Who’s the Greatest?


(Proverbs 31.10-31, James 3.13-4.3, Mark 9,30-37)

Twenty-nine years ago today, I was licensed as a Reader in the Church of England. Over those twenty-nine years, one of the questions I’ve most frequently been asked is, “Are you going to go on to become a priest?”

The assumption behind the use of the words ‘go on’ seems to be that in ministry, as in all other spheres of work, everyone is on a career path, in which everyone’s aim is to rise up the hierarchy.  You may start off at the bottom, in a role which has little status, power or influence, but your aim will be eventually to ‘progress’ to a position with more status, more power, and more influence. And in the church, lay people (and lay ministers) are at the bottom when it comes to power and status, and ordained ministers are at the top.

The answer to the question, for me, has always been ‘No’ (even before the time when I became too old to be considered for ordination, which I am now!). I feel no call to ordained ministry. I feel I have a vocation to lay ministry, and to be a lay preacher and theologian. I value the position of an unpaid lay minister as a bridge person between the world of church and the everyday world – even when one frequently has the experience (only to be expected of a bridge!) of being walked over!

I also value the fact that, in Reader ministry, there is no hierarchy – you cannot become a senior Reader in any way, and there is no difference between men and women Readers. That unfortunately is not the case is in the world of Anglican clergy, in which there continues to be distinctions based on gender, and differences of power and status.

When I was licensed, 29 years ago, the question about becoming  a priest would only have been asked by selectors, as they did of me at my selection. Women were unable to be priests, and the first women weren’t ordained as deacons, the lowest level of clergy, until the following year. Until 1969, mind you, women were not even allowed to be Readers. These rules were based both on the Victorian middle-class image of woman as the one whose true sphere of influence was in the home; but even more on centuries of Christian misogyny, which, drawing in particular on a very partial reading of St. Paul and other sections of the Bible, characterised women as unspiritual creatures, totally unsuited for religious leadership or any public activity.

There is a passage in the book of Proverbs, chapter 31 which gives a very different picture of the activity of women. The Good News Bible entitles this section, ‘The Capable Wife’ but actually the woman described there is active in business, investment and commerce as well as in the home She is a woman of power and responsibility. Perhaps some people would find her an intimidating figure – an impossible act to follow; but, as elsewhere in the Bible, she may have been drawn as an ideal figure, a perfect example to aspire to. But actually the reality for many women in Biblical times was that they had little power or status; they were the property of men, first their fathers and then their husbands.

Another interpretation of this passage is that it is a description of the divine Wisdom at work; in this sort of literature, Wisdom is almost always described as a female. However we interpret it though, this passage doesn’t at all support the idea that the female cannot be spiritual and cannot reveal what God is like.

In the context of our other readings today, it is important to note that the woman of Proverbs exercises her considerable talents, not in the interests of a career of her own, but in the service of others for whom she is responsible, her husband and family. This is still the way of life for many women in the Third World today. Women are often  the ones who work to provide food and clothing for their families, as well as carrying out the practical tasks of caring for children, but have no power or authority.


We find it very difficult to prevent ourselves from projecting human ideas of leadership onto God. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is again telling his disciples what sort of a Messiah he is: one who came to serve, to suffer and to be killed. The disciples can’t take it, either with reference to Jesus or for themselves. Instead, they turn to arguing about which of them is the greatest; who will have the positions of  greatest power, status and influence in the coming Kingdom, whether it be established in this world or the next. And if we read Acts and the epistles carefully, we see that this sort of quarrelling about ‘who is the greatest’ continued in the early church, with rivalry between those following Peter and James, those following Paul and those who looked to the Beloved Disciple, and ever since!

Jesus could have taken a woman as his example of a person of little power in his society; instead he took a child. Some commentators think that he did so in order to make a play on the Aramaic word ‘talya’ which means both ‘servant’ and ‘child’.

We, who live in such a child-centred, even child-indulgent culture, find it hard to recapture the full impact of what Jesus was saying. We need to remember that in the ancient world, children were the property of their father: property which could be misused and harshly disciplined, who were expected to work as hard as slaves for the benefit of their father,  who could be sold if necessary to augment the family income, and who would be married off to the family advantage. We only have to look to other parts of the world to see the same things, child labour and early marriage,  happening today.

Child slave images

We have heard the teaching of Jesus about children so often, that it has become commonplace – but do we take it seriously? We tend to laugh at the story of the disciples jockeying for position – but it still goes on today in the church. People are still often seek positions of influence for themselves. Within the church there are many who insist on the distinctions of different orders and offices. In the Church of England it can be seen most obviously during worship, where there is a clear order of precedence in processions, an order which says the most important person (the priest or the bishop) has to be at the back. This is ironic, since, as Paul points out in Corinthians, that was the position where the slaves and captives came in a procession – but now in church it is the place of honour!

Even if we don’t hold office ourselves, we may rank people who minister to us in a hierarchy, and feel offended if we get a visit from a lay person rather than a member of the clergy, or if an ordinary member of the congregation, rather than a trained minister, takes a particular part of the service.

We all of us, clergy and lay, licensed minister and person in the pew,  find it hard to accept that the call to Christian service is a call to do whatever is asked of us, no matter what. In the words of the Methodist Covenant Service, which are so difficult to say and mean:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or laid low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.


The reading I referred to from the Book of from Proverbs comes at the end of a section containing teaching about Wisdom. The reading we heard from the Epistle of James is also about wisdom. It contrasts two sorts of wisdom. First, the wisdom that comes from above, which is shown in right living; and second worldly wisdom, which, taken to extremes is demonic.

None of us can escape being exposed to both sorts of wisdom; but we, as individuals and as a church, have to choose which to follow. If we choose to follow the path of heavenly wisdom, the result will be right relationships with God and with each other.  If we choose the path of worldly wisdom, the result will be strife and quarrels in our relationships with others; it will also distort our relationship with God.

We heard this week that the Archbishop of Canterbury is planning to invite the Primates of the Anglican Communion to a meeting next year, in a last ditch attempt to hold the quarrelling Communion together. Canon Giles Fraser wrote yesterday that he thought it was too late; it was already too divided, since the world wide web had allowed people across the communion to share ideas and build alliances at a grass-roots level, without passing through some sort of central control – a second Reformation, which would finally do away with hierarchy.

Who knows whether he is right. The struggle to follow Christ’s way is ongoing. We have constantly, as individuals and as a Church , to remind ourselves of Christ’s challenging definition of Christian service:

Whoever wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all.

And we need constantly to be reforming ourselves and our institutions, to reflect the image of a God who was revealed to us as a servant and a child.


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