Second Tuesday of Advent: “like a shepherd he tends his flock; he gathers the lambs in his arms…” Isaiah 40
This is such a “pastoral” passage.
The word “Pastoral”,
comes from the Latin ‘pastoralis‘ - relating to a shepherd’;
and speaks of the sort of care
that is total,
that goes above and beyond.
Our Bishops carry as THE symbol
of their office, the Pastoral Staff,
the sign of their calling
to care for the people
they are called to serve.
That fine Archbishop, William Temple, talked of the Church of England as
"The only organisation that exists for the wellbeing of its non-members".
The Church that seems to be evolving since the days of William Temple
is a body frightened of losing its grip.
Unsurprisingly, in these days of Media scorn of the Church
as a failing body in today’s society,
the Church seems to be concentrating on numerical growth
above care in the community.
These are not mutually exclusive, but it strikes me that the Church
can fall into the trap of putting “the cart before the horse” in this respect.
A couple of years ago, a Church of England Project Team,
"Leading your Church into Growth", produced the following prayer,
which has been adopted by Diocese throughout England:
"God of Mission,
who alone brings growth to your Church;
send your Holy Spirit
to give Vision to our planning,
wisdom to our actions,
and power to our witness.
Help our church to grow in numbers,
in spiritual commitment to you,
and in service to our local community,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord."
“....Help our church to grow in numbers,
in spiritual commitment, and in service to our local community…”
I'm sorry to say that I find elements of the prayer a bit disturbing,
because it seems to resonate with a Church whose priority is numbers,
placing service to the local community as something of lesser importance.
The Methodist Church issued recently in its “Guidance for Churches”,
a “possible pastoral care policy”,
in which it suggests to individual congregations:
“We should challenge the way
we relate to people, and our motivation for doing so.
Especially around the occasional offices of the church
and, for example:
the perception that we need more young people.
Do we seek to enter long-term relationships
with those who approach the church at particular points in their lives?
For whose benefit?
What is our motivation for working in the community?
It is obviously not wrong to want people to come to our church,
sharing with them a very precious gift;
but does their response dictate
the nature of our present and future involvement with them?”
What is our motivation?
"Bums on pews"?
If our motivation is, first and foremost, growth in numbers,
then surely that is not entirely what our Blessed Leader asks of us.
Our Churches will be judged, as indeed will we, by the standard set
in Matthew chapter 25 (34-36):
‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in,
I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Is our motivation, first and foremost, care?
Today's Gospel Reading talks of the lengths to which the Shepherd will go
to rescue the one in danger, leaving the other ninety-nine in a safe place.
Each individual matters.
Pastoral care should first and foremost be an expression of the love God has
for you and me as individuals, whether members of the Church or not.
If our motivation for so doing is simply
to extend God's love to where it is needed most,
then that is strength enough for the Body, the Church, in a place.
The Church is not there so that I can enjoy the sort of worship I want.
The Church exists to express sincerely the love God has for all.
Good Shepherd, may we allow ourselves into your caring,
to surrender ourselves to you
in silence and in love.
Surrendering ourselves to you
does not come easily
to our human condition.
But you reach out to us
to carry us through the difficult places of life,
and you lead us to the pastures of hope.
May we, in turn, reach out to others,
serving you in their needs.