Farewell to Archdeacon Paul

by Gerry Lynch last modified 01 Jun, 2018 12:36 PM

“it was said that he brought love and joy and they don’t say that about every Archdeacon in the Church of England”

Today is the last day at work for one of the diocese’s most loved figures, as the Ven Paul Taylor retires after 14 years as Archdeacon of Sherborne. Paul will be moving back to his native West Midlands with his wife Jan later in the summer.

Bishop Nicholas said, “Paul Taylor has been a wonderful parish priest of an Archdeacon. He has loved West Dorset and knows everyone.

“At his farewell it was said that he brought love and joy and they don’t say that about every Archdeacon in the Church of England!

“He developed ‘clergy wellbeing’ in this diocese into something special, oversaw work that was grouped under the heading of ‘social justice’ and knew that Theology matters and shapes who we are as a Church and what we do as people. We wish him and Jan a long, happy and healthy retirement.”

Paul and Jan were given a great sendoff at a farewell service last Thursday at Sherborne Abbey, at a special service well attended by his many friends from around Dorset and beyond, and at which he preached; and then said a more intimate farewell to active church life in the Diocese on Sunday morning at St Andrew’s, the little village church in West Stafford where the Taylors have lived, where Paul preached a little homily and played the last hymn.

Speaking after the service, Paul said, “My first 20 years of ordained ministry were spent entirely in the Diocese of London before coming here in 2004. So it was a massive change – I had come from Hendon NW4, a parish of 26,000 people with huge mix of religious and ethnic communities, to West Dorset.

“The people have been the best part of my time here. That’s what I’ll miss most, along with the many pastoral relationships that come with them.

“Priesthood predominates through everything, which is about the pastoral care of people. For better or worse, I have treated the Archdeaconry like a very large parish. Relationship also builds affection, and I have always been naturally inquisitive about the stories the people I’ve met with tell.

“My own faith has grown in the context of pastoral encounters. My knowledge of God increases as I hear the experiences and perceptions of those different from myself; to create God in our own image is a huge danger for all of us.

“Another part of the role I’ve enjoyed enormously has been sports chaplaincy. I’ve been chaplain to Dorchester FC for last 12 years. Going along in a dog collar in a situation where few people are churchgoers has led to some interesting conversations.

“As Archdeacon, I have had to operate the systems of the Church and maintain the order of the Church. I’ve been happy to do so, but am also aware this is not about perpetuating the Church but building the Kingdom of God. The structures of the Church of England, operated correctly, are not repressive but actually liberate us to focus on building the Kingdom of God.

“I have a huge regard and respect for the local decision making knowledge of parish priests and people on the ground. As a Diocese and Church we should always be cautious of schemes which are top-down. They can fail to recognise that the only people who really know what is going on are those on the front line. It don’t think it’s the role of the centre of any organisation to set agendas, but to give focus.

Pray Serve Grow is not an agenda or a strategy but a restatement of what our Christian life should be about, it’s a call on us to refocus on what is most important.

“I’ve always believed in Herbert Hensley Henson’s dictum – in a well-worked parish, missions are superfluous; in an ill-worked one, mischevious. I believe passionately in the local presence in the Christian community which exists not just for its own sake but for the salvation of the world. Christianity brings that salvific message.

“I’ve felt really affirmed by Bishop Nicholas, who so often speaks of what is right and good and correct about the Christian Church – it is easy to tell he was a parish priest for 30 years before becoming a bishop!”

The Ven Paul Taylor’s sermon at Sherborne Abbey, 24 May 2018

If I say the word Brexit – I guess you might all groan. It is a constant and seemingly never ending news item. However, although we might be fed up with it and want to just get it sorted and move on - we can’t avoid being caught up in the major questions it’s brought to the surface. Particularly questions about identity - about who we believe are especially in relation to other nations and cultures. I have to say that in this quest for identity I find at one and the same time a whole host of contradictions and confusions going on. For in so many ways we seem to live in a world that is increasingly connected. A global village where we travel all over the place, where we can instantaneously communicate with people anywhere, and live in international and multi-cultural communities. And yet at the same time a world which seems to be increasingly separated and divided, with tragically religion itself being so often the point of division and conflict.

In the course of reading I was doing recently I had to wade through several sociology books on contemporary culture and I was taken aback by what I found. Over and over again I encountered the question: what has gone wrong? Human beings have achieved so much, and yet we seem to hover on the brink of societal disaster. The failure, argue social scientists, is found in the way that human beings relate to one another in complex societies. The general picture from the more pessimistic social science commentators is that the ties that bind us to one another have been hugely damaged and unless we can begin to repair this damage, we will destroy ourselves as we turn on each other. Sobering words, what do they mean for the church in our time?

Perhaps they take us back to the very foundations of our faith, where the life of discipleship is above all a life together. It’s likely that when we hear Jesus call his disciples to a way of love and compassion, the spirit of the age within us hears this simply as a call to a personal moral attitude  – being good and being kind. But it’s much more than that. It’s a way of living together. St. Paul, writing in the context of the deep division between Jewish and Gentile Christians, time and time again reminds his readers of the radical new spirit of generosity and giving, which should mark their life together. When he writes to the Christians in Philippi, encouraging them to live with the mind of Christ, he doesn’t shy away from the detail, ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’. Paul is clear that life in Jesus is above all a life in community.

Because our age is an age of separations, of individualism, where we are inclined to think in terms of individual fulfilment and the valuing of personal choice over collective need, perhaps we need to hear again this invitation to community life. For the men and women who were first brought to know Jesus Christ revealed their conversion not by individual feats of virtue but by entering a new life together in community: St. Luke writes in the Acts of Apostles, ‘All who believed were together and held all things in common, they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need....praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.’

This picture of a life together perhaps helps us begin to understand what Jesus means when he talks of the Kingdom of God. When we hear the word Kingdom we naturally think of geopolitically defined territory – nation and monarchy - thrones and empires. However it seems to me that Jesus uses the word ironically, giving us a picture which is the antithesis, the complete opposite, of everything that we would normally associate with Kingdom. In this kingdom there’s no territory – there are no boundaries – no land or military and political power – rather an open and inclusive community to which everyone is invited to be part. Puzzling stuff – as it turns our normal preconceptions of identity upside down. The Gospel stories time and again picture a kingdom that includes literally everyone, and particularly those who so often are on the fringes of  society – those who struggle to make relationship and for whom community and acceptance are hard to find. Here is a very different and a very radical new picture of human identity, a kingdom in which difference is embraced and celebrated, not defended or contested, and where categories of nationality, race, gender, and religion, aren’t the means by which we are differentiated or stratified – but rather cherished and valued centres of a collective identity and meaning. I was touched by an honest observation from a friend of mine who acknowledged the importance for him of being with people radically different from himself, he said, ‘...their different ways and words gave me further glimpses of parts of God’s truth that I have not  yet heard or understood’.

What does all this mean for the church in our time? As I said from this pulpit 14 years ago, it does mean open doors to our community – yes, literally open doors. On my 132 mile sponsored walk last week around the perimeter archdeaconry I came across a church that models exactly this. It shan’t mention the name of course – yes, I will - it’s called Hammoon. Ever heard of it? Not a large place and not a large church. It’s in the Blackmore Vale. How about this? It’s doors are never locked. True someone lost the key 20 years ago but it’s doors are never locked, morning noon and night. But more than this, I know that Hammoon is not only an open building but an open community because in the porch there’s a notice of welcome, which says this – Welcome to St. Paul’s Church Hammoon (read notice). I think that the people of Hammoon have understood exactly what Jesus meant by Kingdom. T S Eliot also got it in one, in his play Murder in the Cathedral. Remember it? In the face of the impending danger from Henry’s murderous knights the priests cry ‘Bar the door. Bar the door. The door is barred we are safe we are safe’ and Thomas replies, ‘Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors! I will not have the house of prayer, the Church of Christ turned into a fortress. The church shall be open, even to our enemies. Open the door!’ Even to our enemies. It’s a risky business living in a community that has no boundaries – but that of course is the point.

What does this mean for the church in our time? Surely it means at least this - that our life together is essentially shaped and defined by Jesus’ own ministry – his active fight for justice for the oppressed, powerless and the poor, his acceptance of the outcast and sinner, and above all his total inclusion of the foreigner and stranger.

Which leads me to a final question that I’d like to leave with you, and it’s simply this; can we find ways of holding on to the essential radical communal nature of our fellowship in Christ? It may be the best and highest gift that we can offer to the world.

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