Life in Formation

A Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2011


Readings: Acts vii.55-60, 1 Peter ii.2-10, John xiv.1-14


Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2.5)

Strictly Come Dancing isn’t what it was. For those who are of less than a certain age, it is based on a late night BBC programme which ran in the 1970’s called ‘Come Dancing’ which was a regional ballroom dancing competition. It ran from 1949 to 1998. In the realm of Latin Dancing, there was simply no-one to rival Home Counties South, who were invariably represented by the Penge Latin Formation Team, coached by the legendary Frank and Peggy Spencer; quite simply, they carried all before them, to the presumable chagrin of the other regions. So well drilled were they, so rehearsed to the inch, that they achieved astonishing success.

One of the most important things about the experience of residential training is that we are formed, as it were, in formation. In our case this doesn’t mean that we all act, or move, or speak, or even dress the same way – we aren’t being trained to be clones. It does mean that our formation has several dimensions, from the forming of personal and individual habits and virtues which prefigure the grace of ordination to the important understanding that our journeys to ordination and beyond do not take place in isolation. We cannot be solitary living stones, and our journeying is connected by a complex network of relationships which extend beyond our year group, beyond this House, and even beyond the boundaries of living and dying.  Living in formation is part of what it means to belong to the church catholic, as our experiences of God in Christ are mediated to us through the church local and universal. Such a way of life implies that what affects one affects all: whilst your eyes are necessarily fixed on the day when you will join another community – that of the parishes to which you are called, and where another type of living in formation is on the cards – there is no denying that the social habits of our life here will stay with us, and form the way in which we undertake our patterns of living in other places.

One of you said to me the other day that he believed the House to be the kind of place which you grew to dislike while you were here, but demonstrated a huge depth of loyalty and love to thereafter. All of us know by now that as ordinands, no theological college is a place in which to tarry. Many of our anecdotes after ordination will doubtless consist in the things that happened while we were here, and – please be gentle with us – the staff who taught us. But to live, to pray and to learn in community is vital, for by so doing we are seeking the very heart and example of the Holy Trinity, a community of love and mutual concern that models a different way of being to a church which sees training in such a way as too expensive, and to the world around us which struggles to define and live out what it means to be community at all. .

The challenge, then, is to live as those who, as the church, mediate Christ to one another. By living in formation here we undertake a responsibility not only for our own training and shaping, but for that of each other. Our actions, words and examples, for good or ill, shape the thinking and attitudes of individual members of this whole community. And how important that is, in a college where not everyone we meet has a ‘church’ background, or understands our ways of speaking and doing things.

If I may stretch the analogy, living stones depend on one another to stay in position. In a dry stone wall, the dislodging of one stone brings about a collapse of the stones around it, because each relies on the mass, inertia and shape of the others to keep the wall stable. Each of us is called to occupy a different place within the edifice of the church, and for different reasons, and we do so by responding as faithfully as we can to God’s call which, we pray, locates us where we are needed. And, if we are Living Stones, then we must let ourselves be shaped by God into the kind of structure he wants, rather than building large personal edifices of our own called ‘careers’.

There will inevitably be times when we are called to question this – whether we are in the right place, doing the right thing – and there will be times when we do not understand why it is we have been placed where we have until much later on (if at all). If we become angry or frustrated in our situations, and on reflection recognize that those feelings are but a reflection of the community in which we serve, then that should act as an incentive to us; not to justify a superficial desire to ‘bale out’ when the going gets tough, but rather to seek the grace of perseverance and endurance, in our prayer life, our abandonment to the will of God, and to tasks which being in that situation implies. Seek the help, seek the support, of your parishes, your families, your networks, the groups to which you belong. But remind yourself of the consequences of pulling the stone out of the wall, as far greater damage may ensue.

More than this, we need to learn to trust processes, and that God’s grace makes up whatever is lacking in the church through human frailty. All of you who have accepted title parishes and incumbents up and down the country will be aware of a certain sense of risk. It is necessarily a process in which you, the parish and the diocese are called into decision with a relative lack of knowledge. If nothing else, we have to believe that the process that has led us to this place, the point in our lives, has been a grace-filled one, and that through the processes of the church we are being located to a place where we are called to be. There is also a sense in which the very act of trusting, of risking, places us in a situation where we have to rely on God’s resources rather than our own. And his grace is sufficient. ‘Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’.

Given at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, on 22nd May 2011


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