Sermon preached by Bishop Paul Colton at the Licensing of Archdeacon Adrian Wilkinson

Sermon preached by the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

The Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton at the Licensing and Installation

of the Archdeacon of Cork Cloyne and Ross

 in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork on Sunday, 30th March, 2014

‘The Lord said to Moses, ‘”Send men to spy out the land of Canaan,”…’  (Numbers 13.1)

‘You also must be ready …’    (Luke 12.40)

There’s something very apt about gathering in a mother church  – the cathedral of a diocese – on Mothering Sunday, in order to do something that is so important for, and potentially formative of, the life of our Diocese: the licensing and installation of an archdeacon.  Mothering Sunday, is the day when, from the sixteenth century Christians returned to their ‘mother church’, as it were, for a special service: a custom that survived until some time early in the last century.  It has now been largely supplanted by saint Hallmark, crowded carveries, and a definite shift from Mothering Sunday to Mothers’ Day.

We do come here, however, to this mother church of the Diocese of Cork today, to license and install our new Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Adrian Wilkinson, and to ask God to bless him in this new phase of ministry.  It has been my pleasure to appoint him.  I believe he comes well-prepared and honed by life, by Christian pilgrimage, and by his ministry and experience so far.  More important, I believe God will stand by him, will lead him, support him, teach him and equip him in the years ahead as he discovers what it means to be an archdeacon.  I know too that he will have your heart, prayers and partnership in this Diocese.  I know too that you are wise and practical people in this Diocese, and you will realise that he is different from his distinguished and much loved predecessor – Robin Bantry White.  Robin became what he was to us over a period of twenty years as Archdeacon.  Under God, Adrian has that journey ahead.  As Bishop I look forward to it, and I know you do too.

The tradition of visitation has changed much over the years in the Church, especially in the Church of Ireland.  But it is still there. The legal framework, as a matter of enduring pre-1871 ecclesiastical law,  for the bishop to summon a formal visitation, is still in place.  Historically it was a type of judicial procedure – almost a court case.  In large measure, as with all new approaches to working together in society in general, to tasks in hand, to mission, to jobs to be done, modern methods have become collaborative: partnership, consultation, shared decision-making, expressed most fully in our formal setup in Diocesan Synod, in Diocesan Council and in Select Vestry, as well as in other informal ways that we now work together to do God’s work.

Hundreds of reports of visitations in earlier times are still accessible and throw light on the origins of many current ministries and practices in the Church.  Eudes Rigaud, the Archbishop of Rouen, in the 13th Century, left us his notebook, 6 inches by 9 inches – 774 pages long.  It was the constant companion of this itinerant Archbishop as he wandered around his Diocese making notes and collecting information, and money.  It more than ‘doubled-up’ as a calendar, an archive, a register, accounts, places visited, notes of discipline imposed, daily correction of the clergy, and, setting out a scheme for where to go next.  It was also a census.  It included notes of who had been ordained and kept a track of correspondence sent and received.  It’s no wonder he has become known as ‘The Holy Bureaucrat’.  Above all, however, it was not about good administration – even though it was good administration – it was about ‘securing the salvation of souls and, to that end, everyone needed to be on their toes and well-trained.  It’s reckoned from that book that during his 26 years as Archbishop he clocked up 86,611 kilometres averaging just over 4000 a year.

He didn’t travel alone.  He was surrounded by his familia – his entourage or household – about 20 people, plus servants.  Who went with him?  Some of the canons from the Chapter – all highly educated. One of the Canons Guillaume de Flavacourt, was later appointed archdeacon, before he himself became the Archbishop.  The household as used to test talent and to nurture leadership.  Most of all for the Archbishop, the familia was a place of trust and loyalty.  The Archdeacon sometimes went off on the Archbishop’s behalf to conduct his own visitations.  It was all about staying well-informed of local conditions and situations and when the Archdeacon acted, he did so on behalf of the bishop.

You can see in this one of 1000s of examples from history the roots of the role of Archdeacon as we have it today.  In Ireland, Archbishop Ussher was of the view that historically the office was held in this country by lay people as it was mostly about inspecting and holding property. That changed over time and under the Church Temporalities (Ireland) Act 1833 Irish archdeacons were given powers identical to those of English archdeacons.

The role in the Church of Ireland today was set out at the start of this Service in the questions put to Adrian: from ancient times, aiding and assisting the bishop in the bishop’s pastoral care and office; watching, inquiring and reporting; generally assisting the bishop in the administration of the diocese; and the particular role in relation to ordinands and those presented for ecclesiastical office.  In these ways, especially, the watching, the archdeacon became known as the oculi episcopi – the eyes of the bishop.

I like to think, albeit with a definite stretch of the imagination, that this sort of visitation might have its origins, possibly, in the scripture readings of today.

In our first reading from Numbers the children of Israel are being uprooted again.  After a settled and positive spell at the holy mountain – Sinai – they are now to pack up and make the long march to Canaan.  They don’t know what lies ahead.  Yet again they face an uncertain future and much insecurity.  But they are called by God to move forward to a new place.  That could as easily be us in our time, in this Diocese, in the Church of Ireland. Moving on – pilgrimage – journey are inescapably part of discipleship.

At a certain point on that journey,  when they reach the oasis of Kadesh-barnea, Moses, the leader, sends out spies to suss out what lies ahead.  He takes representatives from each tribe and asks them to assess what lies ahead – in the fairly arid territory of the Negeb and in the hill-country.  Find out what the strengths and weakness are; how many people there are; what their living conditions and circumstances are; what the fortifications are like.  He asks them to bring back tangible evidence – some of the fruit of the land.  The spies bring back their report.

We didn’t hear the full passage today.  But what is interesting is that when the spies report back, they are divided.  Some think the way ahead is to hard because the people already there are strong and well-fortified.  A minority – just two – Caleb and Joshua – say that since this was where God was leading, they should go and that God would give them strength.  ‘Caleb stilled the people before Moses and he said; “let us surely go up and possess it, for we are surely able to do it!”’ (Numbers 13.30)  There was an all-out argument:  ‘We are not able to do it” said the others.  The row was so bad that we read that the ‘whole congregation were raising their voices ‘ and people were crying (Numbers 14.1).  The people started complaining and even started wishing that they had stayed back in slavery in Egypt.  That’s when Joshua intervened and tried to encourage them to move forward.  They wanted to stone him too.

If we are to project back on that time the office of Archdeacon, I can see such an office being exercised as one of the spies – going ahead; finding out; bringing report; working with the leadership, but above else, encouraging the people to move forward putting their trust in God.

Friends, that is not a role exclusive, in our time, to the Archdeacon or to the Bishop.  We must all have the courage to envision prayerfully our future together under God., and to move forward to where God is leading.  The future is uncertain but we cannot go back.  We do not know what lies ahead, but God has promised to be with us.

And so the Gospel reading speaks to us:  ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’  That’s reassuring and comforting, but the charter also demands sacrifices.

We are to:

  •       ‘Be dressed for action … and have [our] lamps lit’
  •       ‘Be like those who are waiting …’
  •       ‘… to be ready …’

More than any other cathedral I know, this mother church of this diocese teaches us this lesson each time we come and go through its great west door – the foolish on one side have been caught out because their lamps are not lighting; the wise on the other are ready, lamps lighting, ready to go on the journey ahead with Christ.

The children of Israel eventually did made a conscious decision to go forward.  Later in Numbers we read:  ‘they rose up early I the morning and went up into the height of the hill country, saying, “Behold we are here!  We will go up to the place of which God has spoken …”’

May God lead us on our journey in our time; and may we be watchful and ready to make that journey with him.

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