29 April 2016
Not to be served but to serve
Sean Oliver-Dee is an academic and author who has written on Islam and Christianity, and the growth of the UK Church.
In January 1961 the newly elected president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, stood at the podium outside the Capitol building for his inaugural address and gave one the shortest speeches ever at a presidential inauguration. In his conclusion he used these words: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country…”
It was a call to service, rather than grasping self-interest. Yet approximately 3,000 miles away across the Atlantic from where the new president stood, Kennedy’s words were already being lived by a lady who had been on the British throne for eight years by the time he was inaugurated.
As the Queen turned 90 this week and praise was rightly lavished on her for the way she has performed her duties over 67 years, one word kept coming up in the tributes: ‘service’. Even stanch republicans, such as the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, acknowledged that the way that she had carried out her duties was a remarkable example of selfless service. The same term was used back in 2012 when the country celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
The Queen’s attitude of service stands out because of its long-term nature, its consistency and the very fact of her public profile. But the attitude she is constantly associated with, the same as that highlighted by President Kennedy all those years ago, is one that should be familiar to all Christians.
Yet it doesn't seem to be as familiar as it ought to be. The American pastor Rick Warren said on his blog back in 2014 when commenting on modern western Christian culture: “Thousands of books have been written on leadership, but few on servanthood. Everyone wants to lead; no one wants to be a servant. We would rather be generals than privates. Even Christians want to be "servant-leaders", not just plain servants. But to be like Jesus is to be a servant. That's what he called himself.”
Maybe it's because we are infected as a Church with the world’s pride, with its obsessive need for control over our lives, or maybe it’s simply due to mis-placed ambition. Whatever the reason, re-learning humility and service, no matter what our role in the Church, is vital for unity and cooperation flourish and for Christ to be honoured.
That requires laying aside ego and putting on servanthood.
As always, our model is Christ. In Matthew 20:24-28 he teaches: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave; just as the son of man didn't come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
The Queen has been in a position of authority for all but the first few years of her life, and has been a servant of the country through it. We may be called to leadership, we more likely won’t, but the attitude of humble service to one another is an integral element of the ‘love’ that is the hallmark of our expression of faith.