Last Sunday, we contemplated the Good Shepherd. He knows his sheep, calls them to follow him and protects them, laying down his life. This image is one that crops up time and time again. Jesus is drawing on an Old Testament tradition. God’s relationship to the People of Israel is described in these terms. It is an intimate image of care, of being known and knowing in return.
In Lumen Gentium, on the section on the Mystery of the Church uses the image of the Good Shepherd as well:
“The Church is a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ. It is a flock of which God Himself foretold He would be the shepherd, and whose sheep, although ruled by human shepherds; are nevertheless continuously led and nourished by Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd and the Prince of the shepherds, who gave His life for the sheep.”
This week, while this image whirls away in my head, I was also thinking of a lecture Neil had had early on at Allen Hall, last year. It was on the nature of the ‘local church’. It was one of those moments when we saw one of the differences between where we had come from and where we were heading.
The Local Church in the Anglican Communion is seen as the parish. The strength of this is an awareness of the pastoral and theological needs of individual communities. However, sometimes individual priests can become concerned only with what goes on in their parishes and co-operation even with surrounding parishes can become difficult. On occasions there is out right hostility between a parish community and their rural dean or Bishop. I guess all churches are full of human beings who have the potential to corrupt that which God seeks to nourish and build.
However, the Catholic understanding of the Local Church and indeed of Bishops is very different. The Local Church is not the parish community, but the diocese. Also the Mission of the diocese is embodied in the Bishop. This allows for a wider perspective. I’m sure that some priests and parish communities in places in the Catholic Church fall into the same temptation to cut them selves off as sometimes happens in the Anglican Church. I haven’t experienced this yet but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. However the theology is one that supports collegiality among priests and a wider understanding of mission.
This theology draws on the images of the Good Shepherd and on the role Jesus had given Peter on the beach, after the Resurrection. “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Jesus is returning to his Father. In his Passion he saw his flock scattered. Now, in the midst of his Resurrection Joy, he entrusts his followers, those he cares for and loves; those he knows to the core of their being, into the care of Peter. So Peter and the Apostles became the first bishops, following Jesus command in the celebrating Mass, teaching, praying and building up the community. They were the Shepherds looking after local flocks.
Slowly other shepherds were needed. Bishops took on caring and protecting all those that the Holy Spirit brought into the flock, in the same way that Jesus had. Last week’s readings talked about the difference between the Good Shepherd and the Hired Man. Bishops aren’t hired men. They are responsible for the flock; they make sure the sheep are taken to good pasture, with clear streams. They protect the flock and lead it to safe places.
However as the church grew individual bishops couldn’t be in lots of places at once. Others were needed. Individual priests were given responsibility, not as hired men but as men who fulfilled the Bishop’s duties when he couldn’t be there to do it. The flock is still led by the Bishop. He is still the shepherd. The mission, to feed the sheep and bring in other sheep belongs to him.