May 20, 2012

 

ON WHO SHOULD BE DOING WHAT

                                                    Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                            at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 20 May 2012 

                                     Reading from the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles 1: 15-17; 21-26

 

I was once asked by a member of a search committee what the members of that committee should be looking for in a potential rector.  I felt it inappropriate for me to answer that question in a particular set of circumstances.  I felt that was so then, and I feel it is so today.  But it is not inappropriate for me to answer the query in more general terms. 

There are two sources of information that are available to every search committee in the Anglican Communion, no matter which parish has appointed it.  One is the Book of Common Prayer and, in particular, that section in the Book of Common Prayer concerned with the ordination of priests.  In the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer this is found on pages 525 onwards.  I elaborated on that earlier in the year, and so it should not be necessary for me to repeat what I said then.  If anyone wants to find out what I said then it is on the parish’s webpage.  Another very important item of information is contained in the prayer, taken from the Book of Common Prayer, that is in the bulletin each week and which has been used at the 8.00 service for the past three years.

The other source of information that is available is the New Testament.  The writings of Paul frequently addressed this theme, and not least the First Epistle to Timothy.  We studied this epistle in some depth back in 2001 and 2002, and a copy of that study was given to each member of the search committee that went to work shortly after that time.  Obviously I cannot say how much attention was paid by the members of that committee to what we gleaned from I Timothy, but most of what was said ten years ago is still relevant to the work of the present search committee.  At one time, a copy of that study was kept on the book shelves in the passage between the worship area and the choir robing room, but I have not checked recently to see if it is still there. 

The final verses of another of Paul’s epistles, the Epistle to the Romans, tell us just how diverse was the team of elders and deacons, what we might call the sacred ministry, in the Rome of the early decades of the first-century Church.  Again, we have looked at the Epistle to the Romans in great depth in our Wednesday evening Bible studies, and although no copy of that study was ever placed in the book shelves in the church, I have it in print-ready form should anyone wish to have a copy.

The first reading this morning touches on the topic of the qualifications required for appointment as an apostle, and it is most valuable as to the primary qualification that any member of the sacred ministry should possess.  Let me quote the words as they are translated in the New Revised Version, the translation that we use for our readings. 

One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.

To express that thought in terms of today, we would probably say that whoever is called to be the new rector must be a person who has known Jesus at first hand in her or his own life, must understand the significance of the baptism that Jesus underwent, and must be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus from her or his own experience in life, and must be recognized as such by the Bishop. 

Short of calling a priest who is personally known to the members of the search committee and of the Vestry, how does a parish go about discerning these characteristics in a candidate?  Again, it is not my role to tell the search committee and the Vestry of this parish how they should set about this task.  All I can say is how parishes that have considered me as a potential rector went about it.  Each of the parishes concerned went about it in a different way, so I am not going to suggest for one moment that any of them is better than any other.

In one parish I was already on site, having served as its priest during an interregnum.  They knew me at first hand, they knew my strengths and weaknesses, and in the end they chose someone else by the narrowest margin of votes possible.  I am not too sure why they considered me in the first place because I had already told them I did not want the position and that I did not feel a call to it.  Perhaps it was because the wife of the senior warden, a very small but a very domineering lady, had indicated that they wanted Paula to be the lady in the Vicarage – but that is not one of the qualifications in the epistles of Saint Paul or in Acts 1! 

As my time with the United Nations was drawing to a close I took a couple of weeks leave from my position in Nairobi and in the course of ten days I was interviewed by four parishes and three bishops.  One of those meetings with a parish was very informal but the questions were very probing, and I clearly did not answer them in the way my interviewers wished.  They appeared to be more concerned with the social issues of the day, which, although not irrelevant to the mission of the Church, should not, in my view, override what the Episcopal Church discerns of the teaching of Christ as revealed in the New Testament and should not be the sole determination of the direction in which the Church should be headed.  So, believe it or not, I was too conservative for them. 

Of the other three parishes, each was also interviewing another candidate and in all three cases the other candidate was a woman.  One of those parishes had already made up its collective mind as the other candidate had a husband who was also an Episcopalian priest, so they were getting two for the price of one.  As it turned out, they were to be my colleagues in the next parish when we returned Stateside and we all got along just fine working together in various diocesan activities, and on our last Sunday in the diocese they came to the farewell party that the parish threw for us. 

In the other two parishes I was a real candidate, but what put them both off was that we lived in Nairobi and they did not know how to afford bringing us into their ministry.  They never asked me that question and so they missed out.  As it turned out the candidates that they did choose, although local to the states in which the parishes were located, proved to be the wrong priests for those parishes, but by then Paula and I had moved into another rectory.  As has proved to be the case elsewhere, it is not always wise to take the most local candidate simply to save money. 

The three bishops who interviewed me, men who it might be said were individually from the liberal, conservative and middle-of-the-road segments of the Episcopal Church, were all sympathetic towards me, and two of them were later to offer me a position in his diocese.  But the journey across three continents and the Atlantic did not turn up a position for me at the time that I made it.  Yet a few months later one of those bishops put my name before a search committee in his diocese, and then began perhaps the most unusual recruiting experience a priest can undergo.  The parish had a copy of my curriculum vitae, so the Vestry members had some idea as to who I was and what I understood to be the mission of a priest.  They could not visit me or afford the airfare for me to visit them, but nevertheless we interviewed each other.  I was heading up the Information Division of the United Nations agency in which I was employed and so I asked my senior audio-visual colleague to create a forty-five minute video of me in which I spoke about my family, my experience, my understanding of the role of a priest and my spiritual journey to that point.  We sent that off and once the Vestry had viewed it and discussed it, the Senior Warden contacted me with a view to setting up a tele-conference.  Given that there is an eight-hour time difference between Michigan and Kenya that took some arranging, but one Sunday, 9.00 p.m. my time, 1.00 p.m. theirs, we picked up our telephones and talked across those same three continents and the Atlantic Ocean for about ninety minutes – it was on their nickel, not mine – and by the end of that interview everything had been tidied up and sorted out. 

Candidates for the sacred ministry have to go through an in-depth scrutiny even before they are selected for training.  We have to demonstrate to several people, institutions and bodies that we indeed have a vocation to the sacred ministry.  We have to demonstrate that we know that we have indeed been called by God, that we know the risen Christ and have met him in our own lives, and that we have shown that we are prepared to follow where the Holy Spirit leads us, no matter what the cost. And all that before we are even admitted to training.  

I would suggest that what we have read in Acts 1 this morning, and that what we can glean from the other writings in the New Testament, all point to the wisdom of a search committee and subsequently a vestry ascertaining the spiritual journey of a candidate for the rectorship.  Should a candidate have been a minister in another tradition, then questions should be asked as to why he or she left that tradition.  A former Roman Catholic priest, for example, should be asked why he felt that his oath of obedience to the Bishop of Rome could no longer be honoured.  Similar questions should be asked of candidates from other traditions.  And a candidate who is a cradle Episcopalian might be asked why he or she has chosen to stay with the Anglican Communion rather than move elsewhere. 

Our own Search Committee here at Holy Faith will be asking questions of candidates in the near future.  I hope and pray that its members will be asking questions that will enable them to discern who it is that is truly being called by the Lord God to be our rector.  And in their turn, I hope and pray that the members of our Vestry will do the same.  Because, if the candidate is not truly chosen by the Lord God, Holy Faith will not receive the rector we need, and we all know how disastrous that can be.