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Deference can be dangerous – The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

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Title: Deference can be dangerous

Preacher: The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16; Romans 4:13–25; Mark 8:31–38

Date:  25 February 2024, the Second Sunday of Lent


Deference can be dangerous.

Time and again in our church and across society, reports have highlighted that a culture of deference can become the landscape in which bad things happen. Deference is when people feel that even if they speak up, they won’t be heard.

Deference is when the invisible forces of respect mean that people don’t say what matters to them most. Deference is when people can collude with damaging behaviours that hurt themselves and others.

This isn’t by any means an issue unique to the church. Those who have watched ‘Mr Bates v The Post Office’, or read about these miscarriages of justice elsewhere, will know that an unquestioning respect can lead to calamity. That organisations beyond reproach become very dangerous organisations. Because they can never be in the wrong – even when they are.

In the past year the Church of England received the third report from the Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice. Among other things, this report addressed the patronage system that still operates in the Church. Among other things the authors of the report said:

“we want to ask whether an institution that still openly exercises the power of patronage in its affairs is capable of initiating and enabling a process of cultural change”

Last week you may have heard in the news that another major report was received by the Church – this time on safeguarding. The report makes clear that ‘a complete change of culture is needed’. On many occasions patronage and deference have been given as key reasons why the Church has failed to act on concerns about safeguarding.

When I think about the life of Jesus, I’m left wondering how on earth we ended up in this position. Why a church founded on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus gravitated so much towards unaccountable power. Why the mutuality of early Christians – argumentative as they were – somehow got lost in the structures of hierarchy and power. Perhaps it’s the fault of him out there – Constantine the Great with his broken sword – perhaps it’s his fault of making Christianity the state religion and embedding it in existing power structures.

However, if ever there was someone to defer to, and allow unaccountable command of his followers, surely that was Jesus? Yet in our Gospel this morning Peter takes Jesus to one side in order to rebuke him. Peter the fisherman having stern words with the Word made flesh; rebuking the one ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (to quote the Epistle).There is love and concern in what Peter says – but not deference. Peter is worried about the impact on the disciples of all this talk about suffering, rejection and death. It’s hardly the kind of pep talk designed to rally the troops.

While Peter appears to have no hesitation in taking Jesus to one side to have this conversation he finds himself being rebuked in return. Jesus addresses Peter in the harshest terms – ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Time and again Jesus has to explain that his way isn’t the way of the world. Peter hears all the doom and gloom, but misses the promise of resurrection. Jesus is not to be deflected in his mission: he has a relationship with the disciples of open debate and honest speaking. There’s no place for fake deference, or unspoken truths, in this work of building God’s Kingdom.

Lent is traditionally a time when people new to the Christian faith prepare for baptism.

Perhaps one way of changing the culture in the Church is to remember that baptism is the most significant sacrament that we have to offer. That being baptised, and living out our faith each day, is the highest form of Christian discipleship. Consequently, being made a deacon, priest, or a bishop, or even and archbishop, is something that can only happen when that primary act of baptism has taken place.

In the Christian faith, if there is to be deference, it is surely first and foremost for the baptised in Christ – because everything else is simply commentary on that primary gift of grace. Perhaps, to paraphrase St Paul’s, we need to turn upside down our thoughts about the Church, so that in humility and love we can in turn, up-end and transform the world.

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