Saturday, October 04, 2008

Taking the order seriously

This afternoon the order of St John held its Prior's Visitation and Investiture service at the church. It was the first time for Michelle, a new young administrator, to work on preparing the event, so more of a trail for her than for the rest of us. Much to my surprise, a month ago, I was asked if I would preach - there being no Prelate available, I guess. This I happily agreed to, and prepared for the occasion, an address relating the life of St Francis, whose feast day it is, to the life of work of the Order of Hospitallers down the centuries. I wrote it when first asked, and was pleased when I went back to it to print it out that it still hung together. I was pleased that it was well received. I am far from used to preaching to 200 people any longer, and was quite nervous, perched up in the pulpit. I only use it on Good Friday, when we never get more than sixty people at a time.

I found myself reflecting with Ben on the rather arcane ceremonial culture associated with the Order of St John services. It's very hierarchical in nature, but organising it involves large numbers of people in active roles. And in this sense it reflects an operational structure which draws on the very best of military practice to ensure its stability and robustness in changing circumstances, whilst making it possible to be free and flexible in handing any emergency or crisis situation. Everyone has a clear role and function, and a strong sense of shared purpose tying it all together.

One should be able to say the same about the church, and its rituals and organisation. However, there is less clarity and less of a common mind about what purpose the church serves, and what roles people are committed to. People come to believe and belong for so many disparate reasons. Finding room for each other is what we seek to do in a spirit of charity, when we're at our best. In all this it's possible that we can lose our way. Too much structure, too little structure, both pose us problems. With a diminished or confused sense of purpose, the church can all to often lose its ability to respond effectively to the spiritual need of the time.

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