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A Voice in the Wilderness
The reformed bishop

At moderatorial sermon delivered in the High Kirk of Edinburgh at the licencing of students by the Presbytery of Edinburgh, 2nd July 1978.

Preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Matthew 10. v. 7.

The issuing of a licence to preach is an ecclesiastical procedure centuries older than the reformation, [1] This formality demonstrated the Church's confidence in the licentiate's fitness to speak in Christ's name and with his authority.

While this meeting of the presbytery coincides with the passing of final church and university examinations, it is this significant act of the church that marks the beginning of your ministry, to be completed when the whole people of God in one place call you to be their minister. Your final destiny is to be an overseer, a bishop, in the church of God. Yet, as a precondition to all this, you have to assure the church that, as the mediaeval latinists said, you are a preco, a watchman, a crier, a herald, a proclaimer, a preacher. [2]

Therefore, I wish to point you towards your calling as a bishop in the church of God - one who is given oversight in Christ's kirk in Scotland. You will remember from your studies that a true bishop, prior to the perversions of the office which, gradually developing in the Constantinian age, reached their full damning effect in the later middle ages, the true bishop was and is an overseer, interceder, preacher, pastor and doctor of the church.

Above all else, your first responsibility, as understood in the reformed tradition, is to be a preacher [3] whose proclamation is sustained and enriched by all the other aspects of your ministry.

Preach because you have something to say, not because you have to say something. Be true to the Word of God and be true to yourself. Do not be imprisoned in a particular school of theology. Exercise your Christian freedom. Do not conform to transient temporary concepts. Do not reiterate popular opinions even when you believe them to be true -such popular views will be well known already and the pulpit is no place to seek to secure popularity and praise.

If your preaching is not to be simply a church recitation, your preaching must be prophetic. There must be a subordination of the priestly to the prophetic.

Priest and preacher: these two words epitomise the tensions which have existed in the church almost from the beginning. Even in reformed churches such as our own, the continual institutional gravitation towards the priestly where routine ritual and platitudinous repetitions of words and phrases, deployed like incantations, smother all but the most vivacious prophecy.

The task to which you are called ensures that, as a prophetic preacher, you are encompassed by events and happenings, never enveloped by an opiate smokescreen. With incisive understanding and carefully chosen word, such a preacher's concern is to reveal the emptiness behind crumbling facades. He is called to shake foundations, shatter preconceived notions and lay bare the dry bones of the living who are dead already, while, at the same instant, his mission is to discern the potential, inevitable, divine renewal and the latent new purposeful patterns which God is providentially thrusting into contemporary salvation history.

Such preaching demands strength to withstand the clerical conformity of known ecclesiastics in church courts and the half identified ones in congregations. The other great requirement is courage to endure the inevitable odium as a proclaimer of truth - where in the church are truth and openness wholeheartedly welcome? Have you the courage to struggle against the soothing, sweet waters of the stream?

Throughout your ministry, you will find many who lack the moral strength to preach and whose soliloquies are mere reinforcements for their own introversion. Remember, however, the words of George Eliot: While we are coldly discussing a man's career, sneering at his mistakes, blaming his opinions, "evangelical" or "latitudinarian" and "pantheistic", that man in his solitude is perhaps shedding hot tears because his sacrifice is a hard one, because strength and patience are failing him to speak the difficult word and do the difficult deed'. [4]

As a preacher, you should never forget that in the early church the office of preacher and the office of doctor were considered to be synonymous. Augustine was quite emphatic that the office of doctor was that of a preacher of the Word, the herald of the gospel of Christ. [5] This was re-emphasised at the reformation. A doctor of the church is very different from a doctor in a university theological faculty. There is a massive distinction between a wrestler with reality bringing life to a dying world and the sustainer of a few life cells in an aloof and isolated germ-free laboratory. The doctor of the church must have wisdom and power from God permeating his study while an academic can often survive with some specialised knowledge.

You have been called upon already to 'be diligent to study the things which are written in the Bible'.[6] You are called to display, by your life and thought, the twin lights of knowledge and truth.

In a very, very few cases today, the situation may be as described by Robert Louis Stevenson when he portrayed the Reverend Mr. Soulis, minister of Balwearie, ttfu' o' book learnin', but wi' no leevin' experience in religion", who, as opposed to his college education, "would have learned more sitting in a peat-bog, like their forebears 'o the persecution, wi' a Bible under their oxter an' a speerit o' prayer in their heart". [7]

By far the greater danger facing the ministry now is being on the verge of illiteracy rather than being the 'bookish theoric' as the villain Iago put it. [8]

Your have a duty to remain a scholar. Your scholarship has to be deepened and widened and made more relevant as the years pass. You will experience, at the heart of your being, as Luther put it, that 'not reading or speculating, but living, dying and being damned make a theologian', yet there remain those printed words which will reveal fresh insights gained from another man's hesitating suggestings, different dimensions demonstrated which will reroute your mental and spiritual energies, a carefully framed question which will guide you to an inspiring answer, your tendencies towards an ivory tower mentality will be kept in subjection and a self-generating dogmatism will be undermined.

Sustained and systematic scholarly work is essential if your aspirations to be a preacher and a doctor of the church are to be realised and your failure to be one will prevent you from being the other.

May I say that some of the most helpful insights for the theologians

of the church, who are inevitably on the forefront of much intellectual and spiritual involvement, have come from the approach of such men as Eberhard Junge, particularly in his famous lecture, Theologische Wissenschaft und Glaube im Blick auf die Armut Jesu'. [9]

There must always be held in tension the power and the divine origin of the faith and the human poverty and tentativeness of theological understanding. Your heart and spirit must be sensitive to God's

strengthening of your faith while your continuing theological and biblical studies will be, at best, a lifelong search after the truth within the limits of earthbound categories and human vocabulary.

In spite of all the work which has been done in the field of practical theology, or maybe because of it, the bishop as pastor has always been the most difficult of all the aspects of the ministry to exercise with relevant meaningfulness.

The source of much of the difficulty arises from the fact, as stated by Johannes B. Metz, that the generally accepted concept is the church for the people not the church of the people. [10] The nursing home mentality instead of an appraisal of the family of God! That is, the shiners of the seats of ecclesiastical power are continually concerning themselves, believing they have the best possible motives, with the need to do something for the people. The people, the plebeians, the laity, the members on a communion roll: they are there to be visited, to be guided, to be counselled, to be informed, to be enlightened, to be inspired, to be cajoled, and, if all else fails, to be organised or driven.

In this situation, as Jurgen Moltmann said, at the Urban Industrial Mission Conference in Tokyo three years ago, Therefore the hierarchs are always trying to do the popular thing. They are affable, condescending, and solicitous so that the people will not be aware of their immaturity and their lack of control over their own future'. [11] In the present day world of specialisation and the growing desire of all humanity to have its every need met by some anonymous specialist, the majority of people in the pews are blissfully happy to be left just there and the church has played a great part in Joseph Blenkinsopp's article, 'On Clericalism' which appeared, over a decade ago, in New Blackfriars, [12] could be directly applied to the Church of Scotland without much verbal alteration.

A pastor can only be a pastor when the whole church understands that it is the cleros and the laos - the chosen and the people of God. The pastor in the church today is faced with the awesome and yet urgent task to make the congregation and himself realise that he is nothing more and nothing less than a pastor pastorem. The pastoral needs and the contemporary pastoral problems can only be faced by the whole people of God. You will recall what Rabbi Chjim once said: 'Someone lost his way deep in the woods. A short time later, it happened to another, who met the first. Without knowing what had occurred, the latter asked which was the way out. The first replied, 'I don't know, but I can show the lay leading deeper into the thicket and then let us seek the way together. 'Brethren', said the Rabbi, 'Let us seek the way together'. [13] The last and the least important function comes logically after this Rabbinical word: the role of the bishop as an overseer.

In an age when the cult of the personality, the leader, the star, dominates the thinking of organisation which even claim to be democratic, it is difficult to prevent the church from falling into dangers presented by such constitutional ideas. It is only as a parish minister that you will not just see the distasteful irrelevance of such concepts but if such notions are accepted they will paralyse your ministry. It is well to remember that you are not called to be solely a minister of the Word of God but you are called to be a minister to the people of God. Remember the words of Jesus, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. ... I am among you as he that serveth'. [14]

Against such a background of duties and responsibilities, expectations and encouragements, you are called to preach but what is to be preached? As I said in the course of an address to the Synod of Lothian some months ago: "What do we hear from pulpits? There is a wide choice! The candy floss preaching which leads to rampant diabetes, bringing blindness and foot rot, or 'the ballet of bloodless categories', as Dr. F. H. Bradley wrote, that gyrate and dance in a vacuum. There is, on the one hand, the seventeenth century orthodoxy which induces schizophrenia in the simple and, on the other, the social gospel of the dilettante which is neither condescendingly considered in the Cafe Royal nor smirked at in the Artisan Bar. There are the vapours in which nothing can come alive as not one spark is flying upwards, or one can hear the exhalings of the Expository Times of the purloinings or plagiarisations of the printed word preached in the time of the good old Queen or a little later!" [15] But you shall not be so! You are commanded to preach, saying, The kingdom of God is at hand'.

The burden of your message is that God has indeed great purposes for this generation of the children of the whole earth. There is already something substantial about the things for which mankind hopes in God. There is indisputable evidence bearing witness to those vital, life giving things which are yet not seen. Your theme is the whole of God's salvation history that embraces mankind.

As Edward Irving wrote one hundred and fifty years ago: "Doctrines should be like mighty rivers which fertilise our island ... Pour ye out your whole undivided heart before the oracles of God. Be free to catch all its moods and all its inspiration. Then shall you be thoroughly furnished for every good work". [16]


1. G. R. Owst, Preaching in Mediaevel England. Cambridge. 1926. 1 and passim.

2. c.f. e.g., Medaieval Latin Word-List. edd. J. H. Baxter and C. Johnson. Oxford. 1934. 322.

3. The reformation tradition beginning with Luther, c.f. e.g., K. G. Steck, Lehre und Kirche bei Luther. Munich. 1963.

4. JanefsRepentance.

5. Sermon 71 in Patrologiae cursus completus. ed. J. P. Migne. series Latina, Paris. 1844-64. xxxviii. Col. 456f.

6. As in the Book of Common Order service for licencing probationers.

7. Thrown Janet.

8. W. Shakespeare, Othello, I. i. 24.

9. Reprinted in E. Jiingel, Unterwegs zur Sache: Theologische Bemerkung. Munich. 1972. 11-33.

10. J. B. Metz, 'Kirche und Volk oder der Preis der Orthodoxie' in Stimmen der Zeit. 1974. cxcii. 797-811.

11. J. Moltmann, The Open church. Invitation to a messianic life-style. London. 1978.99.

12. 1965. 562f.

13. Quoted in Aufschlusse: Ein Glaubensbuch. edd. E. H. Amberg et al. Berlin. 1977. 9.

14. Luke xxii. 25-26, 27b.

15. Has the Church a Future? supra. ??.

16. Oracles of God: Four Orations. Jor Judgement to Come: An argument. In Nine Parts. London. 1823.

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