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Midwifery for Anglicans

Ordinary Sunday 33: 15th November, 2009
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Mark 13: 1-11

It's a joy to be back at St Peter's, not this time in the temporary role of a locum but in a more permanent, even if part-time capacity, as a member of the staff team.

I am not here in the first instance as a bishop. The ministry of a bishop extends beyond the local parish to the wider diocese. If I do 'episcopal things' at all, they will be secondary to what I feel the good Lord has called me primarily to do here among you and with you who are God's people in this place.

So what is it that I specifically feel called to do in the ministry that has generously been extended to me by the Vicar?

The Gospel for today provides the key to the way in which I see my role unfolding. Amidst the list of terrible apocalyptic events that will mark the last days, (the eschatological days; the End-time) there is one verse in today's Gospel that stands as an antidote to despair in the Church and in the world. Jesus says:

'This is the beginning of the birth pangs of a new age'. (Mk 13:8)

In other words, what looks like the End-time, with the appearance of — false teachers who will lead many astray; of wars and rumours of wars; of earth quakes and famines — all signs which mark the whole period of the church from the Incarnation to the 2nd Coming — are in fact all actually identified by our Lord, as unpremeditated labour pains.

Jesus here summons the church to a midwifery role. The people of God are recruited to be midwives of the new order that God wishes to bring about.

Paul uses the same imagery in Chapter 8 of Romans. He writes: 'We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we have been saved'.

In defiance of modern methods of learning, I taught my 5 kids to memorize this passage from Romans. Young children have very retentive memories and I thought I would try, as it were, to sneak a bit of the Bible into their blood streams before the devil got started on his tactics through the culture that surrounded them.

Of course they didn't understand a word of it, so, together we devised a way of acting out the words — 'We know' was indicated by touching our brains; 'whole creation' by doing a little pirouette and pointing all around; 'groaning in labour pains' by lying on the floor and rubbing our tummies.

It was often quite ridiculous — even at times, bordering on the irreverent! But the worst thing you can do with children is to make Christianity boring! At least this was a fun experience. Still today when as adults they get together and recall their father's ridiculous antics there's a lot of laughter. But I must say, I secretly have the last laugh because I think to myself, the biblical text is in their blood stream and what they do with it, is, of course, up to them! Some seem to have absorbed it into their lives while, I am afraid, it is still going round and round in the bloodstream of a couple of the others with no apparent effect!

Romans 8 is a good passage to memorize because it is so full of hope. The labour pains to which both Jesus in Mark 13 and Paul in Romans 8 refer, herald something positive. There is to be no trepidation in the Christian life — instead there is to be expectation, as the creation and we ourselves, wait on tip-toe, longing for redemption. The frustrations and pains of creation are the signs of hope for a 'new creation'.

John Bell from the Iona Community in Scotland puts it well when he says: 'We are not called to be a collection of complainers who think and behave as though things can only get worse'. No. We should not capitulate to pessimism and despair. Rather, he says, 'The church is an odd assortment of midwives who in the midst of confusion, pray and believe and prepare for the new thing which God intends to happen.'

I see my vocation among you as one of encouraging us all to be a people, who, by our living and loving, announce the in-breaking of God's justice and beauty into a hurting and broken world, anticipating the time about which the Old Testament prophet Isaiah speaks, 'when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the water covers the sea'. I want to help the parish to sow and nurture Kingdom seeds that surprise a weary world with unexpected beauty.

But the question is, how?

(My wife will be amused at my use of the image of midwifery, since the midwives who attended her had to suddenly turn their attention to me when I fainted in the labour Ward as one of our children was about to be born! Hopefully I can handle new birth in the Spirit better than I did new physical birth!)

Put simply, my midwifery goals for St Peter's are three-fold. They can be stated as:

  • Making connections
  • Making new disciples
  • Growing mature disciples

1. Making Connections

Bishop Stephen Cottrell in his excellent book on Catholic evangelism entitled From the Abundance of the Heart pointedly says, 'Before ever we think about mission today we have now got to find people in the first place!' (p. 29)

Up until Christmas and into January I am hoping to talk with many of you about the various 'people groups' with whom we already have some contact:

  • Husbands who don't come to church
  • Flower arrangers
  • Parents and toddlers
  • Hall users
  • 'Submarine Christians' — Christians who only surface twice a year at Christmas and Easter?

And asking in the first place, how we can better bless and serve them rather than convert them. ('Blessing comes before belonging and belonging comes before believing').

The question we must ask is not 'How can we get more people to come to church?' but 'How can we serve the people with whom we have contact in such a way that the Gospel is intriguing, challenging and appealing?'

2. Making New Disciples

I believe that every parish should develop a place of nurture — an enquirers group that is offered perhaps 2 or 3 times a year. Bishop Stephen Cottrell takes up my image of midwifery when he likens a church without a place of nurture to a hospital without a maternity ward! 'No wonder' he says, 'there are no babies being born!' (Cottrell, p. 50)

Please speak to me if you personally would be interested in such a group. They may be quite small groups.

3. Growing Mature Disciples

Disciples are learners. They always wear 'L' plates because they never graduate from being a disciple.

For Christian maturity, listening to a 15 min. sermon every Sunday morning is not enough! The Bible is both enormously complex and persistently engaging — it invites a life-long relationship. Not that the sermon is unimportant but it needs supplementing with interactive teaching. That is how our Lord taught. People felt free to ask their questions and he took them with the utmost seriousness, however wrongheaded they may have been.

Over time, I hope to be able to offer a holistic approach to Christian maturing, offering courses that cover a threefold blend of theology, spirituality and life issues —

a theologytrack — in which there a short courses to address the biblical illiteracy in our culture — a panoramic view of the Bible; short courses on key doctrines such as our understanding of the nature of the Bible; the Incarnation; Atonement; the Trinity; the Church;

a spiritualitytrack — in which we look at different approaches to prayer and address the difficulties that arise when we pray

and since authentic Christianity is not just a matter of thinking right but also of living right — a lifetrack — offering courses on married life; parenting; the single life; the Sunday/Monday connection etc.

If you like, we could say that this threefold blend of theology, spirituality and life issues is 'a curriculum for Christ-likeness'.

In all of this, I in no way want to compete with the excellent program already in place, through the Institute of Spiritual Studies — which utilizes experts in similar areas but for a larger audience.

My three tracks will unashamedly be biased towards addressing the dreaded 'e' word — 'evangelism'. Catholic Anglican's need not shy away from this word. After all, as again Stephen Cottrell points out, none of us would be here this morning unless someone had evangelised us. Here this morning there are perhaps 30, 60 people who have been evangelised. Someone shared their faith by word or example — perhaps a parent or grandparent; a priest in a sermon or a friend by their love — and that's why we're here. We have been evangelized! So let's not shrink from this word or this activity.

Finally, as I begin, I covet your prayerful support, your suggestions and, if it seems right to you, your active collaboration and participation in helping people to look at the church and the world, not in despair, but through the eyes of Jesus to see the birth-pangs of the reign of God, the new thing that God is bringing to birth in our midst


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