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Sermon preached by Canon Andy Williams

If for any reason you had wandered into the Council Chamber in City Hall on Thursday at 7am, you would have seen a rather strange sight. About 25 men and women wandering around the Chamber for an hour, reading the names of the 89 Councillors, sitting in their seats, muttering under their breath and then moving on. At 8 o'clock they walked out of the Chamber and headed for breakfast. If you haven't guessed, this was Prayer for Bradford in action, a group of church leaders and ministers from churches in Bradford praying for our city. They were doing what Paul urged should be done, as we heard in our Epistle today. Have another look at 1Timothy, chapter 2: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all in high positions...” Paul makes a similar plea in other letters. So that's what we were doing on Thursday: praying for our city leaders. Why? What is this urgency to pray for leaders? Two reasons, I suggest. The first is obvious, that leaders set the agenda for the rest of us. Their decisions have far-reaching consequences and affect the lives of many. So we want them to lead well and make good decisions. But there's another reason. Leadership is hazardous for the individual holding the leadership role. It is dangerous. 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Holding power over others can bring an inflated sense of your own self-importance. There are many examples of the way power corrupts: Presidents Asad, Mugabe, Morsi, and further back Stalin and Hitler of course. Those are extreme, but the same danger is there wherever leadership is exercised: in the Council Chamber, the Houses of Parliament, the Cabinet Office, the White House, Lambeth Palace, Bishopsthorpe, Bishopscroft and yes, even the Vicarage. Being a Christian leader is no immunity against an unbalanced sense of your own importance. You may get a leader skilled in hiding their egotism but it will come out in decisions made and in the manner in which they relate to others. Others  manage to maintain their perspective. After holding a demanding role for ten years Rowan Williams stepped away from high office. Someone who knew him before he was in that position bumped into him recently and said: 'So what are you doing with yourself now you're no longer Archbishop of Canterbury. He replied quietly: “Learning to be a Christian again.”

For any leader the challenge is to maintain a sense of perspective and that can be hard to do when you are caught up in the role. Stepping out of the limelight can be healthy, even for a time. And if someone else takes over your role, it can be a reminder that as all authority comes from God it is to God that the glory should go.

Years ago, when I left my second curacy, I was followed by an Archdeacon. He went from the high profile role of being Archdeacon to a curate in a parish church, as a step towards retirement. In the same way, David Hope went from being Archbishop of York to being a parish priest. Even humble Canon Pastors of modest cathedrals need reminding that the role is a gift and a grace. So the Canon Pastor in this Cathedral should return from a three month Sabbatical not just refreshed but with a better sense of perspective. Many people have been asking about my impending Sabbatical so I'm taking the opportunity to answer them now. I hope it doesn't sound indulgent; if it does, there's proof that I need to be taken out of the picture for a while!

So firstly, what IS a Sabbatical? In practical terms it means a complete break from work responsibilities for three months. The Church of England acknowledges that working six days a week, sometimes for 12-14 hours can give little opportunity for being refreshed in body, mind and spirit. Over time the inner reserves are depleted. An extended break can help replenish those inner resources. Some clergy are granted a Sabbatical several times in their ministry. I have not had one before. The closest I came was being granted a fellowship from an Oxford college to engage in some research. I had a whole term away from teaching in order to research and write a paper on the career value of RE and Theology. That was study leave. This Sabbatical is different. The clue is in the name, from the Jewish word Shabbat, or Sabbath. A time of rest, a complete break from work. So important is it that it is commanded the law. The 4th commandment: “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” More space is given in the Torah to this commandment than to any other. The practice of having one complete day free from work became the hallmark of Jewish life and practice. In fact the Romans had to exempt the Jews from military service because for one day a week they were no use as soldiers! What was the justification for this weekly observance, which made the Jews stand out as a people? Two reasons. First, In Deuteronomy 5 it is linked to the sovereignty of God: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” Stop working once a week, read the story of your deliverance and remember that God has worked for you; it doesn't all depend on you. It is God's grace which rescued you. It still is. And he didn't save you from slavery in order for you to put yourselves back into being slaves to work; God wants you to enjoy your freedom. And that links to the second reason, which Exodus 20 spells out: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” Observing the Sabbath is there to enjoy what Yahweh has created. When God created the cosmos Genesis didn't say “He saw all He had made and it was very true, or accurate, but it was good, beautiful.” It is made to enjoy, to play in. (There is a whole theology of play which is linked to creation and the Sabbath but I don't have time to explore that.) What we can say is that stopping work in order to enjoy God's creation, is a command. To give oneself to recreation means to be re-created. And the Sabbath is blessed, it is sanctified. So when I am away from the Cathedral on Sabbatical, although I am withdrawing from the daily religious round here, it is to engage in another sort of holiness. The Sabbath is holy! So being on Sabbatical should serve to remind me more of God's sovereignty, that He doesn't NEED me to work for Him because He is already working for me. I AM dispensable. I am also dependent on God and His provision in Creation. So I intend to enjoy the beauty of Creation.

Here then is an outline of the three months. After a brief holiday together Jennie and I are taking ten days to go away with Stephen, our youngest offspring. Then we have a few weeks in the UK, based in Manchester, to read, rest, pray and see a little more of our two daughters who live there. In November I will be joining Gordon Dey for a Clergy Visit to the Land of the Holy One, my second visit to Israel and the West Bank. Then I am making a three week visit to mid and South India. Some of you know that my sister and brother-in-law live permanently in Tamil Nadu. I am keen to do some further theological reflection on the overlap between Eastern and Western spirituality. The plan is to stay for a few days in a Hindu ashram and the following week in a Christian Ashram. We shall return just before Christmas and be back in Bradford for the first day of 2014.  I am hugely grateful for this gift. And I also appreciate that it means extra pressure on my colleagues. So I want to finish as I started, by highlighting prayer. Yes, please pray for me and Jennie, that this Sabbatical leave will be holy. But please pray too for the Dean and Canon Sam. To paraphrase St Paul: “I urge that supplications, prayers and intercessions and thanksgivings are made for them, for Bishop Nick and for all who bear the responsibility of leadership. May they and we be faithful to both the work and the rest that God has called us to.” Amen.


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