Called to be Sentinels

Stephen Cottrell in his recent book On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards, devotes a good deal of space to the metaphor of ‘sentinel’, which since the days of Cranmer has been one of the terms used to describe the work of a ‘priest’ in the Church of England. It is a term rarely found in contemporary guides to Christian ‘ministry’. Furthermore, unlike the other metaphors of servants, shepherds messengers and stewards, it is not found in the New Testament. It is an Old Testament term used by some of the prophets to describe their role.

The earliest prophet to use the metaphor is Hosea: “The prophet is a sentinel for my God”. The task of a sentinel upon the city gates was to warn the people of impending judgment. This is how Hosea uses the term. His task is to “warn” (GNB) the people of Israel of the dire consequences of turning their back upon God and his pattern for living their lives.

The metaphor is above all developed in the Book of Ezekiel. “Mortal”, declares the Lord to Ezekiel, “I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” (Ezek 3.17: see also 33.2,3,6,7). Ezekiel is clearly told to “warn the wicked from their wicked way” (Ezek 3.18); if the wicked “do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity” (3.19). It is important to note that Ezekiel is not just a prophet of doom, he is also a prophet of grace. God in his love offers his people forgiveness is they “restore the pledge, give back what they have taken by robbery, and walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity” (33.15). “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from ways and live” (Ezek 33.11: see 18.32). As Chris Wright helpfully commented:

Life is God’s gift. Life is his creation. Life is his desire. Life is his pleasure… The very God who is coming as the enemy against his people himself sets the sentry in their midst to warn them of his approach, so that they can heed the warning and save their lives.
(The Message of Ezekiel)

What therefore is the role of the ‘sentinel’ in today’s society? For Chris Wright there is a twofold application. In the first place, the warning to the wicked has an evangelistic dimension.

In presenting the good news of the gospel the evangelist must also confront people with the bad news of the reality of sin and the danger of judgment. The language of salvation only makes sense if there is something to be saved from.

Secondly, there is a pastoral dimension.

The task of rebuke and warning is difficult to do in a way that is sensitive and yet effective. But to avoid it for fear of hurting people’s feelings is like a sentry failing to sound the alarm for fear of upsetting people by disturbing their sleep.

By contrast Stephen Cottrell focusses on the “prophetic” task of speaking “truth to power”. He writes:

The sentinel must speak clearly, imaginatively and fearlessly on the big issues that are upon us and those coming toward us, presenting God’s perspective, demonstrating God’s care and, where necessary, announcing God’s verdict: issues such as the global catastrophe of climate change; our obsession with cheap petrol…. all the year round; the widening gap between rich and poor; the easy accessibility of pornography and alcohol and their reprehensible  effects upon the young in particular; the degrading and objectifying of women; the sexualisation of children; the shocking dependency of much of our economy on selling arms; the renewal of our nuclear capability….; our demonisation of immigrants; our tolerance of causal racism; the shocking indifference of unregulated markets and financial institutions, and the damage that this has done not just to our economy, but in our confidence in the systems that transform and shape our nations. And more besides.

In favour of Cottrell’s approach is that Ezekiel along with the other prophets focussed largely on the ‘social’ sins of their time. However, I question the extent to which leaders of local churches may be expected to act like the prophets of old – as perhaps distinct from church leaders who have a wider ministry in the life of a nation – such as Stephen Cottrell himself!

A key difficulty, is that sentinels’ have to be sure that when ‘speaking truth to power’, they are, as Cottrell says, looking at the world “with God’s eyes”. It is all too easy for see the world through our own eyes, reflecting our own prejudices of our own heart. Cottrell quotes from Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule: “A sentinel always selects a high vantage point in order to be able to observe things better. In the same way, whoever is appointed as a sentinel for a people should live in the heights so that he can help his people by having a broad perspective”. This means, says Cottrell, that a sentinel today “will be a person of prayer, someone who makes space for God to be God”. Contemplation is therefore vital to ‘prophetic’ ministry. “The world, just as much as the Church, is imperilled by …. unreflective leadership, and by those who only look at what they want to see”. Later he says: “The sentinel is the one who looks: the contemplative. The sentinel is the one who having looked interprets and declares: the prophetic”.

Cottrell concludes:

Reclaiming the language of sentinel and all that goes with it could be enormously fruitful and liberating for ordained ministry, helpfully counterbalancing some of the more managerial and target-driven models of leadership. Let our key performance indicator be this: time spent looking at God and looking at the world.

That is some challenge!

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