Saturday, March 17, 2012

Going to Eli - the tension between the institutional and the vocational

The prophet Samuel is called at a time when 'the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions'. Yet clearly the institutional life of the religious establishment continues as before - Eli continues to minister at Shiloh. When Samuel hears the call from God, his instinct is to go to Eli, for this is the way in which his understanding of God has so far been formed. Eli's reaction is to tell Samuel to go back to sleep. It is only Samuel's persistent response to God's calling that breaks through Eli's habits and assumptions, and then Eli is able to genuinely minister to Samuel, giving him the correct guidance, and midwifing the birth of Samuel's own distinctive prophetic ministry - a ministry that begins with the pronouncement that Eli's sons, faithless priests at Shiloh, would soon be dead.

There is much that is worth pondering in this story; what I would like to tease out for now is the tension between the requirements of the sanctuary, and the requirements of responding to God's call - the tension between the institutional and the vocational.
The circle on the right represents all that it means to respond to God's call to minister in his name; to find life in serving him and become the person that God calls one to be. It is the path of life in all its fullness. The circle on the left represents all that it means to serve a particular religious institution, whether that be the sanctuary at Shiloh or the church today. Clearly it is God's intention for those circles to harmonise, so that those called by God to minister in his name are enabled to do so through the life of the institution.

Sometimes, however, God's intentions are not fulfilled. Sometimes the institution develops in such a way that the glory of the Lord departs from a place or institution. When this happens, continued service to the institution is not necessarily what is called for from the ministers. To do so is to become a Pharisee, one whom Jesus described as those that "nullify the word of God for the sake of [their] tradition." Clearly this was the situation with Samuel, when the word of the Lord was rare. In such a situation God calls forward the prophets - those whose awareness of vocation is so distinct that they are enabled to speak the word of God independently of the institution, and to criticise the institution from God's point of view. Put simply, when an institution falls away from true worship, it moves to the left of the picture; in response, God calls prophets to return the institution to the right of the picture. The role of the prophet, paradoxically, is to make it possible for the priest to do their job.

The place of the prophet is not a comfortable one. By definition, the prophet's role is to come into conflict with the institution, to repudiate its present practices and call those within the institution to repentance. The temptation for the prophet is to collapse into cynicism about the institution, to relish the pronouncements of doom against it, yet to do so is to fail in fulfilling God's purpose. The role of the prophet is to build up and edify the church, not to tear it down. It is to heal the church and bring it back to a living and active faith, not to arrogate to itself a role as judge and executioner. This is why Jeremiah is so archetypal - his love for the people of Israel abided throughout his ministry.

Where are we now in the Church of England? I am aware of far too many cases where the priorities of the institution have been catered for at the expense of individual vocations. When this happens, the minister either endures a life of quiet desperation or else falls out of ministry completely, normally through ill-health of one sort or another, or early retirement, or by seeking refuge in a non-parish role (the numbers of which multiply exceedingly). This is part of the inheritance of Anglican Christendom - Herbertism - and this is what has to be repudiated.

What, specifically, might this mean? I think, for me, it means questioning the perceived institutional needs, in the name of God. For example, the financial predicament of the Church of England, linked to the ongoing decline in numbers, provokes mortal terror in the heart of the existing establishment (apparently). There is then a subsequent push towards growth, using (often) business and management techniques - for they, obviously, are the very models of successful institutions. I see this as 'going to Eli', when what the church most needs is to say 'speak Lord, for your servant is listening'. That is, the very root of our problems is a turning away from God and a being captured by worldly agendas. More worldly concerns will not lead us out of our morass. More visions and agendas and bright ideas are not what we need. Our path is and can only be one of renewed faithfulness and humble waiting upon God. It may be that in his infinite wisdom God has decided that the particular institution called the Church of England has outlived its usefulness as a vessel for enabling the spread of the gospel. I hope not - but the only hope for the Church is if we return to our spiritual centre, and remember what it means to be human.


  1. One day we really should talk about this in person. Over a pint of real ale, perhaps!

  2. Sam, a most excellent post and very wise words! I left the c of e as I saw the pharisee element creep in over these past ten years. Along with mismanagement of millions of pounds of church funds by general synod, it is only by repenting and turning to the Lord that the c of e will survive as part of the body of Yeshua. It is no wonder that the current archbishop selection process will bring such discussion to the fore front of anglican attention.

  3. This is insightful. But it doesn't work to put a prophet at the head of a bunch of Pharisees and priests, especially if that prophet is too other-worldly to confront the Pharisees. That prophet ends up watching powerlessly as the old institution decays, as Samuel did, and eventually falls out of ministry by "early retirement, or by seeking refuge in a non-parish role". Who am I thinking of? See my latest blog post.

  4. Why not disestablish your church and stop pretending that you're living in the Middle Ages? If barely 3% of you turn up on any given Sunday, are you more worried about "witness" or your privileges?


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