My intention in asking to speak today was quite simple, to briefly look back at the last few months and then to anticipate Mark’s arrival. Steve Hughes sudden death means I need to widen the scope of what I say.
I do first of all want to express my and I am sure your thanks to David Bond who, again, has stepped into the breach and covered a vacancy. I have really appreciated that I have been able to say to him, as it were, ‘carry on sergeant major’. A change in ministry gives opportunity to review things and I know David will want to take this opportunity to review what he does. As David’s role changes and inevitably reduces please don’t think this is because Mark does not esteem him. Mark’s coming will simply be the occasion and not the cause.
In mentioning David I also want to thank Richard Love for the help he has given in recent months.
But the clergy have not been alone in this. Many of the members of your congregations have stepped forward during this time. You are truly blessed in your team of church wardens (including Brian Page who had to step down during this time because of his medical situation). They have given of themselves generously and unstintingly, not just in general matters but in all that has been involved in the recruitment process and in preparing the house and the welcome service. In this case it has not just been the period of the vacancy, which has been wonderfully brief, but also during Steve’s increasing ill-health. On behalf of myself and I am sure you I want to thank them. Let us thank both clergy and wardens in the usual way… applause.
I have mentioned that the vacancy has been brief. in comparison to many it has been no length at all – though I’m sure it hasn’t felt like that. I want to thank the Archdeacon and Sam, his PA for their help in this. I want also to thank Graham Bibby. He and I worked patiently on Mark to get him to apply for the job.
In the wake of his death we have heard much of Steve’s life and ministry before he came to join us. Of this one person said to me, ‘what we heard sounded like a different man’. I can understand that. The man who helped organise first relief and then took wife and family to Romania in the wake of the fall of Ceaușescu and worked with orphanages did seem different to the Steve we met. With hindsight it seems Steve’s health was worse, and worse for longer, than we perhaps realised. This certainly affected what he could do among us. But in a way we shouldn’t be surprised that we didn’t realise how ill he was as he always minimised his health problems. This reflected his positive outlook on life but was not necessarily helpful to him and could be frustrating to those around him. But if this positive approach to life was a thread running through his life, so too was his concern for individuals. ‘Such a nice man’, and phrases like it occur regularly in people’s comments about him. He will be remembered fondly.
The transition from one ministry to another always has its challenges for priest and people. Where a ministry has been of any reasonable length – as Steve’s here certainly was – people get used to the ways of a priest, regardless of how much they liked those ways. A change of priest inevitably changes things. Often, as in Mark’s case, a new priest will not have seen how the previous priest did things and so obviously cannot do them in the same way even if he wanted, and was able to do. The person of the minister unavoidably has a significant effect on how he takes worship and discharges his other duties. I realised this in a new way quite a number of years ago when I attended a gym class called ‘Body pump’ – it was quite a few years ago! The class took place against a backing track and a sequence of set movements over which the instructor had no control, but even so there were some instructors who I liked and one I could not stand. Same music, same moves but it still made a difference who the instructor was. It will be the same when Mark comes, he is not Steve or even David or Richard. Nor is he the same as Steve’s predecessor Andrew, though you may notice something of Andrew in him given that he was his training vicar. Because of this I want to invite you to give Mark time. He will be different, for better and worse – let him grow on you. I am sure he will.
If the new priest will be different to the former priest for the congregation then it is the same the other way around. You are different to Mark’s previous congregation. He had got to know them and their sensibilities and quirks. This means he knows how to relate to them. It always takes a while to get to know a new group of people and their ways and to relate to them well. You can probably think of situations where you have been the newcomer finding your feet. So be patient with him if he treads on the odd corn or prods the odd sacred cow – he won’t be doing it deliberately. At first, he won’t know where the corns are and what (or who?) the sacred cows are.
I suppose this all comes down to, ‘trust him and give him the benefit of the doubt’. Mark very genuinely wants to do his best for Christ, the church’s mission in this place and you. Notice the order in which I have put these: Christ, the church’s mission and you. A few years ago a parishioner did not appreciate how I was doing something. In a conversation with him he said, ‘you are our servant!’. It was one of those moments when I was able at that the time to think of the right response. I replied, ‘I may be your servant, but I am not your creature’. I think I had in mind Paul in
2 Corinthians 4:5
‘we preach as not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’.
‘ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’.
The crucial part of this is ‘for Jesus’ sake’.
‘Servant ministry’ is one of the buzz phrases nowadays. Some people hear this, like the man I quoted, as meaning the priest does what they want him to. This is not the case, even if it were possible, which it is not. For to do something as one person wants it will inevitably mean not doing it as someone else wants it done. But this is to get the wrong end of the stick anyway because the person that the priest is ultimately serving is not the people but Christ.
Just at the priest serves Christ first, this is also what the whole people of God are called to do. Any new priest and I am sure Mark, will want to challenge you his new parishioners to ask again ‘what does the Lord want us to do’. Too often when a new priest arrives and there is an inevitable review of things, the question people want to ask is, ‘What do I want?’, ‘What suits me?’. Mark will not be faithful to his calling to allow this to be the question people ask and certainly not to allow this to be the question they answer. He will want to make sure the question is ‘what does God want, what suits him, what is he calling us to?’
Yes, and the question is about what does God want ‘us’ to do, not just what we want Mark to do. It is vital when a new priest arrives that people do not take this as opportunity to dump things on him and walk away. I am sure you won’t – and your parish representatives and I have told Mark you won’t, so please don’t. He certainly does not come as your creature and also he does not come as your substitute, he comes to be your partner and enabler.
I could say more – but won’t. Suffice it to say. Love Mark (and his family), cherish him – that will bring out the best in him. He, I am sure, will seek to love and cherish you to bring out the best in you for Jesus’ sake.
Canon John Corbyn, Team Rector and Area Dean