I imagine I am not alone among full time ministers of the Church in having days when I feel I have totally lost sight of what I believed myself called into the Church to do and to be. My vocation was a deeply personal one. I felt myself compelled to serve but unable to discern what that service consisted of. I looked around for additional things to do that would satisfy God’s claim on my life but couldn’t find them. I knew that my calling was first and foremost one of service to God rather than to anything or anybody else but I couldn’t get any sense of what God could possibly want or need from me.
In the end all I could think of was to put it into the hands of the Church, to trust that the Church would guide and support me in responding so I offered myself for full time stipendiary ministry.
This, I think, is effectively what all stipendiary ministers do. They surrender their lives to God through the Church hoping and trusting that this will lead them to the service to which they are called. The call is to the individual and he or she passes part of the responsibility of discernment to the communal body of Christ in the Church.
We are thus in a peculiar position of having to work our way through a triangular relationship in which the line joining minister and congregation (or other ecclesial authority) gets its authentication from lines joining both parties to God. This can go disastrously wrong, as anybody with any significant experience of Church life will know. Congregations and ministers can have different expectations of the relationship that lead to conflict and ultimately to breakdown.
In my case this has not happened. Two years in to my ministry here in South Hertfordshire I feel that we are finding our way to a sense of what I am here to do and what the churches are called to alongside me. There have been a range of exciting developments and experiments and relationships within and beyond the congregations are deepening and opening up avenues of exploration for our life and mission.
What I continue to struggle with, from time to time, is the ultimate question for all of us, always. “What’s the point of this?” My conversion to Christianity, in my late twenties and early thirties, was in large part driven by a sense of futility. I’ve written about this elsewhere but it came to seem to me that those areas in which I had sought meaning and direction turned out to be empty and pointless. Political action could not effect any significant change in the circumstances of life and the injustices and agonies of the world. Ethical integrity was illusory and foundationless. Personal relationships were haunted by the impossibilities of communication and of self-knowledge, always full of unknown and uncontrollable pathologies and mysteries.
The Christianity I encountered in the writings, especially, of Hegel and Kierkegaard acknowledged and accepted this assessment of our capabilities and the ways of the world but was not overwhelmed by them. It was able to live without illusion about what we can do but beyond the despair this might occasion. In their different ways these two giants of the nineteenth century offered, through faith, a way of finding strength and hope where futility and collapse threatened in face of the conflict between what we must necessarily want and what we can possibly have and do.
The danger, for me, of service in the Church, is over investment in the importance and effectiveness of what the Church can do. My denomination has a sort of slogan about “making a difference” which, to me, is poison. A tiny, aging and shrinking organisation like ours can’t really hope to make a difference that makes a difference. We can, in little pockets and to individuals, make a difference but when this is seen against the background of the needs of the world it is not a difference that matters. Even these little differences can look pretty laughable when set against the vision of God’s new creation, of the end of sin and death, of eternal life in the presence of God.
In itself this is unproblematic except where the making of the difference, the improving of the world, the growing of the Church, or the saving of souls, is seen as the purpose and goal of the Church. These things all need to be done, to fulfill God’s promise of salvation, but not by us, not by the Church. God will do these things using whatever methods and through whatever people God determines. After all Nebuchadnezzar of of Babylon, was unknown to himself, the servant of God and agent of his plans when he conquered Jerusalem, overthrew the Davidic monarchy and destroyed Solomon’s Temple.
We in the Church are called to do certain things, but the point of them is not the things themselves but their witness to God’s promise and God’s action. The Church has not purposes, goals, or objectives of its own. It exists only to point beyond itself and does well always to remember that.
As soon as it begins, self-importantly, to imagine it can “make a difference” everything it does is vanity, is sin, is subject to death and emptiness.