A priest for ever

Back in 1994, when the first women were ordained priest, a new catholic society within the Church of England came into existence.  The first members were admitted in the Diocese of Southwark on the Feast of the Holy Cross, 14 September, into the Society of Catholic Priests – the red cross brigade.  The bright red crosses on lapels and dresses can be seen in General Synod and at many gatherings.  I became a member when I came to Southwark in 1995.  It has always been a great source of support for me in my priestly ministry and being in a truly inclusive society within the catholic tradition has been a great encouragement.

Last Thursday I ceased to be Rector General after almost 9 years of serving the Society in that way.  A new Provincial Rector, Fr Kevin Maddy, was elected and we wish him well as he leads the Society which now has members in Australia and North America as well as in Europe (despite Brexit the British parts of SCP will remain in the European Chapter).

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the final Mass at which I was to preside as Rector General.  I thought you might be interested in reading what I had to say.  The lections for the Mass were Hebrews 5.1-11 and Luke 22.14-20.

Scplogo

The SCP cross

 

George Herbert, that saintly priest and poet begins his handbook for clergy called ‘The Country Parson’ with this simple but rather startling definition about what it is that we are called to do

A Pastor is the Deputy of Christ for the reducing of Man to the Obedience of God.

I’m not sure that untranslated those few words would be entirely understood by many, or many of those who share with us in the sacred ministry of the priest in the Church of God. I’m delighted that when I was at Mirfield we were constantly being told that we were being ‘formed for the priesthood’ and not, as some other places of learning are concerned, ‘trained for ministry’. This isn’t intended to be an old git homily but it seems to me that so often those who are ordained are lumped by the wider and, I suppose, wiser church into this catch all category of ‘ministry’. It’s an inclusive word and so I should rejoice in that – but you see, I was called to be a priest – it was specific, it was as we now say , intentional, not on my part, but I believe on God’s.

As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says, and that person knows a thing or two about priesthood,

One does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God.

We did not have the audacity to choose ourselves for this, or the arrogance to choose this for ourselves. I suspect that each of us here is a priest out of obedience, women and men for whom the call to the priestly life was undeniable and unavoidable, which was tested and affirmed by the church and confirmed through the laying-on-of-hands within that apostolic succession which gives us the authority which God alone can give.

Herbert defines our life as Dignity and Duty

The Dignity, in that a Priest may do that which Christ did, and by his authority, and as his Vicegerent. The Duty, in that a Priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for Doctrine and Life.

This idea that we are the Deputy, the Vicegerent – the earthly representative of God – is daunting. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews admits, we’re subject to weakness, we’re part of that fallen humanity which, through the grace of the sacraments that we administer, we seek to raise to the true status that we have lost.

That word ‘vicegerent’ really means ‘holding on behalf of’. As priests, we hold Christ on behalf of the people and the people on behalf of Christ. Whether we’re holding the host before people hungry for God, or holding the hand of someone hungry for heaven, we’re holding, on behalf of the one who holds us, Jesus Christ our Eternal High Priest.

We will all have been traumatised by the events that have affected us so far this year. Terrorist attacks at home, Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Finsbury Park; the disaster of Grenfell Tower; the natural disasters in the Caribbean and northern India and Bangladesh; ongoing war; ongoing crises; the madness that leads a lone gunman to mow down concert goers in Las Vegas; and the political disasters from which it will take generations to recover – this is the context in which we do, not ministry, not leadership, not all the words that others seek to apply to what we do, but we do our priestly ministry – breaking open the word, breaking the bread, sharing the love, sharing the cup, witnessing to the dignity and the duty that is our calling.

I hope you’ll excuse me if I’m a little self-indulgent as we all have stories we can tell and as clergy we tell them – but I’m the one preaching!

The evening of the 3 June was one of the most devastating of my priesthood. Some of you may have already read what I’ve written about it or have heard me speak. But that evening I was at the Deanery with friends. We’d enjoyed a barbeque in our garden and had gone up to the drawing room for more drinks. We had a house full including the person who was to be our new deacon, arrived that day to move into his flat.

And then a text arrived which said that something was kicking off on London Bridge. So I did what you would do – I put on my dog collar and grabbed my bunch of keys. My first instinct was to open the church and provide a refuge for those caught up in whatever was going on – after all that is what we’ve done at the south end of London Bridge for the last 1400 years!

But I couldn’t get very close. Finding my way as best I could I got near to the market only to be met with a huge number of heavily armed police officers, with their machine guns and night sights trained on me. I was forced back onto Southwark Street. What I saw there I’ll never forget – a road full of ambulances, of flashing lights, pavements full of injured and traumatised people being attended to by paramedics and friends.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I was the Good Samaritan, binding up the wounds of those on the roadside – but I wasn’t, I followed the directions of the police and found my way home. The house was full, a young Muslim guy, who chairs our residents forum, texted me – he couldn’t get home and so he stayed with us, with the helicopters whirring around over heads, with the world around us going mad. I have to tell you that that night I was physically sick.

I just didn’t know what to do and whether I was up to doing it.

But the dawn broke and we began, step by step, bit by bit, holding people for Christ. The Cathedral was closed for a week as we were at the heart of what’d happened. All I and my colleagues could do was be the church, be priests out there, but doing what priests do, the dignity and the duty, saying Mass where we could, saying our prayers and being there with people in their pain and distress – be they Christian, Muslim, of other faiths or none.

And the community needed the church. It was we who were able to articulate on behalf of others what we were all feeling, it was we who could offer liturgy which held the stages of mourning, the stages of rebuilding or re-hallowing. I presided over the removal of the flowers that had gathered on London Bridge, with incense and holy water we walked the path of the attackers and reclaimed the area for Christ and the community and we kept bringing it all to the altar.

And I didn’t know what to do from one moment to the next – but that priesthood to which you and I are called is so much more than we can begin to understand – for it’s not our priesthood but Christ’s, it’s Jesus who ministers through us and it’s Jesus who holds our hand as we hold the hand of others.

parson

The cover of George Herbert’s handbook for Parsons

 

The church has many agendas and some of them are good and right but some of them well out of a place of misunderstanding or even a refusal to understand. What we’ve been ordained to is not something of the moment but something of eternity, for as the psalmist says

You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.

Initiatives will come and go, the church will grow and diminish, it will reform when needed and change when called to by God. But one thing is for ever and that’s the priesthood of which we are the most unworthy of members. We’re an instant in an eternal history which will only be brought to its fulfilment when we stand in that place ‘when sacraments shall cease’ as a great Eucharistic hymn describes it.

Until then we hold Christ to the world and the world to Christ, break the bread and share the cup, offer the church’s welcome and farewell, bind and heal, forgive and befriend, in persona Christi, in the place of Christ, in the person of Christ, who has called us to share his priesthood for ever.

Father, we thank you
that you have called us to your service,
to feed your people
by word and sacrament.
By the power of your Spirit,
keep us faithful to you
and to those in our care.
Keep united in the bonds of peace and love
the members of the Society of Catholic Priests,
that by sharing in Christ’s priesthood here on earth,
they may come to share in the joys of his eternal kingdom,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever. Amen.

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