What we believe, and how we express what we believe is a complicated business for members of all religious groups, and Christians are not excluded. We only have to look at the number of different commentaries that have been published on the Gospels of Jesus, or the range of different ways that Christians talk about him, and worship him, and live out their lives in his name, to illustrate the complexities of believing.
In times when living out our faith seems too confusing we might be tempted to look back to an early version of the Church in which everything was simple and clear and straightforward. Unfortunately for all of us, no such Church has ever existed. From the earliest days of the Church there have been disagreements and controversies as Christians have sought to work out what it means to live for Jesus in a world where that is sometimes difficult and confusing.
Throughout the history of the Church there have been dominant views about what Christians should believe and how they should live their lives, that every now and again have been challenged by other views which have emerged. On each of those many occasions, the Church has, through prayer and study and debate, then come to a decision about whether or not the inherited understanding should remain, or whether a new understanding more accurately describes what the Spirit is saying.
In a sense we are all here because that process was normal in the life of the Church right from the very beginning. If the Church had not had the freedom to change, and grow then it would have remained (as it had begun) as a movement within Judaism. But because of the experiences in the earliest communities of Jesus – when Gentiles (people like you and me) also wanted to make a commitment to him through baptism – because of those experiences, the first followers of Jesus who had assumed that God was only interested in the Jews , had to come to a fuller understanding which also included the Gentiles, the rest of humanity, as well. You can read those debates as they unfold in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.
In the first few hundred years of the life of the Church the questions which dominated the minds of Christian thinkers were focused on the person of Jesus. How could he be both God and man? Was he really both, or did he just appear to be both? Did the “God-bit” of him suffer as well as the “human-bit” when he hung on the cross? The questions were numerous, and perplexing. The Nicene Creed which we read Sunday by Sunday in our Eucharistic liturgy is one example of a statement that was written to correct one set of beliefs and to assert another.
Throughout history this striving to be able to more accurately describe all that we believe about God has been an ongoing experience of the life of the Church. When people have got this right they have been called saints, when they have been judged to have got this wrong they were called heretics.
In our own life times this striving to express in the ministry and worship of the Church what we understand about God has led to radical changes in our liturgy, and in the way that ministry is carried out.
Forty-five years ago altars were against the East Wall and not in their current position, and the changes that were made after that time were not merely cosmetic, they were a result of our changing understanding of God at work amongst us. Twenty years ago the priestly ministry of our Church was limited only to men. When the first women were ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia that was not merely a practical decision because people were getting bored of only hearing men, at its very heart it was about the changing way in which the Church understood the Spirit at work amongst us. If we have in our minds as Christians the kind of idea that what the Church believes, and how it lives out those beliefs, is somehow unchanging, then we have missed the witness of the whole of Christian history and tradition which has never been static but has been an ongoing process of development and growth, as Christians have sought to be faithful to God, and to express their faithfulness ever more accurately.
The problem for you and me, as members of the Church, is that we do not always know whether the changes that are being made are a further step forwards or a divergence side-ways. And in this regard we are in the good company of Christians down through the ages who were in a similar situation as well. The same Holy Spirit who was present with them is present with us now, but that does not always mean that we have easy or certain answers. The truth is that there are some Christians who are willing to give any new idea a go, whether it is a good idea or not. And there are other Christians who are never willing to accept change at any level about anything. And there are other Christians who are willing to test something new, to see if it is from God, but only after other people have done it first. In this respect, those of us who gather as the Church are simply reflections of the rest of the population.
So what do we do, within the Church, when we are faced with the challenge of deciding about change? Well, whatever else we do we begin with prayer. And as Anglicans we then try to hold together both what we know from Scripture, and from the tradition of the Church and from our experience of living as Christians today, as well. Then, like generations of Christians before us, we take a holy risk – because that is what happens whenever we make a decision. Together as the Church we decide either that what we have done so far is what we want to continue to do next, or we decide that another way of proceeding will be better than simply doing what we have done before all over again. The risk on the one hand is that we may be mistaken, and the path may not be the right one; the risk on the other hand is that we may miss out on what God has in store for us.
At the two Eucharists this morning each one of us, as members of this Parish community is being given the opportunity to respond to our Diocesan vision for congregations like ours. We have had opportunities to reflect on this vision at various points over the last few years, and most recently for members of the Parish Council at our recent morning together, and for the rest of us through the Lent study entitled ‘A New Vision for Our Church’. We make this decision in the knowledge of all of the great ministry that already goes on here, and which will the foundation for our future. This vision of the Church will have been new to some of us, and yet familiar to others of us. So I want to summarise it for you in six interconnected points:
Firstly, we believe that every baptised Christian has been gifted by God to share in the ministry within and from this Church at Belmont.
Secondly, we believe that each one of us has been gifted differently, so that together there are sufficient gifts in this local Church for what God is calling that local Church to be and to do.
Thirdly, we believe that there therefore needs to be a way of assisting the members of the Church here at Belmont to discern each other’s gifts so that those gifts can be used in ministry and mission.
Fourthly, we believe that whilst we all have gifts to share in the tasks of ministry, some members of this Church have the gifts and the skills necessary to be leaders here. There therefore needs to be a structure in our Church which enables leaders to lead us towards the goals which the local congregation has set for itself, not only in the administration and maintenance of the Church, but in its new and developing ministries as well. That is why alongside the Parish Council each Parish that is committed to this vision is developing a Parish Ministry Team of discerned leaders who are not ordained as deacons or priests, but who remain as lay people like the rest of the congregation, but with special leadership roles. A Parish Ministry Team here will be led and supervised and guided by Fr Daniel, whose role in this process will be critical. The team will not replace or side-line him, it will depend upon him for wisdom and guidance.
Fifthly, we believe that because we are all on a journey together, there needs to be opportunities for ongoing training which is specific to our ministries. For the small group of leaders in a Parish Ministry Team that will be focused around the Bishop’s Certificate programme, and for the rest of us there will be other opportunities (largely within the Parish) for us to continue to develop our skills for ministry.
Sixthly, given that we as Anglicans value the particular ministries which are reserved to the ordained, if there is a person, or people, who have the particular gifts necessary for ordination within the life of the Church, then we would need to find ways for them to be recognised by us here, and by the Church at large in order for them to be ordained to minister here as deacons or priests under Fr Daniel’s supervision within the Parish Ministry Team.
To help us to make a decision today we are each being asked to respond to two particular statements. The first statement says, ‘I believe that God is calling our Parish to embrace the vision of Becoming a Ministering Community in Mission’, to which we are each invited to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to signify whether we are in agreement with that statement or not. The second statement says, ‘I am willing to make a personal commitment to this vision’ and again we are invited to respond by indicating ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If the majority of people believe that God is not calling us to proceed in this way, or if people believe that God is calling us down this path but are not willing to be personally committed to being involved, then we will not proceed. If sufficient members of the congregations affirm both of these statements we will proceed as a Parish community together under the leadership of Fr Daniel and with the support of the resources of the Diocese. The decision will be made by the congregations here, and by no one else.
Let me say one thing about the Gospel reading that we have just heard, in the context of the decision that we will be making. We are used to Jesus being the one who is doing all of the ministry, but at the meal that we have just heard about, he is enjoying the ministry of others. Mary is centre stage with her jar full of fragrance, but she is not the only character in the story. Martha is quietly in the background preparing and serving the food, she is not centre stage like Jesus and Mary but she is essential to that meal taking place. Judas is there as well the treasurer of the community, so is Lazarus, (who has recently been raised from the dead) the host of the meal.
As I imagine this dinner with Jesus I remember the number of different gifts that are represented in the people in the room. I think our Church is much like that. In many different ways many of us contribute to the ministry and witness of the Anglican Church in Belmont. This has never been the task of one man, or one woman, it has always been the calling of everyone of us. The vision of ‘Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission’ seeks to help us to order our lives around that reality.
In every generation Christians have had to make decisions in the face of change. We are no different today. Like those who have gone before us the responsibility is ours to seek to discern what God is calling us to do.