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.


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.


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.


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.

The conference season

It isn’t just politicians who use these few weeks at the beginning of autumn for getting together and thrashing out who they are and where they’re going. I’ve been part of three conferences this week – a bit of a record for me I think – but fascinating in giving me glimpses into different aspects of the life of the church.

My mini ‘conference season’ began with the one day Conference and AGM for the Society of Catholic Priests. We were meeting at Southwark Cathedral and whereas in the past the AGM was part of the residential conference that’s held each year (this year in Jerusalem) it has been decided to decouple the two so that it gives more people the opportunity to participate in the AGM.

Anyway the theme for the mini-conference was young vocations. SCP is committed to encouraging and supporting priestly ministry in the church, for people whatever their gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, ability. As part of that we are concerned for vocations to priesthood and concerned that among parts of the church there are not sufficient young people offering themselves. As we heard from one of the speakers this particularly applies to women. Fr Jonathan Lawson from Newcastle and Mtr Kim Wasey from Manchester challenged us in what they had to say about vocations.

Wanted. Priests.

Is God calling you?

What was particularly important to me was the challenge to our perception of what someone who is called by God will be like. Am I looking for people like me as an indication that they have a genuine call? Do I want to see myself replicated or can I begin to have a bigger imagination about who God is calling into ministry? It is a personal challenge but its also an institutional challenge and something that ‘Call Waiting’ is trying to help us to respond to in the CofE.

For instance, has priestly formation became caught up too much in an academic agenda? One member of SCP, a founder member, stood up in during the question time and said that she had a few O levels and no degree. She knew that she could never get a degree yet she also knows that she is a good priest, called by God and equipped by God. But is there space in the church today for a vocation like hers?

It reminds me of the call of Jeremiah which comes at the beginning of the book that bears his name.

Then 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.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’
(Jeremiah 1.6-8)

Jeremiah couldn’t recognise his call, he knew others wouldn’t but God empowered him because God had a task for him.

It isn’t just priestly vocations we should be concerned about. My second conference of the week was that of the Southwark Diocesan Headteachers Association. They were meeting in Canterbury and I had been asked to join them again as a workshop leader. So I spent the whole conference with them. They had taken as their theme ‘Hearts on Fire’ the diocesan focus for mission and witness.

Over 100 of our Heads and Deputies were there and what a fantastic bunch of people they are. There was a real sense of vocation amongst them, that what they were doing was part of their calling as a Christian. But I was also conscious, as we spent time together, of how important it is to care for those in leadership positions.

In the workshops I was leading we engaged in Lectio Divina in order to address the subject I had been given to talk about – ‘Walking with Jesus’. It was very impressive to see the way in which they all eagerly engaged with this pattern of immersing oneself in the scriptures. But what was also apparent was that they were hungry for spiritual food to sustain them in their ministry. Who feeds the feeders? Who pastors the pastors? Who teaches the teachers?

We all need to be fed

We all need to be fed

In Mark’s Gospel we read this

As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)

He taught them and then he fed them. Jesus always recognised the need he saw in people and responded with abundant generosity.

It was abundant generosity that was apparent in the third conference of the week. Again this took place at Southwark Cathedral (it isn’t just about being London-centric – we are next to a major transport hub!) and was for the Association of Friends of Cathedrals and Greater Churches. Those who came were secretaries and trustees of the Friends organisations that do so much for and are so generous towards our great churches.

We began with a wonderful evening at the other Anglican cathedral in London, St Paul’s, visiting some of the places seldom seen by visitors including the fantastic library. As we walked through the door into the small, dimly lit, and almost claustrophobic space, the smell of books and leather and learning was almost overwhelming. It was like something out of the ‘Name of the Rose’ – gosh, it was a privilege to be there – a moment of awe and wonder.

The library at St Paul's

The library at St Paul’s

On the Saturday the delegates had a series of sessions on a variety of topics. But we began with a presentation by the Chief Executive of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Neil Constable and their Head of Revenue Fundraising, Colin Mackenzie-Blackman. There was so much that the Globe are doing with friends and volunteers, the care of donors and visitors, that was immediately applicable to our situations.

But one phrase from Colin Mackenzie-Blackman struck a deep chord in me. He said that it was the job of those gathering the friends of a church or a theatre ‘to help people fall in love’. It was so simple but true. All in the room listening to him were there because they loved their cathedral or church. What we have to do is to help others fall in love and not just with the building but with Jesus Christ. That is our mission.

Love - at the Globe

Love – at the Globe

The three themes of this conference week of call and feeding and love come together in George Herbert’s great poem.

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

Priests, teachers, friends – what a fantastic week, what a fantastic and blessed church.

Loving God,
you call us,
you feed us,
you draw us into the heart of your love.
May I hear your call,
eat your meat,
and love as you love us.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017


Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark