Sermon Sunday 16 July 2023 Trinity VI – the Vicar

Last weekend I spent some time with a farmer relative. He’s the son and grandson of generations of farmers who loves the land enjoys explaining what his life and work consists of. His favourite occupation is using his rather splendid tractor to plough, tend or drill his fields. It’s so state of the art it can calculate the precise quantities of fertiliser or seed needed according to the drainage or quality of the soil – it’s something to do with satellites. It’s all very mind-blowing.

I don’t think the sower, whom Jesus almost certainly would have seen going past, was able to calculate soil depth and drainage with anything like that degree of accuracy! We’ll come on to the story in just a minute. It’s one of the greats for good reason, it connects with something pretty primitive in all of us. The idea of seed-time and harvest has multiple resonances, and for all our disassociation with nature, especially in Town perhaps, it situates us hearing Jesus’s words alongside one of the most fundamental exercises of the stewardship of God’s creation.

I have good news and bad news for you. Let’s save the good news till the end.

This last week the General Synod met in York. I have very mixed feelings about Synods and I don’t tend to follow them with huge interest or to report on them.

On the hand lots of people sitting in hot rooms for a very long time (five full days – over a weekend in July) is just incredibly off-putting; on the other, a national Church, which has always set store by a fully engaged discussion between Bishops, Clergy and People has to have a mechanism for this to happen.

What took place there over last weekend and into this last week might merit some telling. There was nothing boring about how it conducted its business, indeed, for many of the wrong reasons, what went on managed to attract a considerable degree of press interest.

It did not start well. The Archbishop of York managed to give the impression in an unscripted remark that there were problems with calling God Father. It was something of a storm in a teacup but before things had got started there was unfortunate press interest. It all got a lot worse on Sunday, when for any who did not already know, a really grim administrative falling out became uncontainable and the optics of it have been terrible.

If I try to pot the story, forgive inevitable omissions of detail.

  • In the fallout from the many abuse scandals, the Independent Commission on Child Sexual Abuse urged the Church of England to appoint an independent safeguarding standing body to call the Church to account in relation to this area.
  • In early 2022 a Commission was appointed comprising 3 members. They were given until the end of 2023 to define their terms of reference.
  • One of the three, the chair was responsible for a databreach and had to stand back during an investigation. The two other members continued to work on the terms of reference. A new interim chair was appointed whom they did not get on with.
  • Eventually in June this year things were so bad that the situation became irretrievable. As things unravelled the two original members let their situation be known on social media and they were asked to leave.
  • Because they had seen their task as primarily the understandable championing of the rights and grievances of survivors, those groups and other supporters were vociferous in the defence of the two who were let go. The Archbishops’ Council were clearly saddened by what had happened but felt they had no choice but to begin constituting the Independent Board afresh.
  • Those who left have reported their concerns to the Charity Commission.
  • For what it’s worth my view is that the lack of absolute clarity from the Archbishop’s Council at the outset allowed the group to start its work before the terms of reference were in place, and it is hard to see how this was not going to become complicated.
  • There is no question that abuse in and the connected with the Church has been catastrophic and ruinous to people’s lives. The Church needs help in making sure that it endangers no one and helps everyone. Abuse comes in many forms, and because the faithful are at their most vulnerable when before God, they are most easily exploited, and power in the hands of the unconscious or the perverse is most lethal.
  • There was a failure in getting this group’s work started. Clarifying the difference between the process of its establishment and the group’s eventual tasks was not effective. The group started its work when it was not ready. Because its outreach to victims and survivors was so nurturing and good, sight seems to have been lost of how that might have been better timed.
  • Sacking good people, well intentioned people always looks bad.
  • It was all utterly awful, and would have been better avoided if possible.
  • I hope this helps disentangle some of what you might have seen reported.
  • While occasionally taken aback by some of what goes on “at the centre” of the Church of England, this was not its finest hour, but let it not be misunderstood, the Church dearly wishes to be accountable and safe, and I hope it can achieve that this time.
  • Bureaucracies don’t like admitting they were wrong or did not communicate well. They were wrong to lack clarity and to communicate expectations with directness. I hope they learn in future.
  • The second excitement at Synod was the update on the status of services of blessing for same sex couples.
  • In February the House of Bishops did two things at once.
  • They offered an abject apology to gay people for appalling behaviour towards them on the one hand – it was grovelling in the extreme, and almost just a fraction embarrassing.
  • After issuing that, they then let be seen the draft sets of prayers for blessing ceremonies. On this hand the services were unusable and also embarrassing.
  • At some level this was all politics.
  • We cannot pretend that the Church of England was not born of politics and there is no pretending it does not live by and through a constant trade-off or compromise between two irreconcilable visions of the Church. Of all Churches, for all is bumbling and chaos (as just cited), it is a meeting point of mutually exclusive ways of being, and this will mean abrasive and ugly rows. Playing or being involved in politics over issues which really matter, especially at the moment, when issues about gender and sexuality are contested in extraordinary ways in our society, will be costly and if we are in this organisation we are not going to be untouched by this.
  • While I struggle with the prayers as proposed, I cannot help but see how they came about. The small print allows clergy a bit of latitude to add and supplement, which as the time comes I will be inclined to do.
  • At Synod, the update led to fierce discussions in and out of the chamber. I don’t do social media, there was a storm there too, which I have been spared.
  • It seems no one is happy, and in November this will be repeated when the Synod will meet again. They’ve got in a tangle now over whether or not there should be a vote about it.

Synod also discussed whether or not there should be charges for marriage, and I must admit I am with those who thinks that as with baptisms, we should not charge statutory fees for marriages. Clearly musicians must be paid, but fees for pastoral offices were waived during the pandemic and I think this was a positive innovation.

I said there would be some good news, at the end. Waiving marriage fees might be good news for some, but I can offer better than that.

Today’s Parable of the Sower Gospel, and its precursor from the prophet Isaiah present the best possible news. There’s something I saw in this reading that I had not seen before. I don’t know if my farmer relative and his tractor might have helped.

It’s about the maths.

Seed is sown a bit indiscriminately as hand sowing is probably wont to do. The seed goes in four directions: the path, rocky ground, thorns, and good soil. We don’t know what proportion went to which soil type – but that is not the point. When the harvest came, from the good soil, even if it was only a quarter of the total sown, some gave a hundredfold, some sixty, and even the worst thirtyfold.

Any farmer would be pleased that after an inauspicious start. Isaiah foresaw this “My word…shall not return to me empty, it shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” He carries on and underlines the word he sends out and waters and tends like seed is in fact his people. He continues speaking to the seed “You shall go out with joy and be led back in peace, and the mountains and hills shall burst into song and all the fields shall clap their hand.”

I am sure as Jesus saw the sower, he was reminded of this passage and wished to confide in his disciples a truth they would come to see only much later.

So many realities obscure our vision of God is doing, of what a rich harvest he is preparing. Let not human error, bureaucracy and fallibility renew our vision, of the whole of creation, fields of corn on the hillside, clapping hands and singing for joy.

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