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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