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Comfort & Challenge

By Canon Theologian Morwenna Ludlow

At this time, women and men are preparing for their ordinations as deacons or priests in the Church of England. It’s hard to sum up what ministry in the Church means — and it will mean different things for people with different talents and working in different locations. 

In the early church, ministers frequently defined themselves by what they said – or how they spoke. They looked back to Isaiah, who reported God’s command to “Comfort, Comfort my people” (Isa. 40.1). Strikingly, Isaiah also describes the person who has “the tongue of a teacher” as being someone with the task not of instructing people what to believe, but rather of “sustaining the weary with a word” (Isa. 50.4). Great bishops were praised (amongst other things) for being comforters of those who mourn, echoing the words of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.4). This ministry was sometimes connected with the inspiration and support of the Holy Spirit, the ‘comforter’ (e.g. John 14.15).

There are times, to be sure, when we all need comfort and consolation. But we might also think, isn’t this talk of comfort all too much ‘motherhood and apple pie?’. It’s nice, but… aren’t we also called to do something?

And this is where things get interesting. For the early church expanded in a very wordy culture, at a time when most people could not read — the best guess at literacy rates is about 10% of the whole population. Most people’s encounter with the teachings of the church, with the Bible, with hymns and liturgy was through hearing them and through joining in where appropriate. Because most people’s encounters with words was through hearing them, not reading them, ministers in the early church knew that what they said was deeply significant: their words could touch people’s hearts, draw them to faith, comfort them. They also knew their words could hurt and destroy. They knew that there was a time to comfort a grieving congregation and a time to challenge them on their apathy. They knew, in short, that their words could do things. 

In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is called the Parakletos. In English we sometimes say ‘Paraklete’ because the word is so difficult to translate. Yes, it can mean ‘Comforter’, but it can also mean an advocate, one who encourages, or one who challenges. The Spirit is the one who consoles, yes, but in the sense of giving us heart, an active encouragement, not just patting us on the head and telling us it will get better. At times, the Spirit challenges us too, and that can feel uncomfortable. 

The preachers of the early church prayed for the Spirit’s inspiration and they tried to carry that into their sermons. Sometimes they consoled; sometimes they challenged. (Basil of Caesarea starts a sermon with “Comfort, comfort my people”, then lectures his congregation sternly on their tendency to drunkenness!) I pray for all those preparing for ordination that God will indeed give them the tongue of a teacher and that they will learn how to use it actively in sustaining the weary and being an advocate for those whom the world does not notice.