this ministry. Take care of the vulnerable. Make room for others.
And may the God of Matthias and of Frideswide, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ bless us and fill us with his Spirit now and always.
14 May 2019