Sermon preached on 25 April – all about bishops

What with the reading being all about sheep and shepherds and with +Gregor being consecrated, it seemed like a good weekend to preach about the episcopate. Here's what I said:

On Friday evening, this place was packed full with guests for the consecration of a new bishop. People had come from all over the diocese and indeed from right across the world to celebrate the ordination of Gregor Duncan as a new bishop. Not any old bishop either. Our bishop for us, here in this place. And its here in this building that he was enthroned in his cathedra, the ornate and I suspect deeply uncomfortable seat which is up by the High Altar – the seat of the bishop and the throne which allows us to be known as a Cathedral church.

At the key moment in the service, the other bishops present came forward and laid hands on Gregor in prayer.

And I want to begin this morning with the very words which were prayed at that point in the service, for they connect us directly with the gospel which we have just heard about sheep and shepherds.

As the bishops all reached out their hands, the Primus prayed:

“Grant Gregor authority to shepherd your flock; in the name of Christ the one High Priest to offer the gifts of your holy church; to forgive sins as you command, to order ministries as you direct, and, by that power which you gave to your apostles, to loose the bonds of wickedness and let the oppressed go free.”

The image of a shepherd is so central to us that even in urban Glasgow, where we might think more about herding the traffic or the people on Great Western Road, it is an ovine image (pertaining to sheep) which we have at the heart of our leadership structure still.

When you make someone a bishop, there are lots of symbols involved. Some of them are obvious, like the pectoral cross that they wear on their breast. Some are more subtle like the ring that they wear which shows them wedded both to Christ and to the diocese. Some are dangerously comic for in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church the one thing we all agree on is that bishops must wear funny hats.

But the symbol that struck me very much on Friday evening was something that was not given to Gregor to keep but handed on to him to hold for the time he is our bishop.

It was the pastoral staff, the crozier which bishops carry which again connects them directly to the shepherd leadership which Jesus talked about.

The last time I saw the diocesan staff it was in Bishop Idris’s hands and he laid it on the altar here when he retired. On Friday, the Primus carried it in, symbolising the fact that he has been our bishop for the last few months and then he passed it on. Physically put it into Gregor’s hand.

In the western church, bishops carry a pastoral staff with a curly crook on the end of it. I’m told that is to symbolise being able to reach for a young lamb in trouble. Being able to use the hooked end to rescue is quite a potent image.

However, in much of the Eastern church there is no curly hook to the bishop’s staff. There it is just a stick which reminds us that shepherd in the middle east had a stick to see off predators. All that came between the sheep and the wolves was a young shepherd with a stick and some stones.

And that’s a potent image too.

Indeed, it reminds me that we must not become too obsessed with seeing bishops as people who are principally carers. They do have that responsibility, but they have a responsibility to wave their stick in the air and make a lot of noise sometimes to defend the faithful and to extend as well as protect their flock.

In three of our readings this morning, sheep feature in some way or another. Psalm 23 has brought comfort to people through hundred, thousands of years with its image of God being like a shepherd leading sheep to pasture. Though for all the peacefulness of that image the rod and staff are very much present.

In the reading from Revelation, we are told that the lamb on the throne will become the shepherd and will guide the sheep to springs of water and that every tear will be wiped from the eyes.

Do you know, I find it immensely comforting sometimes to know that the bible takes tears seriously. Though I think that happiness, joy and fulfilment are our ultimate destination, the truth of tears is not denied by Christianity, whatever some ridiculous hymns might suggest.

The shepherd becomes a Lamb and the Lamb becomes a shepherd. One of the endless paradoxes of faith. The world turned upside down by God. The pastoral in endless dialogue with the prophetic.

I spend quite a lot of time with bishops. What I fear most of all for our episcopate in Scotland is that it should become merely pastoral and the prophetic be smothered by endless appeals to cotton wool care. I fear a cautious Episcopate. I fear leaders who become so bound up in protecting a sense of collegiality that they can say nothing worth hearing.

If we are true to the gospel we will find in our faith that compassion and justice are playmates. The danger for spiritual leaders these days is to see the pastoral and the prophetic as running in opposition to one another.

Jesus himself seemed to take quite a lot of his imagery from sheep and shepherding. Certainly in this morning’s gospel, he subverts the expectations that were around for a conquering messiah by talking about sheep. Those who hoped for something more military must have been hoping for something altogether more powerful than Jesus saying but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

Subverting the expectations of the violent and military minded is what God does.

However! Subverting the expectations of those who want the holy to be all woolly and merely comforting is the other side of the same coin.

Our God won’t work within the boundaries of our expectations, which we discovered when we celebrated the resurrection on Easter day.

For if Christ were not risen, we would not be gathered here.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.


  1. Sadly many in the C of I don’t understand or agree with the funny hat thing. My dad loves his but sadly rarely gets the chance to sport it.

  2. Excellent, Kelvin.

  3. Zebadee says

    Kelvin- What you said needed to be said

  4. Martin Ritchie says

    Great stuff, Kelvin.

  5. Ritualist Robert says

    Speaking of Psalm 23, Fr Bosco has Bobby McFerrin’s Anglican Chant, feminist version here:

Speak Your Mind