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In search of the servant

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 July 2017, 10.58am

After thirteen years in their employment, Wayne Rooney recently left Manchester United to return to his first club, Everton.

In their goodbye statement, United referred to him as a ‘wonderful servant’ of the club.

And some discontinuity switch clicked inside me.

He’d played very well in some matches…but he was a ‘servant’ on over £200,000 a week.

So where does that leave us with the word and the role it signifies?

I have similar struggles with the papacy self-styling itself down the years as ‘the servant of the servants of God’.

I don’t know any other servant who, from their palace, and almost inexhaustible treasury, declares themselves infallible.

Again, I sense disconnect, some inner stirrings of incongruity.

A megalomaniac honest about their intentions is somehow preferable to this talk of servanthood.

And now we have a debate about bishops’ mitres which could throw up the same issues.

From their clothes, you probably wouldn’t guess that bishops are leaders of a sect which follows the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

It wouldn’t be immediately apparent.

While he identified strongly with the suffering servant, the clothes of some of his present day leadership – never short on gold - suggest a rather attention-seeking

You wouldn’t want to wash anyone’s feet in that get-up; you might get it messy.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, has been a keen voice in the present debate.

“The mitre has become a sign that ‘this person is a bishop’,’ he says. ‘It’s not a very good one because it looks daft and it doesn’t signify anything…it makes them distant and it makes them look silly.”

This may or may not be so. I’ve seen plenty of Baptist ministers and Evangelical front men looking distant and silly in their suits…not because of their clothes; just
because of who they are.

Dressing down does not in itself make anyone humble…or convincing.

My greater concern with the recently-acquired odd hats – and the mitre is recent, only appearing on bishops’ heads in the 19th century – is around deference and servanthood.

I do sense that a mitre makes for infantile relationships around the bishop-figure, which does not serve them or their flock.

Putting on an odd hat (and I have a few) does not make me a more authoritative figure; neither does it work that way for a bishop.

Yet in a world that loves a show, loves a bit of theatre, it can play into that madness.

(Certainly when it comes to recent sex scandals in the church, such deference has played out badly.)

And talk of servanthood from a figure dripping in gold; who arrives last and leaves first; who always gets given the best seat in the house and wild-eyed deference as far as the eye can see…well, we’re back with the sense of incongruity, of disconnect.

I believe in the servant ideal and celebrate it wherever it is found.

I believe in one who does things for others, and we can take that spirit into whatever role or job we have – taxi driver, carer, footballer, car maker, bishop, sex worker, mum, teacher, dad, social worker, dentist, friend, whatever.

And of course it is more about the spirit, (it always is) and less about the wages and the clothes.

But such things have their own loud message, conscious and unconscious; and it may not be one that is helpful. 

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