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Talk: Being Church - One Body, Many Parts

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

At the Cathedral, people of all ages can learn about faith and discipleship. We run a Sunday School and are developing work with young people; there are occasional study groups and Lent Lectures.

The Cathedral is a theological and educational resource for the Diocese, supporting the work of clergy and parishes. The Cathedral works with the Diocese in planning and delivering an annual summer school.

Working with other institutions in and around Stag Hill, for example the University of Surrey, the Cathedral is committed to engaging with issues in the public sphere (including social responsibility, science, ethics, the arts and inter-faith dialogue).  There will be an annual series of talks alongside seminar based groups.

Transcripts of these talks are, where possible, included below.

For details of forthcoming talks, please see the Cathedral Diary and What's On 



Thursday 14th March 2013
Lent Talk

Lent Talks 2013 – 4 – One Body, Many Parts: gifts for the common good

To be human is to be made in the image and likeness of God.  To be human is to be a recipient of God’s gifts and to live in relation to a God who gives freely, gratuitously, abundantly.  To be human in the life of the church, acknowledges the diversity of gifts within the body (reminding us again of the relationship between the individual and the corporate). To be human in the life of the church in relation to the world, acknowledges a commitment to and a participation in the world.  As we discussed last week – our unity or oneness is shaped by our relationship to God in worship, to one another and to mission – that is the pursuit of the Kingdom or the building up of the common good.

To speak of gifts might call to mind particular individual dispositions, talents, innate abilities, or acquired skills. Some of those gifts manifest themselves in our choices of career and voluntary activity; some of them we find contributing to the life of the church directly – in worship, governance, pastoral care.  There is a both/and.  Gifts used to build up the body and gifts used in the world.  We might also think of the fruits of the Spirit – which we reflected on last week in the light of the dedication this Cathedral Church – which are dispositions or virtues which flow from our attentiveness to God and his Spirit at work in us, which enable us to witness to the gospel of Christ.

Alongside those particular gifts of skill, ability and professionalism shared amongst the baptised, there are both particular callings what we call “vocation” – gifts of teaching, leadership or evangelism for example.  It is not that these callings are more important – but it is a particularity in the service of the whole; likewise we must balance the use of our gifts to shape our common life and the gifts which shape the common good: some of that will be made manifest in the prophetic voice of the church, or in intentional social or mission projects as well as in our work on the coal face of the communities that we know.  The mystery of the incarnation means that we are people called to abide in relation to our localities, the places where we spend our work and leisure time.  We only learn to do that well, by abiding in God.

In worship we are equipped to use our gifts to share in God’s purposes in mission and work of the common good. We will explore what we might mean by “common good” in relation to the world and God’s Kingdom a little later; but in part it demands both restoring dignity and the fulfilment of human potential; it also means taking responsibility as we live with and in our communities.   Sometimes that process of discernment occurs through attentiveness to God and of knowing the people and places among whom we are rooted.

Gifts: ambition, failure and release

When I was reading theology at Durham, I was taught by Walter Moberly – an amazingly inspiring priest and biblical scholar. He initiated something which was quite an innovation at the time – that is he reconnected Scripture with doctrine (two separate camps; agendas).  He brought them together under the remit of “theological interpretation of Scripture”.  He also introduced me to Susan Howatch’s Starbridge novels.  Some of you may have come across them. Walter described her work as theological – and in relation to discipleship, gifts and attentiveness to God I think he is right.  Her narratives are rooted in theological debates of the time – so she is alert to the impact of John Robinson’s  Honest to God and also to David Ford’s Lent book The Shape of Living

Her narratives chart the overlapping lives and vocations of three clergy.  One is spiritual director; the other two become respectively Archdeacon  (Neville) and Bishop of Starbridge (Charles).  When David knew I was joining the team here, he did exclaim “ooh it’ll be just like Starbridge”; my response was that he rather overestimated the excitement of my personal life!  However, joking aside, she does take very seriously the reality of flaws of clergy.  Both men are extremely able and gifted; they are also deeply flawed, as we all are. They wrestle with personal ambition, jealously, moral complexity and failures.  The titles of her books themselves reveal the transience of worldly striving, the tensions between public image and personal weakness:  Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, Absolute Truths.

But those things do not define them or their ministry in the service of the church, the world and the kingdom.  For they also live in relation to those “measures” or plumb lines of Scripture and Eucharist; they seek support and guidance from one who meets them in the honest and broken and painful parts of the journey through life, and speak God’s words of forgiveness and challenge to them.  In that fragility, something of God’s grace breaks through. Transformation, reconciliation and hope emerge. Both men, whatever their innate abilities, become more fully who they are called to be because of how they live through failure and disappointment.

God works through all that stuff. As Neville muses at the end of Ultimate Prizes ‘it was Easter Sunday at last, and I was rising from the grave of my past to embark on my new life in absolute faith. Taking a sip of whisky I thought no more of failure and misery, but began to write my Christian message of hope in the most loving terms I could devise.’

That is why I think Walter described Howatch as a theologian.  She has the capacity to set out in stark terms both the limitations and flaws of our human nature and also the capacity for growth and healing.  Abundant life is precisely life lived in that vulnerable hopefulness and contentment – a release of potential and purpose.

Romans – worship and gifts

I want to begin with some reflections flowing from Romans 12. As I have said, in the wake of Synod I have found myself drawn back more and more to Paul’s epistles.  He writes to Christians in another time – he writes to those who are numbered by the great cloud of witnesses.  In order to proclaim the Gospel with credibility, there are some things that we do differently (for example the role of women within the church); yet we face some of the same challenges.  We still wrestle with theological disagreement; we still seek God’s justice; we still grapple with what it means to be justified by faith, to be a new creation. And fundamentally, our human nature is the same.  His wisdom and understanding of grace and humanity can still encourage, illumine and challenge us.

In the first two verses of chapter 12 Paul offers a reminder of the kind of worship desired by God.  It is a pattern which transforms their lives – it echoes with the call to be holy; to be refined in attentiveness to God; to live lives of service.  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Put God first says Paul, and then discern his will. Ben Quash describes the resources of worship and scripture as that which is “given in Christ as providing us with all we need to order our lives”; he likens this to having “knapsack ” to dig into. I quite like that image because it reminds us that we are on a journey – though life and in our world for which we need a plentiful supply of things to sustain and equip us.  When it comes to our discipleship, we face a challenge about what is at the centre of our lives; the contents of our knapsack helps with that – giving us a sense of purpose and direction and inviting us to use our gifts in relation to that calling. 

In the first instance, that means acknowledging that by the grace of God we are to be humble – in how we regard ourselves and how we regard one another. Paul writes:    For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.  In a culture that can sometimes value self-confidence, it is worth pausing to consider that our confidence is located in God.  In his grace we receive a gift of assurance – not just for our own sakes, but in order that our regard for one another can be transformed.  Self-confidence can sometimes be a mask to hide behind (as the Dean and Bishop of Starbridge knew too well); it can lead to a self-reliance or unhealthy preoccupation with what makes us successful. 

To locate our sense of confidence in God, generates an unconditional self-acceptance and a capacity to be resilient and open to other – with generosity.  It is a message my mum inculcated in me from a young age. When I was learning to read, there was a story about a little girl and her friends and a recurring phase that my mum applied to me “I’m Julie take me or leave me”.  It’s not an isolationist position, but a reminder that we are called by name; loved by God.  Not everyone will like us, we will find others difficult; but within that we have the assurance of being known and loved. 


Unity and difference is at the heart of what Paul is saying about the body of Christ.  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. Our oneness is in Christ; we are not blessed by the same gifts.  We all have a particular function, but as well as being members of one body, we are also bound together as members of one another. There is a radical statement of mutual interdependence.  Without the person next to you, you lack a dimension of your experience of common life.  We mourn and rejoice with one another – and we are to delight in difference.  We are not to think of ourselves too highly; nor are we to undervalue ourselves.

Having reminded his hearers of what it means to be members of one body, he turns to how we live individually and corporately with dignity and purpose.     He then goes on to describe different sorts of gifts – and the activity that flows from them.  Some are very particular – prophecy, leadership and teaching.  Those exercising those gifts have a responsibility to do so with diligence, in faith and in the active building up of others.  Some gifts are explicitly relational – in chapter 12 Paul mentions compassion and generosity, but this is by no means an exhaustive list and elsewhere he talks about encouragement and kindness for example.  These gifts should be exercised not grudgingly but, he writes, in cheerfulness.

All of this is rooted in love.   Let love be genuine, writes Paul.  This demands a conscious turning away from what is evil and a deliberate holding fast to what is good.  Just as at our baptism, we committed to a particular direction of travel in life (renouncing sin and evil and following Christ) so day by day, week by week, we are to renew that commitment in God’s grace.  Not I was baptised; but I am.  That fundamental orientation in life is the basis of Paul’s call to love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. We are not to outdo one another in our expertise, competing about who has the most glamourous powers or the most glittering prizes. Instead we are to live in a virtuous, Spirit inspired, pattern of honouring one another.

In all this we are serving the Lord. Paul uses the language of being zealous and ardent – in the Spirit.  This is a demanding pattern of life. Whilst we are to rejoice in the hope set before us, we are also to patient in suffering – patient perhaps in our disagreements, patient as we resolve what seem like intractable difficulties, patient as we bear our own frustrations and grief.  We are to be patient with one another; not in our own strength – but by persevering in prayer.  Prayer takes time and demands attention.  So much “stuff” can clutter our minds and weigh heavily on us.  Prayer is in part about clearing some ground, letting go of that, placing it before God; prayer is also about attentiveness to God – in the rhythm of words of psalms and prayers; in the space that opens up when we read a passage from Scripture; in the stillness. We are to persevere. 

Paul does not end with a set of concerns about relationships within the community of faith, and our relationship to God. He ends this passage with two outward looking imperatives.  The call to contribute to the needs of the saints; and to extend hospitality to strangers.

Romans gift and common good

This where we catch a glimpse of what it means to use our gifts in the service of the common good.  Paul uses that language often – in contemporary usage it describes a good that is shared and beneficial for all (or most) in a given community.  We might speak of using gifts for the common good of the body of Christ; but if our imaginations are fired by a vision of God’s Kingdom, then the common good is something we pursue in our world.  It is looking to contribute to the needs of others – both within and beyond the church. This might demand a financial response, in generous gift; it might demand a relational and hospitable response.  It is a concept that is very much on the agenda of our diocesan “Community Engagement Team” in practical terms and is expressed differently in parishes and chaplaincy and cathedral contexts.

In the Gospels, Jesus encounters people on the way.  Sometimes there is a particular challenge to individuals, but that often spills over into the wider community.  The Samaritan woman at the well has an intense and life changing conversation with Jesus (sculpture at Chester Cathedral reflects the intimacy and abundance of that moment). Out of an honest conversation – about failed relationships and religious separation – she goes to the people of her town to share this extraordinary good news.

How confident are we that God can make use of us as we go about daily tasks and immerse ourselves in  the ordinary stuff of life?  Woman’s Hour set out to compile a list of 100 powerful women: including the Queen, Theresa May, Shami Chakrabati, Tracy Emin... even Victoria Beckham.  Many of them are people at the top of their fields in science, the law, the arts and business.  However, if we pause for a moment in and consider the impact that we might have in the midst of our ordinary responsibilities and in the use of our time, skills and interests that is much more powerful.

Each person is gifted by God for the common good.  That is part of our vision here – dedicated to the Holy Spirit we seek to foster inclusive and hospitable relationships; to ignite generous and transformative conversations; to pursue wisdom.  There are echoes here in Paul’s vocabulary – and very explicit connections, like his, to the common good.

As Paul says to the Corinthians:  Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 


Some of us will have a particular set of professional skills – in finance, teaching, law, health care or business for example. Others of us will have experience of family life, living in relation to ill health, long term involvement in a particular community.   In Christ, this expertise is used directly in the world – perhaps implicitly approaching those things differently by grace.  In Christ, these gifts also contribute to the common good.  Some of us will have a combination of time, interests or passions, a commitment to this place and to people that equips us to welcome and serve and support others.  Some of us, will find that there are gifts that we are called to use in leadership and inspiring God’s people.    All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

We can add gifts to the list from within our own communities, which when used for the good of the whole, reveals a huge potential.  Paul isn’t just concerned with identifying the gifts, he is also interested in the quality of relationship; and indeed the quality of relationships isn’t just limited to those within the body – but to our wider communities in service.  To quote from Archbishop Justin’s statement following the election of Pope Francis:  May the love of Christ unite us, and intensify our service in a genuine and fruitful ecumenism that can be a blessing for the Body of Christ throughout the world.  Our unity is in Christ; our relationships are to be fruitful, a blessing which is made manifest in service. 

We continue to face the challenge of celebrating a diversity of gifts.  We live in a culture where there is a confused and confusing appreciation of gifts and talents.  Too often young people look to celebrity as a career choice; or alternatively they find themselves under intense academic pressure to achieve certain grades; or they are written off at the end of their secondary education for not having “achieved”.  I spent the evening with head teachers from CofE schools across this diocese on Tuesday evening.  Together we began to reflect on what we mean by “success”; how do we enable our children to discover their potential – within and beyond academic expectations; how do we give them a sense of dignity and purpose; how do we equip them to live lives of service, making a contribution to the common good.  

It may well be that Churches, and Church schools, can continue to make a distinctive contribution to this process – both in the face of curriculum changes which focuses on facts and knowledge and in cuts to services for those who are NEETs.  My time with the heads certainly revealed something of that passion and vision and imagination, often under huge pressure.  In addition churches around this diocese are investing not just in work with young people, but also their families; so there is a sense of dignity and purpose being restored in our communities.  There are aspirations to launch a skills/training based workshop in partnership with the statutory services – equipping groups of young people who otherwise slip through the net 6 or 8 at time.

Step by step

This is an example of using our corporate gifts for the common good.  It is an example of building the Kingdom step by step.

That work continues:  how do we identify and use gifts individually and corporately.  We offer all that we are and all that we have in the service of the church – building one another up in faith and contributing to the flourishing of our common life. But our calling is to love and serve in the world within which we live and work.  That means that our discipleship continues at the coal face of ordinary life: as governors, volunteers, consumers, voters, parents, carers, professionals.

We are to take risks – as we learn to grow through disappointment and failure; we are called into an intimate face to face encounter.  In Mike Leigh’s film “Another Year”, one of the moments of transformation is when a taciturn widower sits at the kitchen table with a woman whose life has been marred by a series of relational disappointments.  There in a silted and awkward conversation, we see a faint connection. Across the gulf of aching loneliness there is mutual recognition and compassion. It is often at such points of vulnerability and need that we glimpse something of the non-competitive expression of common good. 

It something captured in Ken Loach’s documentary to be released on Friday “The Spirit of ‘45”, about a pivotal year of change – socially and politically – as a post-war vision for life in Britain emerged.  Reliance in the face of adversity; hope in the face of austerity; stability in the midst of upheaval: these are things that this Cathedral Church embodies.  It is a space that holds stories – human and divine, national and personal. 

Whatever our particular gifts and passions; whatever we learn from disappointment and failure; whatever form our social and political life takes: there is something at the heart of our calling that is about dignity, purpose and responsibility within our common life, which effects our engagement with the world. Whatever projects we embark upon with our communities, whatever conversations we broker, whatever responsibilities we carry – we are equipped by the Spirit.

This equipping is rooted in our abiding in God.  Using gifts and skills in the service of the common good is part of our calling.  However, what makes the church distinctive is that we are called to abide and bear fruit – fruit of the Spirit.  Paul lists these in his letter to the Galatians – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  It isn’t just about the innate gifts we have or the skills we learn, but a manner of being with one another.

Another way of thinking about gifts in the service of the common good is to reflect on the way in which we embody the virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity; wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety.  Charles and Neville in their work are blessed by a range of personal gifts – their spiritual director works with them to enable them to grow in those spiritual gifts and virtues in order that they may be used for the building up of the whole people of God, and the kingdom of God, rather than them be so entrenched in resentment, ambition and competition that they end up on a path of mutual loathing and self-destruction.

At the end there is purpose and redemption.  At the end of Absolute Truths Charles is reflecting, in the context of a funeral, about that the ‘pattern our creator had made of us he had toiled to shape the dark with the light in such a way that suffering was given meaning, the meaning which gave value to our lives. Reality is a kingdom of values.’ And in a sense that is what it means for us to use our gifts for the building up of our common life; to be shaped by the Spirit – that in abiding and sending we may bear fruit for the sake of the common good. From our perspective that is where the Kingdom of God breaks in.

Our leaders

We pray for the leaders of our churches on a regular basis: for our Archbishop and Bishops, for parish clergy, their wardens and those with whom they share responsibility for leadership. This is an imperative that in Hebrews and in the farewells at the end of Paul’s letters.  Paul has a deep concern for those called to the work of having charge over the souls of the faithful (in the Lord), a charge echoed in licensing services today.  He writes about their particular gifts and qualities and relationships within the body of Christ.  Much of the commentary surrounding the election of Pope Francis has been about how in very subtle ways he is setting out a vision for his relationship to his people – his initial greeting, making a joke, asking for blessing before giving one, referring to his work as Bishop of Rome, choosing a name that resonated with the building up of the church, concern for the created order, and also with allusions to the Jesuit commitment to evangelism.

The language we use about our leaders is important because it does shape the wider life of the church – our common good.  Images such as being a shepherd are deeply resonant with our biblical narrative and the person of Christ, but if that is the only language we use, we risk making the people of God sound very passive, rather than a dynamic body (within which every member brings gifts which contribute to the whole). Interestingly in Paul, leadership is often referred to in the plural. 

There are parallels with the Cathedral – in our modelling of collegiality; but there are also models for this in our parishes, where we rely on wardens and PCCs, and ministry teams exercising responsibility for pastoral care or work with young people.  There is collaboration and also a sense of direction and purpose.  Leaders are there to enable the body to function and flourish – which in itself opens up capacity for ministry and mission; which can be an inspiration in diversity and common purpose.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-13 Paul sets out qualities of leadership, in the first place in relation to Bishops: there are expectations around marital status and the management of a household – with parallels being drawn between that and church life; qualities such as being temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher;  then Paul lists a series of “nots” -  not a drunkard, not violet but gentle, not quarrelsome and not a lover of money. Those same qualities of seriousness, honesty and rootedness in faith are also applied to deacons – as are the warnings about  not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money.  There is also an emphasis on consistency in character and life – being temperate and faithful.  Elsewhere the Christian community is urged to encourage and help one another in a spirit of patience.  We learn from one another – in bonds of mutual affection – and the ordering of churches is to ensure a peaceableness of their common life.


The tasks of leadership – holding vision, teaching, enabling and encouraging – mirror the use of all our gifts. They are for the common good –both within and without the church. One of the things that makes such sharing of gifts is that it is done in a spirit of gratuitous love.  We aren’t just modelling good practice – the equivalent of the “investor in people” awards seen in some businesses (training, qualifications, and development); we are modelling a different social pattern.  This is especially challenging when the dominant economic/social pattern is about exchange.  Instead we live by gift.

We abide in love and we are sent in love.  We draw on our “knapsack ” of worship and scripture, which re-shape us.  We walk in assurance of love and forgiveness.  We walk as disciples of Christ together in one body, with many parts, with diverse gifts.  We are to use them to build one another up; our common life is to be marked by mutual affection and trust.  That is for the sake of the common good, not self-interest or prestige.

As Paul writes to the Ephesians: The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.. . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body , joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.