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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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.

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