Dean’s get sent invitations all the time and any week contains numerous and varied events. Last week I was able to go along to the local Roman Catholic Cathedral, St George’s, for the ordination of a new assistant bishop for the diocese, Paul Mason. It was a lovely invitation, to robe and share in a service that I had never been to before. In fact, at the end of the service we discovered that this was the first episcopal ordination that the Archbishop of Southwark had presided at – so it was a new experience for a few of us, but in different ways.
The cathedral was very full with supporters and the sanctuary crowded with deacons, priests, bishops and a cardinal, all there to play their part in the liturgy. The ecumenical guests, including the bishops of Southwark and Rochester (the RC Archdiocese covers at least three Anglican dioceses), were at the front of the procession and seated at the front of the nave and so we had the benefit of watching this huge procession of clergy pass by.
But we also had a perfect view of the liturgy and it was one aspect of that liturgy that I found fascinating and moving. Over the years, first as a Bishop’s Chaplain, then as a Canon Precentor and now as Dean, I’ve been involved in a great many consecrations of bishops. For many years it was my responsibility to take the lead on the planning of the ones at Southwark. So I know the liturgy inside out.
At the revision of the Ordinal for Common Worship I remember that there was a great deal of discussion about the place of the giving of the Bible. Bishop Colin Buchanan, a keen and skilled liturgist and historian of liturgy, argued that it was in the mind of the Reformers that the giving of the Bible was the action which bestowed episcopal authority and so that act had to be closely associated with the laying on of hands.
What most people remember about an episcopal ordination in the Church of England is the scrum that takes place within the Ordination Prayer as all the bishops come forward to lay hands on the person being ordained, simultaneously. Depending on how important the See is to which the new bishop is being ordained for or how popular the person is who is to be the new bishop there can be 50 or 60 bishops participating in this. The person being ordained disappears in the midst of all those convocation robes and extended hands.
That doesn’t happen in the Roman liturgy. In silence and in a very orderly style the bishops came forwards individually and laid hands on the head of the new bishop. No words were said, there was no scrum. And all this happened before rather than within the ordination prayer.
What was so powerful was that the Book of the Gospels was then brought and held over the head of the person being ordained whilst the ordination prayer was being said. He was ordained beneath the scriptures, his head was crowned, shielded, roofed by the gospels and it was as though the grace, the authority flowed through and from the words of Jesus as we have received them and as we proclaim them. It was extraordinary, beautiful, powerful.
In the Song of Songs it says this
Let him lead me to the banquet hall, and let his banner over me be love. (Song of Songs 2.4)
That banner, that roof, call it what you will, is the Gospels, the words of love that Jesus both speaks and embodies. The domus ecclesia, the house church, the house of the church, is roofed by the Gospels and the people of God gather beneath them and realise the true presence of Christ in them. Hence all the ceremony that surrounds the reading of the gospel in the Eucharist – the procession, the lights, the incense, the acclamations and the gathered people standing around the deacon or the gospeller and looking directly at them. Christ is present as his gospel is proclaimed and Christ was present as authority was given by the church through the scriptures.
So you never quite know what you’re going to experience when you say yes to an invitation. The gift to me was to be able to reflect on whether I too live beneath the scriptures, whether the banqueting house I enter is bannered with love.
thank you that you speak to us through your gospels.
may your word live in and through the church
and through the people under your roof.