A few weeks ago a friend of mine tweeted about whether God really called more clergy to the South East than the North East or whether we were being deaf to God’s call. Lots of people objected strongly… which is lovely but not entirely reassuring, and has left me thinking about whether we are, whether I am, really taking up the cross that Jesus commands me to carry.
This is not just a vicar-thing, though, that is just an example of something that challenges all who seek to follow our radical missionary, homeless, crucified Christ. There is a deeply challenging line in one of Matt Redman’s songs which says ‘I’ve given like a beggar but lived like the rich, and crafted myself a more comfortable cross. Yet what I am called to is deeper than this…’
And before people object let me say that the North-South thing is simply the prompt which has got me thinking about this, not least because the same bias is true of richer and poorer churches and often of bigger and smaller churches too. It is perfectly possible to serve Christ sacrificially in a rich, safe, familiar environment which is close to family and friends. It’s just that when everyone does that there seems to be an underlying and concerning truth at work which we need to address if we are to be faithful. For here is the thing that has really challenged me: it seems to me that I am often blind to the ways I struggle most to follow Christ faithfully. I can see the struggle in others, but make excuses when it comes to me.
To return to my example: the fact is that church jobs in the South East have many times more applicants than a similar job in the North. One comparison between dioceses showed that there were, on average, seven applicants for a Southern job for every one who applied in the North. There are fantastic parishes up in the North East that go through three-year vacancies because no-one will come and serve here. There is a problem here!
Consider Cramlington, for example. Here is a great example of Church Planting in a town which will soon be the largest town in Northumberland. It has fantastic congregations with able and willing local leadership. There is youth work happening across the town. There are two church plants meeting. The building is in good order, flexible, and attractive. The missional opportunities abound. The diocese has an assistant curate ready to place in the parish, and money set aside for a Team Vicar to be appointed in consultation with the new Team Rector… but for two years we have been unable to recruit an incumbent and I am baffled as to why: I would love to do the job!
Every time Northern Bishops like me say things like this, people say that they would love to come and do a job like this, but they are tied to family, or schools, or friendship networks. All of this is true, and I understand it, but I don’t find it in the Bible, or in the bits of Church History that I admire. From Abraham’s time onwards God’s people have been told to leave what is familiar and go where God tells them. Jesus’ own model in this is very clear: ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head’ (Lk 9.58). I believe that missionaries setting out for the mission field used to pack their belongings in a coffin as that was what they expected to journey home in…
… and this is what we should expect from a people whose Lord and Master tells them to take up their cross and follow.
The reality, though, is that we don’t take easily to this type of followership, whoever we are. We struggle to lay down our lives and follow, even when it is Christ we are following. As the old saying goes ‘The problem with being a living sacrifice is that it is all to easy to get up and wander off!’ It’s easy to point out the geographical bias of clergy application, but the challenge is there for all of us. And of course, this is a tragedy as what we always find is that serving Christ is actually the way to perfect freedom. It is when we lose our life to Him that we find we have life more abundantly than we can imagine. We take up a cross expecting crucifixion and discover that we actually receive peace, hope, and love more rich and free than we had every known was possible.
Whether you are ordained or not, what is God calling you to this week which you are finding difficult? He knows, He understands, and He will help… but he’ll never force you: the step of trusting obedience is yours to take…
the light of the minds that know you,
the joy of the hearts that love you,
and the strength of the wills that serve you:
grant us so to know you
that we may truly love you,
so to love you that we may truly serve you,
whose service is perfect freedom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(after Augustine of Hippo (430) and quoted in this form from Common Worship)