The Bishop of Oxford’s charge to those about to be ordained priest
“Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel. They share with the Bishop in the oversight of the Church, delighting in its beauty and rejoicing in its well being. They are to set the pattern of the Good Shepherd always before them as the pattern of their calling”.
You will, I know, have pondered those words carefully over many years. They form part of the introduction to the ordination of priests. The language of the Good Shepherd is prominent. The Bishop’s charge to priests begins with the same image: “Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent”. And again at the end of the charge, immediately before we pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit the image recurs:
“Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross”.
You are called to give your life as a shepherd to Christ’s precious flock, setting the pattern of the Good Shepherd before you. In these final days before ordination, I want to encourage you to dwell on this image and carry it with you into the coming days and weeks and years as you fulfil the ministry to which God has called you as servant and shepherd.
There are many biblical roots to the image but one of them is the passage at the end of Matthew 9 and it is this passage I want to explore with you. Matthew orders his gospel in a particular way. Here we are in a transition between the section describing the ministry of Jesus alone to the section introducing the ministry of the disciples and apostles. You will remember that Matthew’s gospel is all about what it means to be a disciple.
Here the gospel introduces this calling and the naming of the twelve called and sent. Matthew is very deliberate in what he calls the twelve. You may remember that Mark 3.14 uses the beautiful phrase: “to be with him and to be sent out” to capture the great rhythm of Christian life and ministry. Matthew does a similar thing by using two different titles for the twelve. In 10.1 they are the twelve disciples: the emphasis is on being with Jesus, travelling with him, being formed. In 10.2 they are apostles. The emphasis is on being sent out to serve the mission of God, to do what Jesus does.
And here the gospel introduces the second of five great block of Jesus’ teaching: the commissioning of the twelve and the handbook of Christian mission and ministry.
We begin with a short summary passage, exactly echoing 4.23 which introduces the Sermon on the Mount:
“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness”
You and I are called and commissioned as disciple-apostles, in the line of the twelve. In the next verse Matthew sets out the deep reason for our calling:
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”
There is something very important here. According to Matthew, the roots of our calling do not lie in the needs of the Church. You are not being ordained for the sake of the Church alone. The roots of your calling lie in the needs of the world and the mission of God in the world and in God’s love and compassion for the world. “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son….”
As you exercise ministry as a priest you will find that you have both good and bad experiences of the church. The Church of Jesus Christ can be beautiful and amazing and remarkable and take your breath away. Usually in the ordinary weft and weave of local church life and every day saints. The Church of Jesus Christ can be frustrating and perplexing and remarkably difficult to serve.
But the roots of our calling do not lie in the call to serve the Church. The roots of your calling lie here in Jesus’ contemplation of the crowds: in watching and waiting and looking and listening to all the people of the world.
Jesus’s actions are grounded in this contemplation: looking and listening. Jesus holds together in tension two things. On the one hand is his vision of God, the love of God for every person in creation and his vision of the kingdom of justice and peace and healing. Jesus has been to every place proclaiming this good news. The kingdom of God is a vision for the flourishing of human life and human society. It is not a vision for the Church, but a vision for the world.
Jesus holds this vision of God and of the kingdom in tension and counterpoint with what he sees around him in all the cities and villages where he has been. He sees the crowds. They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The Greek words are interesting. The English translation is alliterative like the original but it misses something.
The verb translated harassed is “skullo”. It’s a strong term. It means originally flayed. It carries the meaning of being ground down, deeply weary, oppressed even, worn out. The word translated helpless is “ripto”. “Ripto” means to throw. This is the passive form so “ripto” means cast down, lying helpless and exhausted on the ground. A worn out flock of sheep. There is no motivation, the fight has been knocked out of them, there is no purpose and direction, people cannot help themselves.
For that reason, the crowds, the world around Jesus, are like sheep without a shepherd. Life is meant to be like the kingdom, knowing God’s love and joy and peace. It is actually experienced as being ground down and worn out and too difficult.
This is the reason Jesus calls the disciple-apostles. This is the reason Jesus calls deacons and priests: to minister to the world and to form the Church for its life and mission in the world.
We are called as priests to sustain the community of the faithful by word and sacrament but that is not an end in itself. We are to sustain the community of the faithful by word and sacrament so that all may grow into the fulness of Christ and be a living sacrifice. As priests we are to form a Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.
One of our principal responsibilities in ministry is to renew and watch over our own vocation and motivation and the vocation and motivation of the Church. Unless we pay attention to our own calling and hold the big picture we will be overwhelmed by the small details. The local church and the wider church in every generation has a tendency to lose its sense of identity and vision. Part of your ministry will be to recall the Church to its roots in small ways and in large ones.
So you may be charged in this next part of your curacy with bringing fresh vision to a daughter church or to work with children and young people. You may be entrusted with renewing catechesis or exploring a new piece of community service. In time you will move on to posts of wider responsibility. You will be responsible for renewing the vision of the Church in a benefice or a deanery. You may be called to work on a wider canvas still.
The temptation in those moments is to begin with the Church and its story and its resources and to express that vision only in terms of the parish or organisation.
According to Matthew, this is not what Jesus does. Jesus begins, as it were in two places at once. He nurtures a fresh vision of God and of the kingdom of God in his own prayer and in his proclamation of the kingdom. At the same time he watches and listens to the lived reality of people’s experiences. Life should be like this. Life and experience is actually like this: the crowds are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Holding in tension God’s purpose for human life on the one hand and the lived experience on the other is where we find renewal in our vocation and renewal in the vision of the Church.
That will mean in the ordering of our ministry across the whole of our lives we have to do two things. We need continually to nurture our sense of God and of the kingdom of God. That happens through prayer and scripture and sacrament and retreat and spiritual direction and good reading and conversation and learning. We need continually to look and listen and watch the crowds in the place where we are: to understand their experiences, to listen to why they are harassed and helpless and to use the best tools at our disposal to listen and understand the times in which we live.
As we nurture our sense and vision of God most of all in Jesus Christ and as we listen to our culture so we are equipped to sustain the community of the faithful in word and sacrament to be formed as a Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.
When you become the Bishop of a Diocese, the Archbishop of the Province gives you a charge. The charge is the distilled wisdom from the many hours of listening and reflecting in the discernment process. It forms a job description for the new Bishop.
The first line of the Archbishops charge to me as the Bishop of Oxford is this:
“You are to bring vision and life, creativity and energy to the diocese’s mission and ministry, enabling all, lay and ordained to realise the joy of the gospel and the workings of the Holy Spirit through the Church, and you are to lead the diocese and its people in navigating their response to their call to Christian witness”.
Over the last two years I have been seeking to lead the diocese and its people to navigate their response to their call to Christian witness. Two things have been important in that process. The first has been to nurture a picture of God and a vision of God and God’s kingdom. We have been exploring together what it means to be Christ-like especially through the beatitudes. That has been a personal journey as well as one I am leading for others. The second has been to listen to our culture, to the world, to people who are harassed and helpless. For me that listening has been in all kinds of ways but particularly through my exploration of artificial intelligence and the window that has given me on the particular ways people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
The crowds of our day are isolated, exposed, often lonely, fearful of the future. Mental illness is rife, especially among the young. There is no time and space for reflection.
In that tension, a clear vision for the life of the Church is reformed. Contemplative, compassionate, courageous: a Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.
When we see like that we do not lose hope. Rather we see how much the vision of God connects with the needs of the world.
“Then he said to his disciples, The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into his harvest field.”
We are labourers in God’s harvest. We are here because others have asked the Lord of the Harvest to send us. Now I am sending you. You are to set the Good Shepherd always before you as the pattern of your calling.
The shepherd metaphor in the Bible is not primarily a picture of individual care. The shepherd metaphor is primarily a picture of leadership in community. God is the Shepherd of his people through the Exodus, leading them through the wilderness. The shepherd is a metaphor in the ancient Near East for kings and kingship. Ezekiel’s prophecies against the rulers of Israel use the language of the bad and cruel shepherds.
When Jesus says that the crowds are like sheep without a shepherd he is saying that central to the role of the disciple-apostles will be to exercise leadership, the oversight which the ordinal calls us to.
And here, finally, is one of the most wonderful and awesome things about the Anglican understanding of ministry and the Anglican understanding of the Church. This is one of the most precious parts of our tradition. You and I are not charged with the cure of souls only of those who come to Church…
When I license a new priest to an incumbency, I read the license and say as I hand it to him or her, “Receive the cure of souls which is both yours and mine”. The cure of souls is a beautiful phrase. It’s a concern for the well being and healing of individuals and communities. But I am not referring here to the congregation. I am referring to the entire population of the parish: the priest is called to minister to them all and to work for their well being. You are ordained and commissioned to the oversight of the Church but also to leadership within the wider community: those who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
As your ordination approaches may I say again thank you for responding to God’s call to this ministry. May you know God’s love in profound ways in the coming days.
In all the years to come, take care to watch over yourselves and to keep your passion and vocation alive to God. You will do that best as you nurture your vision of God and of God’s kingdom in contemplation, as you watch and listen to the world around you and to the people of your community with compassion and as you step out in leadership in both the Church and the world with great courage down all the years ahead.
May God Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless you richly and deeply in this ministry.
Ordination of deacons
Bishop Steven gave a similar charge to deacons. A selection of images and interviews from the ordination service can be seen below. Visit our Facebook page for a behind-the-scenes photo story of the day.