Sermon given at Sunday Eucharist on Sunday 15 May 2011
15 May 2011 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
It seemed to me fairly obvious but I have discovered that plenty of other people thought it rather strange. Who were those two women, they asked. The two women in greeny grey sitting so close to Prince William. And one of them was wearing trainers, black admittedly, but still trainers. One of the newspapers had them in close-up ringed round. Could it be, they speculated, that she was really a trained officer, perhaps from the security service or a police protection officer under cover, able to run fast as the wind, if the need arose? The ninja nun, whatever that is, excited almost as much media interest as our splendidly cartwheeling verger.
As I say, to me it seemed fairly obvious. The Abbey has its traditions. This morning we see the Queen’s Scholars of Westminster School sitting in their proper place, dressed in the proper manner. So, likewise, the Sisters should sit in the sacrarium beside the Minor Canons as they always do for high altar services – and in their normal order. One of them, Sister Annaliese, is no stranger to fame. Last September, when she kicked aside a dropped order of service that might have distracted the attention of the Pope as he processed into the Abbey, she featured in You Tube as the footballing nun. Who are they? Sister Judith is our Abbey chaplain, and Sister Annaliese, the one with the trainers, comes every week to spend a day working with her. As chaplains here at the Abbey they spend much of their time caring pastorally for the Abbey community of staff and volunteers and faithful worshippers. They are a living example of the consecrated life, fulfilling their vocation as members of the Community of the Sisters of the Church. Sister Judith was at one time the Mother Superior. The Community is based here in London, at the mother house at Ham Common, with houses in other parts of the United Kingdom, and overseas in Australia, Canada and the Solomon Islands. They are an active community of nuns, living the consecrated life, living as religious. The lovely thing for me about the media interest is that it has high-lighted the fact that there are Anglican religious communities, as there are, both for women and for men.
The readings on the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide, today, always relate to the lovely rich image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the bonus Pastor. St Matthew illustrates the idea when he quotes Jesus saying, ‘What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.’ [Matthew 18: 12-13]
In St John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, and also, as in today’s gospel reading, as the gate of the sheepfold. Jesus describes what he means by being the Good Shepherd. ‘I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’ [John 10: 14-16] So, the good shepherd knows his flock, is willing to lay down his life for the flock, and wants to unite the flock bringing all the sheep together.
Later in his Gospel, St John tells us of a resurrection encounter by the lake in Galilee. The disciples are fishing. But they have caught nothing. In the morning, Jesus is there and they bring in a haul of 153 fish. Jesus invites them to breakfast. Then Jesus challenges Peter. Peter afraid for his life had three times denied ever knowing Jesus. When he heard the cock crow he went out and wept bitterly. Now, by the Galilean lake, Jesus offers Peter a chance to make amends. Three times Jesus invites him to profess his love. ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ [John 21: 17] The role of Good Shepherd after the Resurrection Jesus passes on to the rock on which he will build his Church. Peter is to be the pastor pastorum, the shepherd of the shepherds. Peter a simple fisherman had been called by Jesus and commissioned at the beginning of his three year ministry; now this calling, this vocation, is clarified and extended. He is to be the model for the pastoral ministry of the Church.
Vocation: we use the term in various ways. It means a calling. God calls us to a particular way of life. By extension, it has come to be used as a description for particular professions. When I was the Church of England’s chief education officer I used frequently to address diocesan conferences of Head teachers. I vividly remember the first of these in Manchester. I spoke of teaching as a vocation. One Head approached me afterwards to question my use of the term. Did not a vocation, he said, mean a badly-paid, poorly-regarded, ill-valued job. I challenged him as to its real meaning. I remain keen to see teaching as a vocation within the Church but recognise that more typically the term vocation is applied to the life of a monk or nun, a religious vocation, or the ministry of a bishop, priest or deacon, the vocation to ordained ministry.
How does this vocation, this call, come? How do we know that we are called to a particular way of life, the religious life, or Christian ministry? There are many examples in the Bible of the call of the prophets. We hear of the call of Isaiah in the year that king Uzziah died. He had a vision of God, ‘sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.’ ‘Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then said I, ‘Here am I; send me.’’ [Isaiah 6: 8]
It was 45 years ago, thinking of that call of Isaiah and pondering a sermon I had heard, that I found myself responding in the same way. I remember the point in my walk home from church one morning, when I said to the Lord, ‘Here am I; send me.’ I was seventeen. But the idea of ordination had been planted some years before, when I was 11 or 12. A priest I knew and respected asked me what I would do with my life. I had little idea. Perhaps a teacher, I said. You should think of being a priest. The idea stayed with me. The calling was I believe from God but mediated through the Church, through a priest, through his words to me. I have no idea why he said it or what he saw in me. But I remembered. It mattered. I made it my own.
All of us who are ordained or who belong to religious communities have heard that call in some way and responded. It might have come in a direct revelation or through years of gradually working it through for ourselves. The call comes from God but is not our private personal possession. The Church must authenticate the call. The religious community offers people various stages of trials and tests. The Bishop does not lay on hands in ordination unless the candidate’s call has been thoroughly researched and tested and unless a training programme has been successfully completed. The external sacramental sign – that gives effect to the call and validates it – is an act of the Church in the laying on of the Bishop’s hands. Thank God there are many men and women of all ages and backgrounds coming forward for ministry in the Church: those who are older bring their experience of life and generally of lay ministry; those who are younger offer the prospect of a whole adult life committed to the ministry to the service of God and to the pastoral care of God’s people.
I pray that some of you might this morning be in or might begin the process of answering that call for yourselves, the call to the active or contemplative religious life or to the pastoral ministry. None of us is worthy. All of us fail. But in his gracious love, our Lord is able through his ministers to exercise his own eternal ministry as the Good Shepherd, who knows his flock, lays down his life for the flock, and wants to unite the flock bringing all the sheep together. To him alone be the glory!