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.
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.