No drum majors here – Part 3

“Is the Anglican Church in this day and age still fixated on the ancient image of the shepherd leading unthinking sheep?”

If you remember, I quoted that at the end of the last column. It’s part of a letter, entitled “Open Letter to Anglican Clergy”, by a ‘James T Brewster’ which appeared in another newspaper on 27 June. The writer tells a tale of how he’d chatted with “several devoted Anglicans” discussing the “ongoing saga” of choosing a bishop. He has one of these suggesting that “the sheep [Laity] should follow the shepherd [Clergy] – in other words, the alleged convention that where there’s an impasse, the front-runner in Clergy votes should be elected. I’ve no experience of this but, as I understand it, it’s been applied in the last two elections and gives expression to the very special relationship between bishop, priest and people. The writer continues: “the analogy of stupid and helpless sheep to describe Christian congregations does not go down well…we are not prepared to follow blindly”.

Well, it’s a little tale wrapped in a series of verbal tricks and thoroughly mischievous. No-one I’ve spoken to has heard of ‘Mr Brewster’. His thesis is fundamentally flawed. First, the Laity are not
delegates of any congregation. They’re representatives of churches who can vote as they please. Second, there’s no evidence that clergy regard those whom they serve as “unthinking”. Third, it’s absurd to suggest that the ancient Good Shepherd metaphor encapsulates the idea of the shepherd (priests) leading “stupid and helpless” sheep. ‘Brewster’ is composing fairy tales.

Over past weeks, I’ve explored a little the riches to be found in those lay people I’ve met and interacted with, and I’m sure my experience is a universal. Sure, I’ve met some lay drum majors too – persons who think they’re a cut above the rest – and also clergy who, frankly, are not dissimilar to thugs. This week, under the dentist’s drill, ‘Dr Cool’ told me that the obsequience shown to priests was absurd. There was no way, he said, he’d kiss any man’s ring. In the street, my chat-mate, Jo, suggested that too many lay people WERE just content to follow. So: it takes all sorts.

But let me reflect more on the ‘Good Shepherd’ metaphor. I have some experience. Once upon a time I kept Jacob sheep. My Dad kept far more Beulah Speckled Face. Now though ‘Holy cards’ often depict Jesus, typically as a child, leading sheep – the little child who’ll lead us – in life you’re far more likely to find the shepherd at the rear. The dog does the fine tuning. The sheep know exactly where they’re going and there’s far more to shepherding than ‘leading’ anyway. There’s washing, shearing, feeding, marking, dosing, correcting foot rot. And there’s carrying (remember Jesus with a lamb about his neck?) and loving too. It’s a bit like priest-ing. There’s baptising, confirming, marrying, ministering to the sick, burying, calling to repentance, leading worship, absolving, interceding, blessing, chairing meetings and even obeying the bishop! Yes, in general terms he witnesses to Christ too – but so do all baptised persons, at least that’s the theory. He’s charged with building up the family of God. The shepherd learns by experience; the priest initially by a course of training which takes years. Yes, sheep stray, and so do people – even priests. Neither shepherd nor priest sits idly by.

We all know that the Good Shepherd metaphor is a deeply sacred one. It’s also deeply comforting. It’s a wonderful thing to know that each of us are called by our names and that the lamb too, the lamb of God, as also the priest in His name, is also a shepherd who’ll guide us to the springs of living water. And yes, both shepherd and priest may be called to lay down their lives in the name of love. Think of Maximilian Kolbe.

I’m sure ‘Brewster’ knows very well the sacred commitments both priest and bishop, as “chief pastor” and “true shepherd”, undertake at their ordination. Laity members have no like responsibility to anyone except themselves. Yet we all know the critical role congregations play in our Diocese, not least because at a priest’s ordination those present must signify their wish he be ordained. For his part, the priest promises to serve faithfully those in his charge, to build them in faith, and bring them to “loving obedience” (oh dear). He undertakes too to keep the Good Shepherd metaphor ever before him as the pattern of his calling.

Yet, explicitly, he’s called both “shepherd” and “servant”.

‘Brewster’ is, of course, devoted to Fr Rogers – nothing wrong with that – but his letter was clearly designed to stir trouble between clergy and congregations and so perpetuate the myth that this is a Clergy v Laity Cup Final to the death. Whatever else, then, ‘Brewster’ is no shepherd. At best, he’s a stranger whom hopefully the sheep will reject, or a hired hand whose only care is not, in fact, the sheep but to get his man elected. At worst, he’s…a composer of verbal tricks. Alternatively, he’s just another drum major...

Go safely, then – until the next time.

To Fr Clifford from the boundary: “I’ve got a Good Shepherd. You’ve got a sadistic dentist” (Amy-Jill Levine).

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