Sunday, 6 December 2015

You & Non-You: On Being A Public Minister Of Religion


Despite appearances, these thoughts have nothing to do with Nancy Mitford’s mischievous categorisation of Upper and Non-Upper class vocabulary and manners. It is about distinctions, but not about separating people into tribes.

When we feel the call to ministry, perhaps to ordination, to readership, to be a churchwarden, or to serve at the altar, or to read the lessons, or arrange the flowers, something we are sure that God wants us to do, and we will do for God, even if at the time we’re not sure we really have the appropriate skills and personal qualities, well, that’s “all about me”. You can’t help feeling it that way. A vocation within the life of the church is akin to the vocation to be married – it matters very much who you are, because that determines what you have to offer, and why you are wanted.

Most us start out with a strong sense that we are “called to serve”, and then the church starts to harp on about leadership and power and a whole lot of things we weren’t expecting. But they are fair questions – if we stand up to lead worship, to preach, to teach, even to read lessons, in the name of the wider community of faith, then we are leaders, even if only (at first) at the time we’re actually doing it. And there is power in that. The power to enrich the faith of our brothers and sisters, or the power to be a stumbling block and trip them up. We might all want to be “servants of the Servant King”, but there’s no questioning the power that Jesus exercised in his ministry. And he expected his disciples to use that power too. He even gave one of them the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Have you ever had a door slammed in your face? Have you ever had a door opened to you unexpectedly, and been welcomed in? The power of the keys is a lot of power.

You probably don’t want it any more than Peter did, but you don’t have an option.

We arrive at ministry, whatever kind it is, with our gifts, ready to serve. And one of the first things we start to experience is sacrifice. When I was on a placement from vicar school I went to talk to the vicar of a neighbouring parish (he was also a psychotherapist) about an article he’d written about the clergy wearing black. He said, “It’s a sign and symbol of the death of the self”. He didn’t mean that we have to throw out all those marvellous gifts we arrived with. But the death of selfishness. When you are leading worship, preaching, it’s no longer all about you. One of the sacrifices of leading worship is that you don’t actually get to do much worshipping yourself – how can you? You have to make things work out OK. They’re all singing the hymn, but you’re wondering where the next lesson-reader has got to.

And there are other subtler, and perhaps stranger, sacrifices. God calls a lot of intraverts to ministry. That means being hauled way out of your comfort zone. After a morning service, especially if you have to preach, you’ll be exhausted. Those with no understanding will say (or at least think) “but you only said words”. That person in the pulpit isn’t really you, but it is the person you’ve been called to become, at least for the time being.

And this is where it gets mysterious. Because the permission to serve in these special ways brings with it the grace of being able to do it. We can find ourselves becoming eloquent when we’d normally be tongue-tied; confident when we feel timid; inspired to words – or to silence – in a pastoral situation, that are just right. These things are given because of what we’ve sacrificed. You could say we’ve let the Holy Spirit in. So maybe my words were wrong – “Non-You”. It is you, but more than you.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Advent, 2015


  1. Thanks Richard. A very apt appreciation of the call to serve and how it can affect you. The role of the Holy Spirit is central in how a ministry vocation evolves and changes or even disappears of fails.

    I really think that you've written in a nutshell, what many learned books have tried to describe.

    1. Hear Hear ! Ditto what Ernie says. You are such a good preacher, Richard : erudite, learned,and able to convey to the ordinary mortal ideas that enlighten without talking down to us.
      I love your point too about the power to trip up. It's something I've always worried about. One needs to pray to have one's own inadvertent works undone sometimes.

  2. I reckon it's why they put that article about how "the unworthiness of the minister" can't impede the sacraments into the XXXIX.