Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester, preaches
The sermon given by Colin Fletcher, the Bishop of Dorchester, at the service on Wednesday 6th October 2004 during which Harry MacInnes was inducted as Rector of the Shill Valley & Broadshire Benefice.
The sermon is published here in commemoration of the Bishop's retirement during October 2020.
This article was first published in Parish Pump November 2004
In essence, the Bishop addressed Harry with:
"There are many siren voices within the church… telling you [Harry] that… your job is to create cosy enclaves of religiously-minded Christian people… Of course your fellow Christians will be an important priority in your ministry, but woe-betide us if we ever lose sight of the fact that we are here for everyone… You must share in the joys, and hopes, and fears of all the people to whom you minister.
… You, Harry, must ‘feel the feelings’ of those you minister to… over the whole range of human emotion you will encounter in the everyday lives of your parishioners.”
The Bishop's sermon in full:
After thanking all concerned with looking after the shop during since Richard Harrison had left, and also thanking all those who had helped prepare the service, the Bishop went on:
It is good to have you all here to support Harry on this special night. A week ago we marked the Feast Day of a very remarkable man, St Jerome. He was born over 1750 years ago on the Adriatic coat of Dalmatia. Jerome was an immensely able linguist, and he devoted his talent to what became his life’s work: translating the bible from Greek into Latin, and so making it more accessible to his contemporaries. He died peacefully, and revered, on 30th September 420AD, in a monastery near Bethlehem.
Tonight we also celebrate the life of another translator of the scriptures. William Tyndale was born just down the road from here in Gloucestershire, and may well have known these Shill Valley and Broadshire villages as he travelled to study in Oxford. He too was a remarkable linguist, and was one of the few in his generation who knew Hebrew. Like Jerome he dedicated his life to translating the Bible, not into Latin but into English.
However, there the similarities with Jerome end, for William Tyndale was anything but revered. He was exiled at the age of 30, and the first copies of his English New Testament were publicly burned. At the age of 41, he was betrayed, and then strangled and finally burnt at the stake on 6th October 1536. His crime was heresy: the heresy of seeking to make the Bible freely available in English.
And what has this to do with tonight’s service? It reminds us that each member of the clergy is charged to preach the Gospel afresh to each generation. That is part of the challenge to you, Harry, as you come to this Benefice. And I am not talking about which version of the Bible you choose, or which services you organise. These things matter, but only as part of a much bigger whole.
How can we (and I say ‘we’, meaning all of us, for this is far too important a task to leave to the clergy alone) bring the Good News of Christ to this generation? And not just to religious people, but to all those who live in parishes of this benefice.
There are no easy answers to this question, no single blue-print that will work everywhere and for everyone. But we can follow two key pointers, which were shown to us by Christ himself.
First, speak God’s Word.
The words Jesus actually used mattered hugely to him. He saw it as imperative that he speak to his disciples with the words of his Father, so that they heard the words of God, and could live by them.
That is part of your task, Harry. Do not regale your congregations with your own opinions on this, that or the other, but tackle the much harder task of bringing God’s Word, the Bible, to life for those living in your parishes. Re-tell the Bible stories, relate them to everyday experience, and use them as a context against which to wrestle with the big, contemporary questions for which there are no easy answers.
Whilst many of your colleagues, working in urban and suburban parishes only get heard by a small percentage of their parishioners, my guess is that perhaps half of those living in this benefice will hear you speak at some time during the coming year.
Whether it is at Harvest or Christmas, Remembrance Sunday or Mothering Sunday, Easter or Pentecost, funerals, weddings or baptisms, you will have the opportunity to speak directly to the people. Your challenge, our challenge, is to bring God’s Word to life here and now, everyday. But there is more to the task than just the words.
We must live God’s Word.
St John’s Gospel tells us that the Word goes beyond words. When God speaks, he does not just utter mere words. His Word becomes flesh, and he comes to dwell among us full of grace and truth. Listen to William Tyndale bringing God’s Word to 16th century England:
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw the glory of it, as the glory of the only begotten son of the father, which word was full of grace and verity.
The message is clear: God speaks as a person, God becomes a human being. God gets involved in our world, in all its messiness, in all its pain and joy and heartbreak. As his followers, we are called upon to do the same.
There are many siren voices within the church (and some of them sing their false song even in this part of the world!), telling you that as a priest, your job is to create cosy enclaves of religiously-minded Christian people. ‘Ignore or treat lightly’, the sirens sing ‘the needs of the wider community, and focus your energies on us.’
Of course your fellow Christians will be an important priority in your ministry, but woe-betide us if we ever lose sight of the fact that we are here for everyone. This is true for you, and all of us who follow Christ. You must share in the joys, and hopes, and fears of all the people to whom you minister.
Take hunting, for instance: many will find the banning of hunting very painful. Not everyone in rural areas is of one mind. For some the legislation is a cause of joy. But for many this will be a time of pain, frustration and anger. You, Harry, must ‘feel the feelings’ of those you minister to. And not just about hunting, of course, but over the whole range of human emotion you will encounter in the everyday lives of your parishioners.
This can become a weight that is too heavy to bear on your own. It is a burden to share with others in your team, and, more particularly, to share with God. How you do that is up to you. All of us develop different patterns in ministry. I am delighted that you already have strong links with Burford Priory, and with a number of people living in this area. Value and strengthen these links, and cherish these people.
In doing so, you will allow Christ to minister to you, and through you, to others.
Harry, it is great to welcome you here to the Shill and Broadshire Benefice. I look forward to sharing with you the pastoral care of all the people in these parishes.
Speak God’s Word, and live God’s Word. William Tyndale was a light for that Word in his generation. Seek to be one for ours. And may God bless you richly in all you seek to do for him.