Sermon given at the Eucharist with the Ordination and Consecration of The Right Reverend Christopher Lowson
21 September 2011 at 11:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
A vicar and his wife had invited their new bishop for dinner. They wanted to make a really good impression, so they prepared the table beautifully and cooked all their favourite dishes.
When they were ready to start the proud vicar spoke to his daughter, aged six and said, “Mary, you say grace, please”. An awkward silence followed, so the vicar’s wife coaxed the little girl, “Come on, Mary; just say what you heard mummy say at breakfast time this morning.”
So in a loud voice Mary said, “O God, why did we invite the Bishop to dinner tonight?”
Well, you lucky people of Lincoln need have no worries when you invite your new Bishop to your parishes or to your homes because in Christopher you will have a Bishop who understands the pressures of church and parish life at all levels.
I have had the privilege of knowing Christopher as a parish priest, as an archdeacon, and most recently as a Priest Vicar of this Abbey while he’s also been our neighbour in Church House heading up the Ministry Division. Christopher and Susan have been great personal friends to us, but also in his professional capacity Christopher combines in a special way the gifts of being a humble & wise counsellor and caring pastor, with having high expectations of those with whom he works, while being focussed and firm in his own thinking.
In becoming Bishop of Lincoln though he has some hard acts to follow.
Not only Bishop John, his immediate predecessor, but exactly 815 years ago today, on 21st September 1186, Hugh of Avalon was consecrated in this Abbey; although, he obviously didn’t have quite as many friends as Christopher as his service took place out in St Catherine’s Chapel.
He of course was later to become Saint Hugh, described as a Bishop who was exemplary, constantly travelling around his diocese and generous with his charity. He was also said to be outspoken in praising those who were good and condemning the bad, he was popular with kings and with ordinary people alike, and as part of his service to the diocese he contributed greatly to the re-building and enlargement of the cathedral.
His memory then continues to have an enormous influence in the Diocese of Lincoln and beyond.
So, no pressure Chris, but perhaps in a few centuries time the Diocese of Lincoln will be celebrating a new St Christopher.
We are today though also focussing our attention on another saint, Matthew.
And, as we think about the account of his calling, I believe it has some crucial things to say to us as we think about the role of our bishops in the Church and the world, and of the ministry of each one of us.
Jesus said to Matthew, those simple words, “Follow me”. But what demanding words those were, and indeed are, for us today.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider what we mean when we follow someone or follow some cause.
To follow can just mean taking an interest in something, so for example we might follow a football team or follow the fortunes of the stock market.
Following might also be seen in a passive light; we sometimes talk of people falling into two categories, some being followers, others being leaders.
But when Jesus said “Follow me” he certainly wasn’t talking about this kind of passivity and he wasn’t inviting people to simply take an interest in what he was saying and doing, however passionate that interest might be.
His call to follow was a call to a completely new way of living; a call to turn many of the values of the world upside down; it was a call to transformation.
He was not saying to his followers, fall in behind me and go where I go, he was saying, “Take on my characteristics, become like me through and through”.
And how the Church needs its bishops to be Christ-like!
I alluded at the start of this sermon to the pressures that often face parish priests, but what huge pressures there are on our bishops to be brilliant managers, skilled strategists, creative thinkers, competent financiers, imaginative communicators, not to mention being approachable, down to earth, skilled in dealing with people of all ages, and of course to have a good sense of humour!
And no doubt all those are important qualities and skills in our bishops as they lead their dioceses, but there are other qualities which are even more vital; the qualities Christ displayed in his earthly ministry - of unity with his Father though prayer; of loving service and self sacrifice, and of drawing the very best out of other people.
It’s interesting to note that many of the saints we celebrate in our liturgical calendar who were bishops, displayed these qualities in their ministries - it was their holiness, their commitment to pastoral care and teaching, and their concern for the poor which made such an impact on those around them.
But as we celebrate St Matthew’s day and think about the call from Jesus to “Follow me”. This is not a call to our bishops only.
Just as at a baptism or confirmation service; when the candidates make their commitment to Christ, everyone present is reminded of their calling as a Christian; so today as Christopher is consecrated Bishop, we are all reminded of our calling as a church.
That is, to be a prayerful community recognising our need of God; to be a serving community living for others, and not obsessed with our own needs; and to be a confident community, celebrating each others gifts and achievements, believing in ourselves because God believe in us.
Another well known predecessor of Christopher’s, was Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln at the end of the 19th century, but whose memory lives on.
One of his students wrote of him, “It was light he carried with him - light that shone through him. The room lit when he entered”.
We pray for Christopher - that will bring light to his ministry as a Bishop; but on this day when we celebrate the call of Matthew and hear again those words of Jesus, “Follow me”, let us pray that we will all be his lights - becoming like him through and through and so drawing others to his light and love.