An Anglican priest and a Methodist minister, both wearing dog collars, were hammering a sign into the verge of a road. The sign read “The end is Near! Turn yourself around now before it is too late!” Almost immediately, a car drives past and a voice from the car window yells, “Leave us alone you religious nutters!”. The car speeds on, there is a screeching of tyres and a splash. The priest turns to the minister and says: “Oh dear! Do you think the sign should say: Danger Bridge Collapsed?”
I mention this story to illustrate how it can sometimes be a dangerous thing to wear a dog collar in public, especially at a time when the image of a male priest might not conjure up the happiest of associations. To walk down Cornmarket or travel on a train in clerical dress is to risk a few stares, bizarre conversations about religion, being asked to give someone or something a blessing, or even receiving verbal abuse from a disaffected church-goer or sometime believer. I remember a former Chaplain to the Bishop of London, Mark Oakley, telling how he went to work in an ordinary shirt and tie, instead of dog collar one day. When the Bishop asked him what he was doing, Mark simply said that he was fed up with travelling on the tube dressed as a priest and being stared at or harangued. The roadside story might also point to how religion, especially religion that calls you to repent and turn your life around, in western secular society, is seen as a minority and unpopular interest, and I want to explore why this might, paradoxically, be a really good thing.
This Sunday is vocation Sunday, when you might think we celebrate and pray for those who have been called to the increasingly rare vocation of ordained ministry. But I think it is particularly appropriate, at the beginning of Trinity Term, when so many students are thinking about their future lives and careers, that we remember exactly what vocation is, and who it affects and I have chosen the readings for the eve of the feast of St. Mark deliberately to illustrate that vocation is something that relates to us all very deeply regardless of our occupation.
The readings from the prophecy of Isaiah and Mark, demonstrates how blessed is the person who witnesses to the gospel of peace and heralds the good news of Christ in their lives. The beginning of Mark’s gospel also places baptism as a central act of faith, a seal of the commitment to follow the calling of Christ: a vocation. Following this call can be done in many ways: John the Baptist fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy and came preaching a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins and is arrested and imprisoned for his troubles. The history of an unpopular and persecuted Christian faith has its origins at the very beginning of the life of Christ and unpopularity has always been, to some extent, part of the Christian story.
I found this illustrated recently in the most unlikely of people. I have known the work of the comedian Frank Skinner for many years. But, until recently, I hadn’t realised that he was a commited Roman Catholic Christian. And this I found out through reading an article that he wrote in the Times a few weeks ago. It was entitled: ‘Persecute me, I’m after the brownies points.’ In the article he wrote about how Christians should not be ashamed of who they are in an increasingly secularized country and shouldn’t worry about being laughed at.
‘To many British people’, he writes, ‘Christianity seems like a weird but unexciting theme park. Personally, I like our ever-dwindling status. I even like our ever-dwindling numbers. There was a time when social pressure made people go to church. If anything the reverse is now true. Most adults you see in church nowadays are there because they want to be there. That’s not decline, it’s progress.’ He goes on, ‘Christians have always worked best as an unpopular minority. We were surely at our most dynamic when we knelt, eyes to Heaven, hands clasped in prayer, with a Colosseum lion bounding towards us. … Surely the central image of Christianity is someone who can shoot fireballs out of his fingertips allowing himself to be nailed to a wooden cross — submission as the ultimate show of strength — love as impenetrable armour. Most British Christians are badly dressed, unattractive people. We’re not pushy and aggressive members of society. We’re a bit like Goths — no one can remember us being fashionable and we talk about death a lot. I love the glorious un-coolness of that.’
Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls. I’m enjoying this current dose of persecution. It’s definitely good for the soul.’
Sometimes being a Christian is hard, and the minor inconveniences we may experience from a lack of tolerance in this country are nothing compared to real persecution that people of faith in other countries have to endure, but whatever difficulties we go through for our faith, we, as followers of Christ, have a calling, a vocation, to remember, that Christ’s victory has already been won. In this Easter season witness to the gospel that Jesus’s death and resurrection are the ultimate demonstration of love and that love is victorious. If we are to acknowledge the vocation that we all share, we must remember that our armour against the persecution, or mockery of the world, is to be love – love for God and love for one another.
At the beginning of this Trinity term, which may be the last in this college some, questions of what is the right path for the future may loom large. But whatever we do with our lives, let us all remember our primary calling to serve Christ in love, a vocation sealed at our baptism, into whatever denomination. Whatever you do, if you have faith, I urge you to cherish it, and nurture it and not to be ashamed of it, regardless of whether it happens to be popular or not. It is the greatest gift you have and the greatest gift you will ever have. Amen.
Rev’d Dr. Jonathan Arnold, Chaplain
25th April 2010