It was in 1987 that I first moved from one pastorate to another. I recall thanking the people of those Stockport churches for enabling me to cut my ministerial teeth. And every time I have moved since then, I have found myself thanking people for precisely the same thing, because each context has offered and asked significantly new things.
It is no different this autumn, as I am embraced by the privileges and responsibilities of being one of the General Assembly Moderators; I am cutting my moderatorial teeth. The development of which I am particularly aware now is a renewed sense of how inescapable it is in what I say – sermons, addresses, articles, blogs, conversation – to hold in tension the pastoral and the prophetic.
The vocation of the church is to be the embodiment of something of the God we see in Jesus Christ. There are times when that is shaped by a radical love that is motivated Christ’s. W. H. Vanstone used to speak of it as ‘Love that gives, gives ever more, gives with zeal, with eager hands, spares not, keeps not, all outpours, ventures all its all expends.’ (Love’s endeavour, Love’s expense 1977 DLT page 119). Are we not most authentically and credibly The Church when our worship rejoices in that and our service echoes it? I am more than ever persuaded this is what our aspiration to be pastoral is all about.
But that is not – cannot – be all we bring to today’s world. In our era of confident atheism and self-sufficiency, which means that by definition God is off many agendas, our pastoral hallmark must surely be complemented by a commitment to speak a prophetic word. In Romans 10, Paul asks how people will believe in one of whom they have not heard, and how they will hear of one who is not proclaimed to them. So it is for our generation: on countless topics our vocation is to speak into the world’s condition a prophetic word inspired by Scripture and our faith. How will it be heard if we do not do so?
Of course, Remembrance Sunday was one of this month’s opportunities for a prophetic word. I found myself musing in a village newsletter, ‘Might it not be that in the weirdest of ironies, the trenches don’t disprove God but define God? Could it be that the trench-bound Tommy reveals the nature of the God we see in Jesus Christ – ‘love that all outpours’. Both suffer to the uttermost in order to express that commitment to one another that is at the heart of life at its best.’
As we continue to navigate our way through a re-defined relationship with the European Union, might we not bring something prophetic to the discourse as we add a theological perspective – less that we cannot walk God’s way unless we are part of the EU, but more that, in or out, we cannot walk God’s way unless our commitment is the Kingdom of God first.
Safeguarding of children, young people and vulnerable adults is another topic where a prophetic word is required. How easy it is to belittle as political correctness. We will not get the point of it if that is how we see safeguarding. Serious theological perspective is required, so we understand it as an essential element of the on-going journey of God’s people towards a wholesome humanity – a wholesome humanity that recognises how ‘inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto me.’
So we could go on, but time does not allow. Suffice it to say, as Advent beckons, that we have a prophetic opportunity without peer to ensure that the world is given the Christmas truth, which Mr Wesley so exquisitely expressed as ‘best of all is God is with us.’ And that, surely, is up there with the ultimate words that hold together the prophetic and the pastoral.