Sermon preached at Rochester Cathedral, at the Licensing of Lay Ministers
16th May 2015

Numbers 11.16-17 & 24-29; 1 Cor 2.1-10; Mark 7.32-37


The man was deaf and, linked to that, his speech was impaired.  As any of us who have known those profoundly deaf from birth will be aware, there is this connection between clarity of hearing and speech.  We learn to speak mainly by imitation, and if we cannot hear we therefore cannot imitate and our speech may lack clarity.  There is in the telling of the story by Mark an awareness of this in that the miracle is a healing of both hearing and speech – once the man’s ears are opened so he speaks plainly.

You are called to and today to be commissioned for ministries which require you in various ways to speak.  For some, it is a ministry with a principal focus on preaching and teaching; for some it is speaking in leading the worship of God’s people; for others it is in the offering pastoral care; for yet others it is engaging in the wider community in service of different kinds – and various combinations of all of those.  And your calling in these settings involves being able to speak, in spoken and other ways, plainly; to preach and teach with clarity and understanding; to lead worship and prayer with discernment and integrity; in caring for and serving those in need, to speak in word and deed the message of God’s compassion and infinite love.  In short to be those whose very lives speak with clarity of God’s graciousness and generosity.

Some considerable time ago I had an ear infection that affected my hearing and in such a way that it would come and go.  I recall the difficulties I had leading worship, participating in meetings and the like.  There was this sense of being not quite in touch with the reality of life going on around me – some less than generous souls might have wondered whether this was much different from the rest of the time.  But it was deeply disconcerting.  The inability to hear clearly began to affect all kinds of parts of life – relating to others, driving a car, sharing in public worship, making a telephone call.  For a few weeks I understood in small measure what it must be like for those for whom this is a permanent state.

Now whatever may be the state of our physical hearing, what we may also learn here is that if we are to speak with clarity of the things of God and the things of the Spirit, then we must also be those who have our spiritual ears opened, our inner hearing alert; that we should be those who not only speak, but also listen; indeed those who listen before they speak.  And that listening will is in various directions.

  • There needs to be a listening to the world.  One of the distinctive things that many of you bring to your ministry is your participation in the life of the world.  That’s not to say that the clergy don’t participate in the world, but there is something important about the fact that yours is a lay ministry, often exercised alongside some form of work, paid or unpaid, within the secular environment.  You are in that sense bridge people, as all of us are called to be, but you do it in an acknowledged and representative way.  And you are to be those who listen to what the world says; who feel its heartbeat, hear its questions, sense its pains and share its hopes and aspirations.
  • Next you are to listen to the needs of individuals.  For both ordained and lay ministers in our Anglican tradition, preaching and pastoral ministries are linked.  And it is as important for the preacher and teacher as it is for pastor to listen to people.  Our listening to the individuals in our care, our sharing in their lives, will enable us to speak more plainly in both pastoral care and in preaching.  It is one of the things I’ve been missing since becoming a bishop since on many occasions I am now preaching to people with whom I have no individual and continuing pastoral relationship; and I’ve been very conscious that my style of preaching has changed as a result.
  • And then there is an important listening to one another, and especially to those with whom we share in ministry.  The ministries to which you are commissioned are not to be exercised in isolation (I always struggle when people talk about ‘my ministry’).  Ministry, service, leadership – as we heard from the example in Numbers, these callings are to be shared.  You minister in fellowship with me as bishop, and alongside clergy and other lay ministers; your ministry includes also the fostering of gifts in other lay people.  The nurturing of these relationships is vital, indeed the quality of those relationships is itself a part of the ministry and witness.  Without good listening, those ministerial relationships will not flourish.
  • And my final level of listening is the obvious one – to God.  In a few minutes I will be asking those of you to be Admitted and Licensed whether you will be diligent in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel.  Much of that is about listening – through the disciplines of reading, study and reflection upon the Scriptures, through discussion with others, through prayer and contemplation, to attune your spiritual ears to the word of God.  If our speech is indeed to be a demonstration of the Spirit, then we must give attention to God.

Yours are ministries of speaking in both words and deeds.  If we are to speak plainly, then our ears must be opened.  As the Scripture wisely puts it, ‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak.’