As if for the first time

In the past few weeks across the church #newrevs has been trending on social media.  This is ordination season and so brand new deacons and priests have been sent out by bishops to their parishes.  I was thankful to celebrate 35 years in orders at the beginning of July (I was ordained deacon in 1983) and it was lovely to see all the hopeful excited new ministers emerging from their ordinations with a freshness reflected in their surplices.

The ordination of priests inevitably is followed by a flurry of ‘First Masses’. A typical Anglo-Catholic will send out their Ember Card, the card asking for your prayers as they prepare for ordination, with the additional notice that they will preside at the eucharist, celebrate the Mass (whatever language you choose to use) on such and such a day and time and you are very welcome. The First Mass stands alongside the ordination as a pivotal moment in the new priests life.

holy-communion

Over the years – apart from mine own – I’ve gone to many such celebrations and shared in the joy of not just the new priest but their family and friends and the people in the parish as well as their clergy friends as they begin this particular part of their priestly ministry.  Many will have been preparing for a long time for the moment – in their heads since the moment that they and the church accepted the call to priestly ministry – but also then as the diaconate year moves into its second half thinking about how they will say Mass.

For quite a few years I have run a course in the diocese for the deacons who will be ordained priest.  It’s of course a very mixed group often encompassing the full range of traditions that are reflected in our diverse, broad CofE. But whilst tongue in cheek I tell them I’m going to tell them the correct way in which to preside at the eucharist, in my heart I know that I believe that to be true, not in an arrogant ‘I’m right you’re wrong’ way I hope but simply because I believe so wholeheartedly that the eucharist is where the church is truly being the church and the priest, presiding at this ecclesial gathering enables the people to meet the Lord in word and sacrament.

So those to be ordained will be thinking about the ‘manual acts’ what you do with your hands, and the ‘secret prayers’, the sotto voce devotions made at various points in the liturgy, their tone of voice and their tone of presiding.

Then the day comes and all is in place – the silver is sparkling, the linens are crisp and white, the wine is chilling (not for the service but for the reception afterwards), there are bunches of red roses for Our Lady and the new priest’s mother and the servers and the choir and the readers and the preacher (a vital part of the service – have you managed to secure the enviable, best preacher you could inveigle into preaching for you) are all rehearsed and ready.  It’s a showpiece and there is nothing wrong in that.

For those from other traditions this all sounds, frankly, weird or wrong.  Those for whom the eucharist holds a less central place in their understanding of the church, of redemption, of the Christian life, etc, etc, the idea that you would elevate presiding to such a level and in such a way speaks of a kind of idolatry of the Mass.  But I think that I would describe the variety of reactions that are made more in terms of whether presiding at the Eucharist is seen as functional or ontological – and for catholics it is the latter.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews talks a great deal about the nature of Christian priesthood as opposed to Aaronic.  But the writer at one point in the letter is constantly quoting one line from a psalm

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110.4)

What is bestowed in ordination through the grace of the Holy Spirit is not for a moment but for all time. “You are a priest forever.” You are changed forever, there has been an ontological shift and at the altar we see this most clearly as the priest stands in the place of Christ and brings the past and the future into the present in the once and forever liturgy of the church.

But this has implications for every other eucharist at which a priest presides.  Yes the first time is a real celebration and it is great to have a party afterwards but what about the second and the tenth and the one hundredth and the thousandth and the countless ministry of the aged priest who continues to approach the altar? The true reality is that every priest should approach the altar as if for the first time.

We learn a great deal by watching how other priests preside. When I was being formed for priestly ministry at the College of the Resurrection I would watch what the brethren of the Community did.  And one I will never forget is Fr Ronald Haines.  This is what I wrote about him in a retreat I led for those about to be priested

We students watched to see who the President was.  There were two particular delights.  One was the Superior of the Community who with an agonized solemnity would preside with huge gravitas.  The other was Fr Haines. When I was in College I suppose he must have been priested for over 40 years – a good long time.  But the thing was – and this is the lesson that he taught me, that he taught us – that he celebrated every Eucharist as though it was his first and as though it was his last.  Every celebration at which he presided had that sense of deep wonder, of being the most important event of that day, for him, for us.  There was a precision, a delicacy, a slight hesitancy about what he did that made it totally fresh, alive, and deeply moving.  It was a privilege to be at those Eucharists and because you knew that for this priest it was also a privilege – that he was taking nothing for granted – that it was total gift to him and that that total gift was what he was giving to us – it was still more of a privilege.

And I think it is the same for each of us, whether we are ordained or not, to come and as in T S Eliot’s lovely phrase in his poem ‘Little Gidding’

‘And know the place for the first time.’

At the altar we encompass time and place, at once in that Upper Room with the disciples and yet before an eternal and heavenly altar before the Lamb of God, and yet here, in the local, in the now, in the divine present in which the ordinary stuff of life becomes the most extraordinary encounter and communion with the Living God.  That is why each time we step from any sacristy, any vestry we should do so with fear and trembling but with the deepest joy.

Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives
the fruit of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign, now and for ever. Amen.

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What do priests do?

It’s ordination season and 33 years since I was ordained priest. My bishop kindly reminded me that that is a third of a century! He had also invited me to lead the retreat for those to be priested. That was a real privilege and great to be with 17 women and men looking forward to beginning priestly ministry in parishes across the range in the Diocese of Southwark. As priests are ordained in this diocese in the three episcopal areas – Woolwich, Kingston and Croydon – I was only able to go to one set of ordinations. So I was invited to preach at the Woolwich ordinations which took place in the lovely church of St Peter, Walworth. The church was designed by Sir John Soane, classical and beautiful.

There were three men to be ordained priest – Michael, Sam and Simon – and this is the sermon I preached on that occasion. The readings were Malachi 2.5-7, 2 Corinthians 5.14-19 and John 20.19-23.

I wonder how many of you’d admit to having watched the wonderful Cilla Black in that dating show of many years ago, ‘Blind Date’? If you do admit to having watched it you’ll no doubt remember her opening question to each of those expectant people perched on their stools, ‘What’s your name and where do you come from?’

They’re the kind of questions we come out with when we meet anyone for the first time – and we might add to it the question ‘What do you do?’ We ask these kinds of things so that we can figure people out, get to know them a bit more, a bit more quickly, pigeon hole them maybe – ‘Oh, you’re an accountant!’

But if you were to ask a priest what it is they did I wonder what kind of answer you’d get, or what kind of answer you’d expect?

In a few minutes the bishop is going to address these three about to be ordained to tell them basically what it is that the church will be expecting of them. It’s a huge list, more than any one person could do, but some of the things are the stuff we’d expect, presiding at the Eucharist, blessing, the things that deacons can’t do and I’m sure things that Simon, Michael and Sam are longing to do.

There’s one other important thing that priests do, however, and something which I think is a vital ministry in the world in which we now live. It’s something that’s fundamental to priesthood but also to the ministry of the whole church, which of course finds its focus in the priest. It’s something that a priest both does and is, something that the church does and is and it’s all about this business of reconciliation.

The disciples are locked away in the Upper Room, the place in which they’d spent that final evening with Jesus, the place in which he’d startled them by taking the towel and washing their feet; the place in which he’d baffled them by taking bread and taking wine and talking of both as his body and blood; the place in which they’d been shocked as Judas stormed out and left them to it, off on his way to betray the one they loved.

It was in this room, the doors locked, the windows barred that they now were. They’d been through the most dreadful three days and now they were here in a place of safety, even though there were stories doing the rounds that Jesus was alive. And into their fear Jesus breaks in with a greeting of peace – ‘Peace be with you’ he says. They see him, they hear him and they feel his breath on them as he gives them the authority, the ministry to be reconcilers, to forgive sins, to share God’s shalom, God’s salaam, God’s peace with the world.

For much of the history of the Church of England when priests were being ordained it was these words of Jesus that were spoken to the person as the bishop laid their hands on their head. In the Book of Common Prayer this is the defining ministry into which we’re called, for which we’re set apart. We’re to be reconcilers, we’re to do reconciliation.

I heard a wonderful and moving poem the other day, written in Polish by Adam Zagajewski but read in translation. It begins like this

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.

It was so beautiful I could have cried. ‘The mutilated world’. We’re living through days and months and years of mutilation. The events of three weeks ago at London Bridge and at the Borough Market brought the horror of what we’ve witnessed on the TV in so many ‘other’ places, to our own doorstep, to the edges of this community where we gather today for this Mass. It was horrific, as was the fire at Grenfell Tower, another form of terror, as was the attack on the worshippers at Finsbury Park Mosque, as had been the attacks in Westminster and in Manchester. Lives and communities have been mutilated. And the world is being mutilated, God’s good creation, ‘June’s long days and wild strawberries’ are being mutilated. But the poet urges us to praise this mutilated world, to love it.

As the news of the attack at London Bridge appeared on my phone I put on my dog collar and attempted to get to the Cathedral to open the place up so that we could minister from it. Of course I couldn’t and I ended up on Southwark Street with the injured and the terrified. And I was scared, I don’t mind telling you. I learnt so much about being a priest in those hours and days afterwards, when I couldn’t get to the altar to offer the Eucharist, when the Cathedral was locked inside a cordon, bearing the scars of the atrocities that’d taken place around it.

What are priests? We are breakers and menders. We are people called to take bread and brake it so that many can share in its strength. We are people called to take hold of the chains of sin which bind people and with the grace and power of God to break them so that they can be free. We are people who take the wine and water and pour them into the wounds of the injured to mend them, to bring them Christ’s healing. We are the people to bring God to the people and the people to God so that true reconciliation can take place. We are the breakers and we are the menders and we enter every situation with the words with which Jesus enters that locked and terrified space, ‘Peace be with you.’

The prophet Malachi recognises this in our First Reading when he says of the priest

‘he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts’.

You, we, priests, the church, the priestly people of God, we are the messengers of the Lord of Hosts, we are the breakers and the menders, we are the people of peace, we are the ones who, as Paul says to the Christians in Corinth, are entrusted with the ‘message of reconciliation’.

God holds the mutilated world and must weep over it and over us, as Jesus wept over his friend Lazarus – but not in hopelessness. For out of his tears Jesus cries ‘Unbind him; let him go’ and that out of the depths of his priestly nature.

What do priests do? None of us really knows. Each day brings its joys and challenges and we face them equally but we go armed with the grace of orders on behalf of the whole church, with the authority to break what must be broken, to heal what must be healed, to forgive what must be forgiven, to reconcile what must be reconciled, to bless whatever should be blessed.

The day of my ordination as a priest

One of the heroes of our faith is Queen Esther. It seemed she was destined for a life of relaxed glamour when chosen for the king’s harem. But instead God had a task for her, to be the advocate on behalf of her people, the Jews. She didn’t feel up to it. But then a message came back to her. She’d been chosen by God ‘for such a time as this’.

My brothers, my friends, we are the church, the priestly church, for such a time as this. All we can do, however daunting it may be, is to take it to the altar, to offer it in broken bread and wine outpoured and then go out onto the streets of the mutilated world and be the breakers and the menders, the peace speakers and the peace livers who will make Christ known – that is what we do, that is who we are, that is who Jesus is – and he is out there doing it already and waiting for us to join him.

And this is the prayer I used before each of my addresses at the retreat.

God give to your priests grace to fulfil their ministry,
reverence in celebrating the sacraments,
faithfulness in proclaiming the word,
zeal in mission,
diligence in pastoral care
tenderness in comforting,
power in healing the wounds of your people
and humility, self-sacrifice and courage in all things.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Looking back

It’s the season of ordinations and on Facebook I’ve noticed that a great many of my friends have been posting about the anniversaries of their own ordination. So I added mine.  On Friday, 1 July, it was 33 years since I was ordained deacon; today, St Thomas’ Day, it is 32 years since I was ordained priest.

Inevitably you look back at the photos that were taken on those occasions.  For younger readers of this we were using ‘cameras’ with ‘film’ that needed to be taken to ‘Boots’ to be ‘developed’. You then had to spend a few days, maybe even a week before you could go back and collect them.  Dylan Thomas uses a lovely but tear jerking phrase at the beginning of his play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’ in describing the photos on the walls of the rooms in Llaregyb of the

‘the yellowing dickybird-watching
pictures of the dead’

It’s a bit like that looking at the photographs of all those years past – Mum in her hat, aunties then alive who are now dead.  There’s the inevitable wondering as well, where have those years gone.

Deacon

After my ordination as a deacon

 

It took me a long time to get to the point where I was able to face up to my sense of vocation. I knew that God wanted me to be a priest when I was just 14.  I was worshipping at the church where we had always gone, All Saints Wigston Magna. It was (and still is) a lovely mediaeval church in the heart of a not so wonderful industrial village on the edge of Leicester.  I was in the choir and by that stage I think I was singing alto.  Anyway, it was a June afternoon, the sun was shining and I was walking through Willow Park from where we lived on Carlton Drive to the church for the rehearsal before Choral Evensong.  I was just passing the cricket pavilion (as I write this it is as fresh in my mind as the experience was then) and I just knew, just knew, as much as  I have known anything, that God wanted me to be a priest.

I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. You have to understand that I was a very shy boy, with a small circle of friends, stayed a great deal around home, lacking in confidence, not what I thought God was after and there was a lot I didn’t know about myself.

Priest

After my ordination as a deacon

 

It took me until I was studying for my first degree to really begin to tell others and to tell our priest what I had experienced.  Those intervening years had been difficult because the call of God niggles away inside you.  I love reading the passages in 1 Samuel and Jeremiah that talk about their sense of call.  To each of us it will be different and particular, sometimes come through others, sometimes a growing realisation, for me it happened like this.

Yet, those words of Jeremiah still resonate for me.

I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’
But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you. (Jeremiah 1.6-7)

The 33 intervening years have been incredible.  God has equipped me for the tasks I’ve been presented with in the most incredible way.  But at the heart I remain, and I hope will always remain, the boy by the cricket pavilion with a consciousness of the very real presence of God and able to hear his voice in an instance.  Because, if I remain authentically him then I won’t begin to imagine that I am doing any of this in my own strength.

If you know that God is calling you, to whatever it is, then all I can do is to encourage you, even if you think that you are the last person God needs – maybe God knows better.

Lord, you call us
and equip us.
Give confidence to all
who feel the persistent niggle of your call
within them.
Amen.

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