Luke Miller on showing people the Way in a changing mission-field
How can we know the Way? I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14.6.
The Cleaver Ordination Candidates Fund bought me some very useful books for my training. Seminarians, of course, need to learn. They need to know how to answer the child who asks difficult questions, and how to answer the businessman who struggles with the ethics of financial trading; they need to be able to give an account of the reasons why it is necessary for a child to be baptised, and how to help a teenager who doesn’t need or care to know that Game of Thrones is actually a series of books to engage with Holy Scripture.
St Peter admonishes us always to ‘be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,’ and the demands of pastoral care, catechesis, and evangelisation require that we can proclaim our message simply, without ever being simplistic; and to teach respectfully and humbly, but always confidently and, like the Lord, ‘with authority.’ It is a tall order, and seminarians and clergy need to be engaged in lifelong study. Those books get a lot of use, even in today’s Wikipedia world.
You have to know the grammar and the vocabulary so that you can speak the language. But there is always the danger that we become mechanistic in our attitude to learning, and mirror in our theological endeavour ideas of learning in secular society which focus on the acquisition of skills and concomitant ‘outcomes.’ We risk replacing political or economic ends with missional or social ones.
How can we really know the Way? ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,’ says the Lord. The means to truth is not knowledge of doctrinal theology, nor acquisition of skills, but personal relationship with Jesus Christ. ‘I am the Way,’ He says, not ‘understand the way,’ nor‘ undertake the way,’ but ‘I am the Way. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ We begin therefore with the sacraments, where He comes to touch our hearts and lives, and especially at the altar. As well as a fund for books, Mrs Swinburne gave this church an altar: a meeting place of God and man. How can we know the Way? By engaging with the Word-made-Flesh in His Holy Word, and by being diligent in reading Sacred Scripture; by living in active discipleship, being disciplined about the regularity of our service of God, generous in our love and service of neighbour, zealous in our proclamation of the Gospel; and by being confident, compassionate, and creative.
It is all about what at seminary they call ‘formation,’ or in evangelical circles, ‘discipleship’: living the Faith, so that it is obvious both to ourselves and to others that Christ is leading us, and that we are in a living, breathing relationship with Him. This, by the by, makes us evangelists. People will know about me things such as how I take my coffee, or what football team I support, or what my interests are, or who is in my family. Do they know about me that I am on the Way? That I am on the Way with Christ? If this naturally bubbles up out of my life it becomes something that is a natural point of conversation and contact: the opportunity to give an account of the Faith, or to invite others to come to join me at church or in prayer, is more likely to occur.
Growth in discipleship will have as part of it the acquisition of skills, and those skills will in turn help us to deepen our formation in the Faith. Knowing ways and means helps us to know the One who is the Way. One of my Cleaver books was about Trinitarian theology. I expected this to be a dry intellectual exercise. But as we began to delve into the nature of God, I found that my prayer was deeply and positively affected. Knowing more about the object of worship deepens my relationship with Him whom I worship. Other skills can enhance our formation. I have learned over the years things like how to change a nappy, and how to read a balance sheet; how to Tweet, and what the duties of a charity trustee are; how to lead a funeral, and how to make someone redundant. I have acquired specific skills, and further bodies of knowledge. You may have some of these skills and know some of these things, and in your field you will have things in which you are expert. How have they helped you on the Way? If our relationship with Christ is genuinely a personal one, founded in the sacraments and the scriptures, then He will be interested in our work and our recreation, supporting us in our families, and loving us through the challenges of the things that make up our lives. Bringing these things as our intentions at Mass; seeking His advice on them in our prayer; sharing with Him our frustrations and our hopes, our satisfaction at work, and asking Him to be with us in the drudgery of a wet Monday in November – here is how we can know His Way.
The living personal relationship of the disciple who is on the Way keeps us fresh in our knowledge and in our skills. Mrs Swinburne and the trustees who established the Cleaver Fund were, as Anglo-Catholics, part of a movement that was at the radical cutting-edge of mission in the Church of their day. It was formed in a zealous love of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament, and skilful with the missional tools of that time. The specific skills that were needed to evangelise their society in their time may not work for us. Circumstances change, and if we hold on to an outcomes-focussed educational model, which teaches only skills and is not interested in discipleship and formation, then we shall be left high and dry when circumstances change: experts in yesterday’s technology, and equipped to evangelise bygone worlds, bemoaning the irrelevance wrought on us by change. We shall be working Bakelite telephones in a mobile age.
People remain the same; and Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But our mission field is ever shifting. The Cleaver Fund allows us to be trained in the skills we need, and helps us acquire the knowledge we need; but all that is useless, indeed a hindrance to mission, if it is not kept up-to-date. That is a duty on us all. But what keeps us fresh and truly relevant is a personal relationship with Christ through whom alone anyone can come to the Father. That is why Mrs Swinburne was right also to endow an altar where the Sacraments are ministered, and our personal relationship with God is deepened. How can we know the Way? ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,’ says the Lord.
The Ven. Luke Miller is Archdeacon of London. The centenary of the death of Friederica Frances Swinburne, foundress of the Cleaver Ordination Candidates Fund, fell on 14 April. This homily was preached at the mass of commemoration at All Saints,’ Margaret Street, London on 9 April 2016. www.cleaver.org.uk